Homecoming to a city of the past: Touching base to move on?

Kolkata/August 2, 2015

“Before moving on, one has to touch base”. It was this overwhelming compulsion — an overarching desire to relive an axiom that I have often heard echoing across the labyrinth of fortune-tellers and the oracles of doom over the misty years of my early childhood – compelled me to regress. Some would say to reconnect to the turf where my roots had taken to the “terra firma” more than forty green odd years ago in a crumbling old “haveli” or “bari” as the intrepid Bengali would like to call it – by the Ganges outlying the sprawling metropolis of Kolkata.

The “bari” or the “haveli”, where my “bapi” or dad brought me home bundled in a swathe of white blankets, as he often liked to recall, one cold January morning has melted into the changing skyline of a metropolis caught on the horns of a dilemma between tradition and transformation from an old decadent order to a global new. If universalism is the cornerstone of the millennium, then the metropolis of Kolkata has been ingrained into the mosaic of this global homogeneity indelibly with its towering edifices of contemporary civilization – characterized by stereotypes such the new verticals of high-rises, clones of apartment blocks, cement and glass fronted commercial offices, tinsel shopping arcades and flyways that could be any banal address across the capital cities of the globe.

My “bari” – barely 20 km from the bustling heart of the metropolis of Kolkata – has lost its sepia façade in this jungle of new urban imageries. In its place, abuts a cluster of five-storied apartment blocks choking the plinth of history. The “bari” – as my forebears had etched in the romantic mindscape of my growing up years — was a relic of history tracing its foundation to a 500-year-old legend of migration from the fertile Gangetic upcountry of Kanyakubj (modern-day Kannauj) to the mature flood plains of Bengal. By common parameters, the sandstone-and-terracotta home was heritage as the hard-boiled legal eagle and the intrepid municipality surveyor concurred at the time of sale. “It is priceless”, the refrain hung in the air like a wistful afterthought reeling in the aftermath of a death sentence. But heritage in a metropolis with a progressive soul plays second sex to the needs of development. The wreckage caused more consternation inside the heart than on the oral manifest that the act of profound desecration elicited.

The reconnection was one of memories. My birth in concert with the timeline of the “bari” — its shrinking number of inhabitants, changing family canvases, apocalyptic social dynamics and the breakdown of old clans. It was reflective of what the “reds” called a “social ceiling”, almost like the sprawling farmlands they had capped in the 1970s to ride their way to the Writers’ Building on the back of a democratic upheaval. Dad left home seeking greener pastures in the big bright neon world — his “mother” and “grandmother” rued the departure as a subversion of a conventional existential code that had guided pastoral Bengal through the decades of flux post-Independence when the state was groping to don a definite political contour for itself – shifting weight from a Congress mould of dynastic complacency to a fleet-footed Socialism of the working class – born out of the textbooks of Lenin, Karl Marx and Mao.

The average educated Bengali of the Seventies- the decade of my toddling- swore by this metamorphosis. Dad became a radical, shunning the secure cocoon of a landlord’s cloister to strike a personal proletariat fortune. My birth was a watershed. Vietnam still echoed on the “Ho Chi Ming Sarani” – the streets – of the metropolis. The young armies of the Kolkata Communists chanted, “Tomar Naam, Amar Naam Vietnam” and the music of the Woodstock wafted across the continental divide to rock Trincas on Park Street as the first wave of hippies touched the shores pf Goa to seek instant “nirvana”. Ma said “we are tired of wars”. Get some peace around the turf. Kolkata – or Calcutta – as it was known then to the vast umbrella of the discerning Bengali-Anglican family broods, who still loved their last tango at The Grand Hotel on Chowringhee – was waking to a new social reality. The decadent languor could not afford to pick up its tab any longer; the metropolis required a people’s corpus, reaffirming commitment to a world citizenship. Kolkata was then measured on a global scale.

Two decades later, the “bari” had run its chronology by the time I went to college. The parties had broken up. The “bari” was labeled as “dangerous- unfit for habitation” in the jostle of the jutting metaphors of contemporary living spaces. Some say, the loss of the “bari” began on the day when the Kolkata Communists became bourgeois – weaning away from its radical avatar, which veered to the outback to carry on its mission of social shifts with insurrection. Others, however, point with the astute wisdom of having lived through the years that it was “karma”. Old was prophesied to prise open its gateway to the new. The lifespan of the “bari” in the stars was fated as 500.

The “bari” like me survived the tumult of people’s dispensation; bearing the hurricanes with stoicism brought on by 35 odd years of Communism in Bengal, chipping its old blocks in bits everyday. The denouement came around the time I left the metropolis like my dad before me to drill new shores for livelihood upcountry. The “bari” gave in to the buffeting winds of politics. The demise of Communism, during which it clung to its plinth in desperation to live, drove the last nail in its casket. The sharks swam in droves, as I surfed the corridors of power in New Delhi. Kolkata sank into virtual anarchy under a decrepit – may be obscure – political philosophy that was neither Left or right, but a fearsome medley of nothingness.

The reconnection dredges up queries about existential conundrums. Where do I live? The space is a vacuum, which culture do I subscribe to, a pan India or that of the province. I am born of Bengal, but my “tehzeeb” is Ganga-Yamuni tooled by the cosmopolitan forces of New Delhi. I feel greater affinity to the rough and tumble of upcountry but the Bengali in the soul refuses to acquiesce. The demography is new – the Kolkatan of today is an unfamiliar face driven by gaping disparities in wallet, hounded by tightening employment avenues, development bottlenecks, poor political will, confused governance and penury. It has become stationary in its transition to the contemporary. The pockets are palpable in their stark oddities of circumstances.

What set out as a marker of universal hope in the Nineties- the sweep into the megacity of the future — in 2015 sprawls like a bed-raggled morning after despair. I am in throes of this great disappointment. The wooden slats of the bay windows of my childhood at the “bari” — remain the chimeral points of my reconnection to the soil of my birth, hanging like green mirages in the distance; lost somewhere in the temporal melees.

But one has to touch base with the roots to move on.

Madhusree Chatterjee
Senior Editor/The Statesman

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