Even though I hate naming things, I could never live in cities, divided into sectors, I would much rather live in old cities that have streets named after real people that speak to me. Our summers were spent with us pretending to be tourists in our own city, when we marked out all those roads on foot, mornings that began with pancakes and bacon at Flurys.
If you want to see her, you look out for the people she houses, you share a cognac with the Armenian community, you visit the Anglo-Indian community living at bow barracks in those houses painted red and green and you see the extravagance of the Gujarati community at Elgin. Things we wouldn’t have learned about had we not been present there on foot, like how a sharp turn from Russel street leads you to Park Street or how the Elgin road blends effortlessly into Park street or how going further than Park Street could leave you in Wood Street.
If you want to know her, you sit in the middle of the park street cemetery to light a cigarette while listening to the Maghrib adhan. You go strolling in the narrow alleys of the North, you go through hundred years of history in a single breath, while looking at the Protima in Maddox square during Durga Pujas, you go to Kumartoli before the pujas. You go to the Jewish synagogues, and the protestant St.Paul’s cathedral and the Catholic St.Xavier’s chapel.
If you want to feel her, you watch Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake at Nazrul Manch, you spend a day at Nandan and look at the constellations at Birla Planetarium, you take a hand pulling rickshaw to the national library on college street and find the best coffee at the ICH opposite to the two-hundred-year-old Hindu college and get a tram ticket to Shyambajar.
If you want to find her you stand on the intersection of Rabindra Sarani and Zakhariya street to listen to the call for prayer, you go to the antique violin shop that looks like it is lost in time at a busy Shakespeare Sarani street. You go back in time while taking a walk, through Dalhousie to find the finest of colonial architecture and when you exhaust yourself out you savour the momos at Sikkim house, listen to live music play at Hard Rock, go for high tea at the Promenade lounge, eat the Chelo Kebab at peter cat and try the Beef steak with Beer at Olypub.
Ours is not a concrete jungle, not an urban culture that was brought up in malls. This city, lives in the kids playing football among the horses at the maidan, with the city’s skyline towering them, ‘tis in taking a ride around Victoria memorial on a horse cart, it’s the couple sitting on the bench at millennium park overlooking the sight of the Howrah bridge, It is in the train line that passes through Prinsep Ghat and in the boat ride that allows you to gawk at the splendour of the Vidyasagar setu.
And while I look at all these sights, I try to overlook how the city is choking itself. I tear my gaze away from the buildings that are in shambles, a part of our heritage that is going to be dissipated forever, While I’m on my way home from the Howrah station in a yellow taxi. The Jews, Parsis, Armenians and Kabuliwallahs have all fled the city par aaj bhi tumhe koi insaan chai k dukaan par baitha, haath me kulhad liye, Murphy radio par ‘abhi na jao chhod kar’ sunte huye dikh jayega because Calcutta is no less than a page taken out from a history book.
Image: self-photographed, Please do not use it without giving due credit.