I live in two homes now. Both in Kolkata. One is by the river. And one is the house where I grew up. The latter is the permanent address that I pencilled into documents, while free spinning through other cities, hoping that someday, I would return.
Two years ago, when the lockdown began, trapped in my closet-sized apartment in Mumbai, I had wished for hope, open skies and love. I found them in measures big and small in Kolkata.
It is April 2022. I look out from the balcony of my riverside house and watch a barge passing by, sounding a desultory horn. Little motorized fishing boats bob wildly in its wake, reminding me of the paper boats my mother and I would float on our flooded driveway during the monsoon. They usually survived a minute or two before falling apart. These fishing boats seem more resilient. The kalboishakhi Nor’wester gathers over the city skyline—the cantilevered Howrah Bridge, the sleek Vidyasagar Setu, the stately dome of the Victoria Memorial, the dilapidated mansions, gleaming skyscrapers and the Hooghly river. The skies are pregnant with rain, but today it fails to come.
The pandemic passed as I watched this river’s ebb and flow, like all the men and women who once lived here.
I have left Kolkata several times. At 18, I couldn’t wait to get away. At 26, I hated to leave. At 38, I returned, a stranger. At 40, after the upheavals wrought by a global pandemic, I settled down here. This journey back home has taken four decades. Through it, Kolkata emerged from the pre-liberalization era of Charminar cigarettes, Satyajit Ray cinema and a frugal Soviet aesthetic to a new age of cable television, foreign investments and malls. In between my comings and goings, Kolkata became a place of both love and loss.
It was a winter evening in 2008. I was dressed as a bride making my way to the venue. My nervous face and glinting nose ring were reflected in the rearview mirror. Outside the window, I saw the yellow glow of the street lights on Gariahat flyover and the familiar hoardings for saris, Boroline and digestive pills. Yellow taxis careened down the slope at breakneck speed, motorcyclists abused, shoppers milled about below. There was nothing extraordinary about the evening and the city heaved as normal even as I made my way to my wedding.
The years passed and I was on the way to becoming a good quotidian wife. Each time I returned to Kolkata, it was shinier with new multiplexes, artisanal coffee shops and chain restaurants. After 34 years as a communist bastion, the government changed hands, transforming the city’s character and its political colors. Both the revolution and the romance of Kolkata seemed to have retreated. Just like my husband and I had retreated into our everyday routines. We no longer made our way to the India Coffee House on College Street to dream of a better world over greasy mutton cutlets. I fell prey to the biggest scourge of Kolkata—nostalgia. It no longer remained a vibrant part of me but rather one that was broken into its clichés and an equally tired glorification of its past. “It’s reassuring that it doesn’t change,” is what I said about my marriage and the city—a phrase one should have perhaps uttered with more care. And the truth is neither did my relationship nor the city remain constant, I just didn’t see it.
In 2019, on a break between jobs, I walked the streets of Kolkata with a boy who dreamed of revolution and poetry. He sang “The Internationale ” in Bangla in a rousing baritone just as he lip-synced to old-school rock-n-roll in a raucous bar on Park Street. I left for another city and yet, Kolkata came back into my life through ghost stories, Tagore’s songs and this new friendship.
In October 2020, when the Goddess Durga was set to return to her maternal home, I returned to mine. The half-made pandals, the kaash phool and the smell of dhuno did little to steady my unsettled heart. The skies were the famed sharodiya blue and it was hard to stay indoors. It is a 30-minute walk from Lake Road to Golpark and as I walked alone, my flashbacks began. I lived through all my ages from 8-38. My daily run to catch the school bus; my walks to my dance class; walks to my friends’ homes to spend summer afternoons in play; walks to the video cassette lending library with my grandfather; walks with all the ghosts of boyfriends past; my walk with my mother to find an ambulance to ferry my critically ill grandmother to the hospital; my walk to the car to follow the hearse carrying my grandfather. The good, the bad, the ugly came rushing back all at once. I walked on laughing, crying, taking wrong turns and finding my way again through some kind of muscle memory. And of the years of walking this route as a schoolgirl, a college student, a wife and a single woman.
Spring is turning to summer in Kolkata. This is when I let the winter of my discontent finally pass. Now, I walk alone and sometimes, I walk with the boy who sings. I feel like I finally belong to Kolkata. The city has changed and a spurt of young entrepreneurs and their creative energy fuels its story and a way forward.
There is a seasonal burst of palash flowers on trees I have seen for four decades. Even at night, the flowers burn bright. A bat emerges from the blossoms and takes off into the sky. The trees are much older than me, and yet, it feels like they are in the first flush of spring. It is as if they say, “I am alive NOW”. Just like Kolkata. And me.