The world on the streets of Calcutta

In his book, The Epic City, Kushanava Choudhury sifts through the chaos of Calcutta to give a compelling account of the everyday lives that make up this city


Photo by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint via Getty Images
Photo by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint via Getty Images
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Kushanava Choudhury

When I worked at the Statesman, many of my Sundays were spent among the bookshops and stalls on College Street. One day, I leaped onto a moving tram bound for College Street as it crossed Vivekananda Road. All traffic headed northward, except for the tram. Like a matriarch who refuses to die, the tram tore through pedestrians, rickshaws, cycle vans, Tempos, buses and lorries, defying the whole march of progress set against it. It lurched past rows of jewellery shops, then rows of shops for machine parts, then the string of shoe stores, before finally reaching the permanent book fair of College Street.

I had arrived.

I followed three cows as they sauntered into a lane, sampling the local garbage along the way. Like all Calcutta’s cows, they belonged to someone, but right then it did not matter whom. I just stayed with them. A way down, a man was lifting his dhoti revealingly. I trailed him to the ‘bathroom’. He stood in front of one of the two public urinals. To his left, where a third urinal would have been, was a gully, precisely the width of a urinal stall. I entered the phantom urinal. About ten feet in, the gully hooked left and extended into a long straightaway. From the other side, a bicyclist approached. Behind him were three other men. Now there were others behind me, blocking my retreat. Even in this straw of space, I was in a crowd.

The bike got stuck. The cyclist backpedalled; the three people behind him backtracked too. I followed them all the way to the other end and emerged on Tamer Lane.

In the late 1300s a lame descendant of the Mongols named Timur rode down from Samarkand to sack Delhi, Baghdad and Damascus, conquering most of Asia along the way. His exploits terrified and fascinated Europeans. In English ‘Timur, the Lame’ became bastardised as Tamerlaine or Tamerlane. ‘Tamerlaine,’ rhymed W. H. Auden, was once ‘A synonym in a whole armful, of languages for what is harmful,’ who now survives ‘as a crossword anagram, 11 Down – A NUBILE TRAM.’ In Calcutta the Tartar became a cartographical pun.

I walked past the presses to the dead end of Tamer Lane and took another gully, again L-shaped. At its crook was a publisher’s office. A dark, old man sat outside on a stool.

I walked straight past him through a doorless frame. To my right were three blue doors. I entered the second blue door into a windowless room. Every Wednesday afternoon for the last forty-eight years, writers and poets had been meeting there for the Wednesday afternoon or Budh-Bikel Adda. Ranjan Gupta, the nominal leader, was seated at the back of the room. He had oiled white hair combed straight back and a moustache so sparse that the first few times we met, I thought it was a whit of stubble that the poet in his absent-mindednessness had neglected to shave. In deference to age, everyone calls him, Ranjan’da.

‘Ranjan’da, do you know what Bidhan Roy said about doctors?’ asked Sabyasachi, poet, editor and perennial sufferer of the runs. Bidhan Roy was a famed Calcutta physician and

Congress Party leader, who became one of Bengal’s first chief Ministers. ‘If you get sick, by all means, see a doctor. Because the medical profession must survive. If the doctor writes a

prescription, by all means visit a pharmacist. Because the pharmaceutical industry must survive. And if the pharmacist sells you medicine, by all means avoid taking it. Because you too must survive.’

‘You, me and Jyoti Basu have the same thing: irritable bowel syndrome,’ an elderly woman said, referring to Bengal’s first Communist chief minister. ‘Jyoti Basu had chicken and whisky every night. And just see, still going strong at ninetysix.’

‘Oh that,’ said her friend, ‘that’s nothing but giardia. I take a course of Metrozil every three months. That’s what you need.’

‘Chicken and wheeskee,’ IBS repeated. She said whisky like a wheeze.

‘Jyoti Basu never drank anything below Scotch,’ someone countered. ‘And why should he,’ asked Giardia, ‘coming from such a prosperous family?’

‘Well, I can’t afford Scotch every night,’ said Sabyasachi.

‘Try aloe vera in a sherbet,’ one man said.

‘Have turmeric with milk,’ offered another.

‘But eat onion fritters one day,’ said IBS, ‘and you’re suffering for the next three.’

‘Oh that, that’s nothing but giardia. I take a course of Metrozil every three months, that’s what you need.’

‘The doctor fixed my blood pressure, my cholesterol, my blood sugar. He’s quite a doctor,’ said IBS. ‘But when it came to this, he said, “Madam, this disease I cannot cure. It will be your companion forever.” ’

‘Oh, that’s nothing but giardia—’

‘Drink boiled water.’

‘Try isabgol.’

‘But brother, my problem isn’t that it doesn’t come,’ said Sabyasachi, ‘it’s that it just comes and comes.’

‘Sixty years after Independence,’ said Giardia, ‘and still our government has done no research into our indigestion.’

‘It should be a priority, sister. But until then try chicken and wheeskee.’

‘Give everyone some tea!’ said Ranjan’da. A cha-walla had materialised, kettle in hand, from the gully. He poured a round of salty black tea into tiny, jiggling plastic cups which looked like hot Jell-O shots, and passed them out.

The room had filled up. Nilkashyap began reciting. He was in his sixties, neat in a crisp panjabi and gold-rimmed glasses, his moustache dyed jet black around his overbite. He looked like he always had his mouth full.

Tar shoriri bibhongey jorano thakto dagor shahosh . . .’ Her physique was wrapped in great courage . . .

‘We’ve heard this before,’ someone heckled. Nilkashyap persisted, unperturbed.

‘Shonkher moton tar gayer rong.’ Her complexion was the colour of a conch shell.

‘Did she have a skin disease?’ another whispered.

‘Bhanj kora muthoe dhorey rakhto gurh rohossher dana.’ In her fists she held concealed the seeds of mystery . . .

Everywhere else, he was known as Panchanan Chatterjee, a retired State Bank assistant manager. At the adda he became the poet, Nilkashyap. He had three books of poetry, which were currently on sale on College Street.

‘I went on a trip to Rajasthan and she was my guide,’ he said. ‘I had to write a poem about her.’

To meet Nilkashyap was inevitably to confront his poems. ‘Montromugdher moton shey shonato Rajasthani doha,’ he started reciting without provocation, ‘Jaisalmer, Chittor, Rana Pratap, Paddabatir golpo.’ She would entrance us with her Rajasthani verses. Tales of Jaisalmer, Chittor, Rana Pratap and Paddabati.

‘I love history,’ he said, ‘See how I’ve taken her into the past, into the age of the Mughals, in the poem?’

And he was off: ‘Tar ingitey kothar pakhira eshe boshto itihasher shiritey, ekantey akta chobir moto.’ At her signal, the birds of language would sit at the stairs of history, pretty as a picture.

Henceforth every time I went to the adda, Nilkashyap looked up at me after reading a poem, tilted his head sideways and said, ‘You liked it, yes?’ as if he had just guided me through the wondrous fortresses of Chittor and Jaisalmer and expected payment in awe.

The walls at Budh-Bikel are lined with wooden benches. Perch at your own peril; some of the benches are missing legs. Between the benches are red plastic stools. When the room is full, it looks like the inside of a Calcutta minibus. Many of the men and women there have travelled on trains and long-distance buses from neighbouring towns and suburbs. Like daily commuters, they have grown to know each other. Here they live a second life of literature. At the adda, they are recognised as their other selves, as artists. The need to talk and the need to be heard: what human desires are more universal than those?

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Published: 20 Aug 2017, 8:11 AM