Friday, June 29, 2007

Goodbye, and thanks for all the memories...

The mist that seemed to engulf the entire city at dusk heightened the melancholy that was growing over me. I love misty dawns. I have always hated dusks. I was sitting with two of my school friends near the Cooling Pond, gazing at the expanse of water and the reflections the lights from the steel plant were making on it. My last day at Bokaro, the only home I have ever known was drawing to a close. 'Ghar jaa raha hoon' would never mean the same again.

I remember having this great urge to write when we shifted to a different, bigger house in the winter of '99. I even had the title prepared. '3016, IV-C: From a Quarter to a Home'. I never actually got down to writing it. I regret it to this day.

Bokaro has always been a sanctuary for me. A place to come back to to cleanse myself, to recharge my batteries. A place to soothe my nerves after a grueling semester in college. It's a return to innocence. Then again, over the years, the exposure to life at big cities and my growing up has meant that my feelings for the city have become ambivalent at best. The city is there because of the people and not the other way around. It's as if it lacks a life of its own. The streets bear a deserted look after 8 in the evening, there are no Baristas to hang out, the traffic (if you can call it one) is too less for comfort. It's a very, very small city. But it was this very small town feel, easy going life without the red lights and big buses and lack of malls that made it a heaven for me when I was at school. I think a lot of what Bokaro is or rather was to me then is reflected in who I am today.

Kunal (Bunti) and Neha's wedding meant that were a few school friends who came over to make my stay all the more memorable. Kunal had started talking about 'we' and 'us' instead of 'I'. All of us were so happy for him and Neha. But in one corner of my heart, I could feel something going away. As we sat through the wedding ceremony which ended in the wee hours of the morning, discussing how getting married was at the same time scary and momentous and unsettling and the biggest emotional experience of our lives, I thought of how things have changed over the years. But more than that I think it's we who have outgrown the city of our childhood. This trip was memorable in more ways than one. So many of my friends have moved out of Bokaro because of parents retiring or getting transferred. A few have bought houses ensuring that the link to the city always remains. Kunal, whom I have known for almost twenty years now, got married and I am still unable to let it sink in. I got to have a drink with two of my closest friends and it was probably the last time we would meet in Bokaro. We also went to school where almost every inch of the ground had its own story to tell. It was as if the floodgates of memories had burst open. The classes and the labs, the place where we had our lunch, the different forms of cricket and tennis that we played, the trees that substituted as fielders, the assembly ground, the bunking spots, the fields and the games we played and invented, the bells, the dosa stall, the jack fruit tree; it was endless. Most of the teachers had also left though it was great meeting the few that have stayed. It was touching even, to know that they can still associate names with the faces.

Even my parents are facing the dilemma of leaving the slow, peaceful life of Bokaro for the crowded, faster paced life in Kolkata and at the same time embracing the culture of the City Of Joy in place of the lifeless evenings at Bokaro. Leaving Quarter No. 1019, IV-B though, would be the biggest jolt. Especially this garden.

I have never felt the impact of change more in my life than what I am feeling at this point in time. It's alright when you make the transition from a school goer to a college goer and then from an academic life to one in the corporate world. But when something you have known for you entire life, something which has remained almost unscathed, unaltered while people and times around it have changed, is about to make way for the unknown; it sure hits you hard. And was it coincidental that I was reading Pamuk's Istanbul at the same time. A novel about growing up. A novel about a city and its reflections in its inhabitants. I would like to think so. Kolkata would sure be a new and a much more diverse experience. It could even be said that Bokaro's time was over, there was nothing more left to savor in it. But it would still remain as the only home that I have ever known till now and in spite of its failings, I think I would miss going to 2157, IV-F on my scooter and shout out .......'Bunti'.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Kolkata Chronicles

Day 0 (Thursday; Kingfisher, here I come)

My Team Lead pretended to be shocked when he realized that my vacation ended on the Thursday which was a fortnight away and not a week. On the flight, no pretty woman sat on the seat next to me, again. To my good fortune though there wasn’t any ugly looking man or worse still a couple with a year old kid who cries during the entire flight. The airhostesses weren’t particularly hot save Kirti (yes I do remember the names!) who made sure that I had that beverage they pass for coffee on the flights. So Dave Barry with his Bad Habits kept me entertained during most of the journey.
Kolkata was humid after the rains but the car and the room in the guest house had AC so I couldn’t complain.

Day 1 (Friday; Chingdi Macher Malaikari & Getting ready for the wedding)

Had the best Chingdi Macher Malaikari ever. For the uninitiated (which essentially means most Non- Bengalis) it’s basically Prawns cooked with coconut. And if you are thinking ‘Coconut! South Indian …?’ well, it couldn’t be more different. There was also Mochar Ghonto (a dish prepared with the flower of the Banana plant) which was delicious.
Then it was shopping time since I had to make sure that I had something decent to wear for Kunal’s wedding. In the evening, along with my father, I went to this huge complex which housed furniture, kitchen, bathroom fittings and a host of other similar things. I sunk myself in a few sofas, looked at a few wide screen LCD TVs and came back.
Dinner consisted of Pabda Macher Jhal another top of the charts dish from the cuisine of Bengal. The beginning definitely augured well for the rest of the stay.

Day 2 (Saturday; Future Home, Zubin and Returning to the guest house drunk!)

Went to see our newly constructed, 9th floor flat in Rajarhat, near the Airport. I was really impressed by the Prepaid Electricity system that is being tried out, only to be frustrated by the fact that they couldn’t install the meter after trying for 3 hours. I talked about placement of the sofa, dining table and the TV, lightings and false ceilings with my dad and the interior decorator. We enjoyed the uninterrupted view of the canal flowing below and cribbed about why the approach road hadn’t yet been built, what with monsoons about to set in the city.
Lunch, and this time it was Bhape Eelish (Steamed Hilsa cooked in mustard). I don’t know of any other race which uses mustard as extensively and we Bengalis do and the results, I must say, are always utterly delicious and aromatic.Went to meet Zubin at Park Street in the evening and after having coffee at Barista both of us headed to the Oxford book store to browse through a few books. He reiterated the fact that how I always manage to read only those books which people generally don’t and end up not having read Wodehouse at all. I chose to take it more as a compliment of sorts. He then suggested going to Attrium, the cafĂ© at ‘The Park’, where I had a Brazilian Santos and he, a Malabar Delight (ok, both are coffees) and I heard him say ‘keep the change’ to the waiter as he produced a handful of hundred rupee notes. At around 7 o’ clock we decided to make our entry to Someplace Else, Park’s very famous pub and one highly recommended by Shravan, fellow bong and my schoolmate and close friend in Bangalore. I must say, the music reminded me of Purple Haze. We had a bottle of beer each and a Pepper Chicken. I followed it up with a Mojito, which was nice and Zubin went for the traditional Long Island Tea. We did a lot of catching up with Zubin talking mostly of his exploits in the USA. Also about life, marriage (his brother is getting married) and music. I left the place at around 10:30 leaving him with a few of his college pals who had also dropped by. Ok I wasn’t drunk per se and my parents don’t have any issues with me having a few drinks with my friend. That bit in the beginning was really to get you to read till this point and hopefully beyond!

Day 3 (Sunday; Oh! Calcutta and ‘Coming Back To Life’ @ Someplace Else)

We started off with Fish Fry and Prawn Cutlet. Dad had a Blue Lagoon and I opted for the exciting sounding Kal Baisakhi, a coctail of Vodka and Aam Panna! It was innovation at its very best. Each sip tasted just like aam panna except for the slight kick that you got towards the end of it. The decor had a very relaxed air to it with soft instrumental versions of popular Bengali songs playing which I could identify and paintings of Calcutta and the symbols which define it, on the walls.

Caveat: This part could really get boring for Non-Bengalis but I don’t care!
Imagine having Hilsa without the bones. That’s what we got when we ordered Eelish Macher Paturi (Steamed Hilsa cooked in mustard and served on Banana leaves). Next was Chitol Macher Muitha and we had trouble deciding which was the best. I gave a huge tip to the waiter afterwards and all three of us went back ecstatic, smiling cheek to cheek. Oh! Calcutta had more than lived up to its reputations as one of the finest eating joints in the city. I could already feel the weight gain!

There was a slight drizzle as I headed towards Park Street for dinner with Zubin after he called up and decided to meet again. We went to a place called Cinnamon Lounge where we had Lebanese Chicken. Next in line was another night of music, gossip and drinking as we headed for Someplace Else or SomeP as Zubin likes to call it (I recently had someone say that IITians have this thing for short forms. I think I agree after all…). Anyway, we just ordered a bottle of beer each and listened to the band play. They were good no doubt, especially the lead guitarist who seemed quite proficient. But it was their rendition of ‘Coming Back To Life’ that really took me by surprise. The leads were immaculate and played from the heart, the distortion was sounding just right and the vocals were deep and echoing. There couldn’t have been a better way to end the day and since it was already 11, I decided to call it a day.

Day 4-5 (Monday-Tuesday; Some more shopping, Crosswords and Thanking my stars)

The last two days in Kolkata were spent generally lazing around doing nothing, mostly reading Pamuk’s Istanbul and thinking. A couple of days ago, Zubin and I, just to have a good time, had spent close to six times the amount of money a certain Sapan, who worked in the guest house, got as his monthly salary. The fact not only came as a shock to me because of the actual amount that he earned but also as reminder to count my blessings and thank my stars for the life that I have. He is a full time worker in the guest house and such is the state of poverty in West Bengal that he has no other option but to continue doing this job for which he gets paid a meager Rs. 400 per month! I couldn’t help but ponder over the things in life that I take for granted, that I take as my right, even, at times. I felt ashamed and sad and thankful and small.
Then there was the visit to Crosswords from where I picked up ‘Moth Smoke’ which should take my tally of have-but-not-read books to around sixteen. Also bought a pair of jeans, all under the pretext of Kunal’s wedding, ate more fish and roshogolla and finalized the sofa set. The Kolkata experience had been good, very good, but Bokaro was calling. I wanted to go home.

Day 6 (Wednesday; G.T. Road & Rediscovering myself)

Mom insisted on a driver and it was a wise choice in the end considering the number of trucks that ply on that route. We crossed Singur on the way where TATA has erected a boundary wall encompassing a huge area which could become a major industrial hub with India’s first small car manufacturing center along with the other ancillary units that would spring up there. We were passing through one of the most fertile areas in the country and the lush green paddy fields on both sides of NH2 or the G.T. Road bore ample testimony to the fact. Coming to the road itself, it is a driver’s paradise. Imagine driving through the DND expressway for kilometers at a stretch. That’s what it was. I put on a few Kailash Kher numbers and then a few from the movie Metro. After that just for a change I inserted a Bengali song cassette which had some very popular songs of yesteryears redone by a new singer. I had heard a few of the songs and the singer too when I was in school. Within minutes I was humming the tune along with the song. Memories from my childhood came rushing in. Memories of a time when I still used to listen to Bengali songs. Amidst the Jals, the Kailash Khers, the Rehmans, and also Mark Knopflers, Bonos and the like, I somewhere had almost forgotten this entirely different world of music which existed, which I had known before knowing any of these. It was a revelation. The last few days altogether were in fact a rediscovery of the self. Realizing the fact that I was a Bengali who still loves his fish more than any other dish and who can still hum a popular Bengali tune. Realizing even, that I can still fluently carry out conversations in Bengali without sounding like an outsider. You see, having grown up in Bihar and then lived in Delhi and now Bangalore, I have had little opportunity to be a Bengali, converse in my language except with my parents, let alone eating and listening to songs and so it was good to be in a different environment for a change.
By 12:30, we were home. That piece of territory about which I know everything. Nothing had changed since my last visit in October. It felt nice to be back. Part 2 of my fortnight long vacation was about to get started and I was eagerly looking forward to it……