Monday, September 6, 2010

Article on Kolkata - By Suhel Seth

After several years, I spent six nights in Kolkata, which, thankfully enough, were like spending six nights in heaven after the kind of lives we lead in the Delhis and Mumbais of the world. There are no pressures of work; there is almost an embedded fait accompli

In people's demeanour, which many a time suggests that this is the pace we follow, and bad luck to you if you don't like it. I also had the luxury of spending these six nights in unbridled comfort at what is certainly the finest resort hotel in India: the ITC Sonar Bangla.

The editor of this paper, M.J. Akbar, thankfully agrees that the charm of Kolkata has still not dimmed, which is why the last time he and I were in Kolkata together we spoiled ourselves at the various impromptu dinners that were held in our honour.

There is also a certain basket of values that never escapes Kolkata.The city just doesn't care who you are as long as you, at some time in your life, have been a part of it. Which is why even the empty barstools at the Light Horse Bar at Saturday Club tell you

tales you may have heard aeons ago. The butter chicken at Kwality's tastes just as good and thank god the ever evolving Priya Paul has done nothing to modernise the cuisine of Flury's which still serves up the best rum cakes and chicken patties! I went back to some of our theatre haunts and remembered with great affection the time I spent with Ashoke

Viswanathan savouring the Afghani chicken at Sutripti or partaking of Bacchus' generosity at Chota Barrister.

I even drove past the famed Lover's Lane several times just to relive those moments when we would sneak our girlfriend of the time to play hooky under a starry sky until the ubiquitous Kolkata sergeant would show up on his well-preserved Bullet motorcycle. I watched with fondness the various cricket matches going on in the Maidan and the same Maya Ram pao bhaji being advertised with gusto. I took an afternoon off and strolled within the corridors of Jadavpur University and was delighted to see Tommy Hilfiger stickers outside the SFI office: even the communists have realised the worth of Tommy.

But has Kolkata really changed? Have the people become smarter in terms of making the best of every opportunity? I think not.

And this is why Kolkata is still such a special place to be. The only placewhere a lunch is incomplete without a Campari; where there is a distinction between the dining room and the smoking room and where round-collared T-shirts still find no acceptance in club bars.

There is also a certain panache that Kolkata has with regard to the music you hear. Item girls and Daler Mehndi have still not replaced Barry Manilow or for that matter Nat King Cole. There are hundreds who can still recite their school song and have preserved their

College blazers and not replaced them with some foreign brands. Where photographs are in photo frames and not in cupboards, so that you can litter your drawing room with garish vases. It is this about the city that makes it so special.

I took long walks in the malls only to witness for myself, first-hand, the consumerism that has invaded Kolkata and then I thought to myself, why not. If Kolkata can erect malls and frequent them without forgetting the Victoria Memorial or the National Library, then more power to its collective elbows. I smiled when I saw the queue

Of people trying to enter the American Centre. In no other city are libraries as crowded as cinema halls. And that is because Kolkata still has a mind when all others are busy losing theirs.

Many years ago I was part of a movement called "Concern for Calcutta"and it delighted me no end to see that Ward 63 was still sprinkled with the work that CC, as it was known then, was doing. It is perhaps the only city in the world which has a nature study park in

The costliest real estate of that city. I went to Dalhousie Institute and saw an impromptu quiz just as I went to CC&FC and saw prompted drinking happening. The other unique dimension about this city is, if you belong here, you are never a guest when you return.

The family asks you no questions: it merely expresses unbridled delight in seeing you back. You can walk into dinners and parties alike; to cricket matches and merchant's cup soccer matches on the back of your past. Kolkata doesn't really care about the present or what you are up to!

The visit was even more special because I staged two shows of our English play Alipha: and the memories rushed back of a time when I would be staging a play almost once every three months. The halls as beautiful and the audience as well-behaved. No one picking up his or her mobile phone and screaming Advani or Sonia. Just watching what they've come to watch intently and with the respect it deserves.

Sometimes, only sometimes, I wish we could throw the residents out of Delhi and replace them with Kolkatans. The purging would mean so much to all of us. But then when one ponders, one is gratified that Kolkata is still a city of remarkable joy. Of prose and passion. Of poetry and phuchka. Of people and, thankfully, no prejudices.

Chronological order