There are things in life that you choose, and there are things life chooses for you. Often both are interlinked, although you might not realise it until much later.
Seventeen years ago, as an eighteen year old, I had to choose between staying back in a noisy, chaotic and crowded Calcutta, where my father had been transferred to and was very excited about (although I never understood why), or to go back to the comforting, calm and a more indolent Lucknow. I chose the latter and was confident that I was done with Calcutta, at least for this lifetime (I had stayed there through the summer and had despised every day of the stay). But Calcutta, as I were to find out later, was not done with me.
In a matter of five years, I decided to marry a Bengali man; that he had no connection with the city whatsoever was my way of making peace with my decision. But how long could I keep a Bengali out of Calcutta? Although not connected to the city, he was very fond of it, and our annual holiday started being planned via Calcutta. Durga Puja, after all, was the perfect excuse to explore the city. I had no choice but to accompany him. The first few visits were not easy, I was so closed to the place that I would only look at the negatives – the old dilapidated buildings, ready to fall off; the unruly traffic that reminded me of Kanpur; the suffocating, frenzied crowd at the Puja pandals. It was overwhelming to say the least. Over the years, however, I warmed up to the city, even started to look forward to the visits. But to say that I liked the place was still not entirely correct.
My fondness for Calcutta developed years later when I got to live there for a few months, although intermittently. That my stay coincided with the most beautiful months of the year, and I stayed in one of the most beautiful neighbourhoods helped too (isn’t it easier to fall in love when conditions are favourable?). In those six months between autumn and spring, I became a full- fledged Calcuttan and for the first time encountered the real Calcutta. I experienced the warmth and the kindness of people and the joy of a laid back life. I experienced the madness of Durga Puja, the excitement of the New Year, the reverence of Saraswati Puja and the colours of Holi.
I also understood the city better: no longer did I see the dilapidated buildings, the suffocating crowds and the maddening chaos, but noticed the history behind the buildings, the people behind the crowds, the energy that created the chaos. Although it was a period of personal turmoil (my mother was on regular dialysis, grandmother had been detected with cancer, husband had met with a serious accident and I was just out of a severe bout of typhoid), I still found peace in the city — and the strength to handle all of it at once.
Just as I had started to fall in love with the city I had once vowed never to come back to, it was time for me to say goodbye: mother was now well and grandmother dead; and my brother, whose stay in the city seemed to have been synced with mother’s treatment, was moving out too. There was no reason for me to stay back. And so I bid a reluctant goodbye to Calcutta on a pleasant spring afternoon, four years ago.
In the last four years, although I have not set foot in the city, I have often been there: I have been to 24 Hindustan Park, our home in Calcutta; I have been to the corner sweet shop called Hindustan Sweets; I have spent many an evening at the puchka wala, and many mornings buying fresh greens from the sabzi wala on the pavement. I have also roamed the crowded lanes of Garia Haat, and relaxed in the courtyard of Birla Mandir. And yes, I have had the piping hot singhara, the warm gur rasgulla, the spicy rolls and the chilled mishti doi too — all in my mind.
As I wait for the right time to go back to the city; to savour its flavours, to absorb its sounds, to witness its sights; I can only hope Calcutta is not done with me, for I surely am not done with it. Not yet.