Invoking Kolkata when it was Calcutta before the days of the ’90s reforms, the author arouses memories of a different place and a different time
BY DR SANJEEV CHOPRA: The author is a historian, public policy analyst, and Festival Director at the Valley of Words, Dehradun. Until recently, he was the Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie.
A caveat is in order. Supriya Newar and I share a Kalimpong connection: her maternal grandfather was one of the most prominent entrepreneurs of this picturesque town in Darjeeling district, where I began my career in the IAS, and this really created a bond at our first ever meeting at the Poetry café of the Kolkata edition of Valley of Words. After she had recited her lovely poem in Hindi on what the bartans in the kitchen felt when they lost their ‘utilitarian purpose’ to the stylised wedding ceremonies in farmhouses and marriage venues, it evoked such a sense of nostalgia for the kitchens of yore in which herbs, spices, pickles, jams and all kinds of condiments jostled for space even as the hearth was always warm, disgorging a range of delicacies. We agreed that the beauty of poetry transcends the language in which it is written. More so in a city like Kolkata where Bangla, English, Hindi and Urdu intersect at every crossing!
Providing a flavour to this very versatile city of Kolkata is her offering, Kalkatta Chronicles: Rear-View Reflections. Over 10 short essays and four poems (two in English and one each in Bangla and Hindi), Supriya talks of a Kolkata when it was still Calcutta, and subject to load shedding, ancient lifts, and bespoke tailors. Upper middle-class children who went to convents, covered their textbooks and copybooks with brown paper, and accompanied their mothers, grandmothers and aunts to matinee shows, and occasionally to the olden ‘New Market’. The supply of comics and books came from a sack which served as the lending library, and the ‘trring-trring’ of the black telephone and the massive telephone directory beside it were symbols of status. Joint families went for holidays and excursions with journeys on trains which were still propelled by steam.
The YOLO generation of today with its FOMO obsession may or may not enjoy the sheer nostalgia with which those born before colour television became ubiquitous will lap up Supriya’s writings — for it recalls the world as it was until the late 1980s. The opening up of the economy in the ’90s saw new apartments, malls, designer labels, air travel and acceptance of men and women interacting outside of the immediate family. It also saw the emergence of Kolkata as a cosmopolitan space in which interaction was not limited to the social class that one grew up in as commerce, education, politics, media, art and academia gave many people a chance to craft their own unique identities.
‘I am the ‘bodosaheb’, in the corner office, Somewhere in Dalhousie,
Earl Grey and a tee-off get my day started at RCGC The ‘who’s who’ gathers for my galas at my bungalow Where liveried bearers with potent servings, Help the conversations flow Hung on my walls is an MBBS or bar at law from London.
You will often catch me say, ‘My pleasure’, or ‘Beg your pardon’.’
Let me share with readers a flavour from each of her chapters. “An Uplifting Ride” is the story of ‘open air lifts’ which were turned with a ‘heavy, brass key’ by a succession of operators who were aware of their ‘power’ to take a person high up or keep him/her on hold. These lifts were still in operation in Writers’ Buildings till the secretariat moved to Nabanna on the other side of the Ganga, as well as in the headquarters of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCC&I) which used to enjoy the colonial era-inspired settings and cuisine at the Palladian Lounge.
“The Bespoke Tailor” reminds me of my own Abdul Bhai — even when I buy fabric in Dehradun, I send it across to him and pick up the finished piece when I visit Kolkata. Wrapping books, notebooks and gifts was a joy, and the latter was certainly far more personal than sending an online greeting. Middle-class families invested in ‘inverters’ to ensure that at least a few lights were always on and had their own preferred ‘ticketwallahs’ who would procure tickets for chosen movies in choice theatres, of course at a premium. This generation may not realise that half the charm of going to the cinema was the sheer joy of being able to procure a ticket, and a ‘first day, first show’ something of joy and jubilation to be shared with friends and colleagues with great satisfaction. And the itinerant ‘kitabwallah’ brought magazines like The Illustrated Weekly of India and Dharamyug — unfortunately both could not keep pace with changing tastes — besides popular comics ranging from Archie to Amar Chitra Katha and wonder-of-wonders Tintin.
Supriya is still fond of calling and receiving calls on the landline and naturally her chatter on “Trring Trring” makes the instrument, and its ecosystem — PP numbers and pocket-sized personal telephone directories with important telephone numbers — an
interesting read. I too have preserved some of them, and there was certainly a personal feel and touch about these little notepads. Train journeys were not just about reaching a destination: they were also about the paraphernalia that accompanied the pax — bedding rolls, suitcases, trunks, vanity cases, tiffin boxes and a water carrier and steel tumblers. The A.H. Wheeler stall would supply the reading material for the journey. “Homemade” actually makes one’s mouth water with the descriptions of the pickles and papads.
But the best piece in this collection is the story, “New Market”, and the freedom and anonymity which the market afforded to the very conservative women of Marwari households — the family matriarch could slip into Karco’s for an egg roll, a delicacy much frowned upon in her own household where even garlic and onion were not acceptable. As she puts it, “For a place that’s called ‘New’, New Market is both old and unkempt … over the years, this mess has only grown manifold, hawkers eat up its pavements, its lanes continue to be littered and waterlogged in the monsoons. Its material decay is no doubt a pitiful sight … but in this age of instant gratification, New Market stands like a tall flame of Calcutta; its clock tower lying unwound, telling the time exactly as it stands there and in many other nooks and crannies of the city: still.”