Perhaps no other place exercises quite the same kind of lure, composed of about equal parts of nostalgia and anger. With its frailties and foibles, its all too human shortcomings and lapses, Calcutta is like a rundown old relative—eccentric, cantankerous, infuriating, impossible to live with perhaps, but equally impossible to cut oneself off from.
Like visiting a relative one has grown up with, coming back to Calcutta can prove an emotionally confusing experience. “I was totally disoriented when I got back”, says a visitor from America. “Chowringhee and Park Street which I’d always thought of as such impressive roads seemed so dwarfed. Everything looked so dingy and small. It took me a while to realise the city couldn’t have got smaller, what had happened was that I’d grown up. I guess I’d never stopped seeing the place through the eyes of a child, even in my memories.”
Then there are those who have not come back to Calcutta but have not forgotten it either. In letters to friends and relatives they ask after people and places that have long since vanished. They inquire about shops and restaurants which disappeared years ago, sports teams which have disbanded, buildings which have been swallowed up in construction projects, gala occasions which have faded into neglect. “Sometimes I don’t know what to write in reply,” says a Calcuttan. “I mean, it’s almost like breaking the news about a death in the family.”
Do the Armenians still play the LMOB in the Rugby League? Do they still have Saturday night dances at the Grail Club? Is Pehalwan still there at Nizam’s to take orders for kababs at two in the morning, and do the kathis still taste as good? At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s eve do the sirens of the steamers on the Hooghly still sing out, while the foo-foo band wheezes Auld Lang Syne and strangers exchange salutations of the season on the thronging pavements of Park Street? Like a fly in amber, a distant city is preserved in memory, a remembrance of times past.
The loneliness of the long-distance Calcuttan, caught between two worlds, springs from a realisation of double exile. All emigrants experience the paradox of displacement: You don’t have a home till you leave it; and when you do, you find you can’t go home again. But in the case of Calcutta, this feeling is compounded by a sense of dislocation in time as well as space. Perhaps because—as its critics claim—it is a place with a past but no future, the city is capable of inducing a virulent and chronic attack of nostalgia. In a sense, Calcutta is everyone’s childhood, measles, mumps and all.
The emigrant’s experience is perfectly suited to a transplant of Calcutta. And since this can’t be done with the real city, a mythical one has been invented to fit the need, an emotional precinct of love and squalor. Beyond the reach of urban blight and civic neglect, this portable city of the mind flourishes all the more as the real one declines.
Like the words of an old song that keep repeating themselves in your head, or a fever dormant in the blood, or an importunate lover impossible to be rid of, it keeps returning again and again, at the oddest times and in the strangest places. In London, or Sydney, or New York, whenever ex-Calcuttans meet, the talk turns to Chowringhee and Chetla, Ripon Street and rickshaws. Random, haphazard, raucous, the city lives again. For Calcutta, as many have discovered, is a moveable adda.