Relocating from one city to another provides numerous arrows of narratives in the arsenal of personal experience. Some good, some funny, and some, ugly. For every shift bag and baggage, physical exertion and mental exhaustion come packaged as free gifts, not to forget an entirely new perspective.
The shift from ‘city beautiful’, Chandigarh, to the ‘city of joy’, Kolkata, has given me some unique instances to narrate and two lessons for the visitors/new inhabitants.
Our flight landed at Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose airport, Kolkata, around 2:00 pm in the month of June. My husband and I were supposed to be picked up by a car to be sent from the guest house (where we were supposed to stay for the next 10 days). We looked in vain at all the name cards being flashed, nowhere was the name to be seen which meant our car was not here. Calling up the guest house further increased our waiting time only to be followed with an apology at the driver not being available at 2 pm. We decided to have a pre paid taxi booked.
The weather was mercilessly humid once we were outside the terminal trying to spot the taxi number printed on the payment slip. The congregation of yellow ambassador cabs on a hot and humid afternoon seemed a portion of sun’s yellow ray each. After waiting for about fifteen minutes punctuated with several enquiries from other taxi drivers, we finally spotted OUR TAXI. Eureka! There was nobody in it. By now we were increasingly getting impatient. Sensing our trouble, another taxi driver came towards us. He informed that our taxi driver was asleep and that he would wake him up and get him soon.
‘Wow’, thought I, ‘sleeping at an hour when it’s time for a flight to land and passengers to travel towards the city! ‘
Finally, the sleepy man came and adorned his seat. With a still drowsy pair of eyes and sullen face, he asked the address. We informed him but were taken aback when he asked the tanki (water tank) number.
‘What tank number? We need to go to a guest house. ’
‘Madam, we identify the locality by tank number. There is no road number in that area.’
Again we had to call up the guest house attendant to seek this information.
(Special mention: He too sounded sleepy)
‘Tank number 13’
My husband couldn’t resist his smile nor could I.
In an hour amidst snail paced traffic, sweating profusely, we reached the guest house after revolving and getting lost several times in the quagmire of numerous islands in the Salt Lake township (Island simply means the round-shaped traffic islands at various cross roads).
The first lesson: any place in Salt Lake is often recognized by the tank number or the nearest island. Of course, the house number follows. For any newcomer, finding a location in this township can be a daunting task.
After carrying our luggage to the room booked for us, the other two attendants were back to sleep. It seemed as if we were unwelcome guests in their afternoon reverie. After freshening up, I ordered lunch. Luckily, the cook was awake. We had the famous Bengali ‘maacher jhol’ (fish in gravy) and ‘bhaat’ (rice). Must admit, both of us pounced upon the food that day and breathed only after the last morsel was consumed.
House hunting began the next day. We contacted a broker who arrived promptly at 11 am. He had five houses in his kitty, from Salt Lake till Rajarhat, the New Town, areas being developed extensively on the outskirts of Kolkata.
A common thing I noted in almost all the houses we visited was that they were locked even during the day. When our broker called aloud to inform about his presence with the prospective tenants, it would generally take a long time for the owner/his representative to arrive with the key. At first, somebody would peep from the first floor and then ask ‘kay’(who is there?) and after being convinced about the visitors being the right people, would come down to ‘show the house’.
All this with us standing on the road in front of the house till the convincing part went on!
Some aged owners, especially the women of those houses, looked at me as if x-raying me from top to bottom trying to ascertain if I was indeed a married person (blame it on my attire: jeans). Surely, I changed to salwar suit to create a better impression from next day onwards till the day we found a house that suited our taste and budget. Who says there is no aura (electromagnetic waves, in scientific terms) around a person? I, despite not being a parapsychologist, realized that this aura is capable of sending clear signals and the signal here was – ‘if you do not dress up appropriately in Indian attire, you will not get any house.’
One of the landlords laid out a condition after inquiring whether I was working or not:
‘We will rent out the house only if there is somebody staying in the house all the time. If you work, we cannot.’
What had my poor job to do with the decision of the house being rented out or not! We were confused. He told specifically how concerned he was about increasing instances of theft in the area and that if there was nobody in the house during the day, chances of burglar attacks increased manifold.
‘They even have guns at times.’
‘Phew!’ I had nothing to say. Really. What would I do if a burglar with gun attacked the house even with MY presence in it! Was the house owner looking for a tenant or a security guard?
And that too a thin and fragile person like me! Ha, ha.
My husband said ‘Thank you sir’ and moved out. I followed. He later mocked at me- ‘you will save his house, the strong, muscular Sonal!’
On the sixth day of our arrival in the city, we finally managed to like a house. The owners seemed nice and had no objection to my working status. The rent agreement was prepared soon and we shifted in two days.
It’s the house that we stay in currently. There is a local market nearby that caters to most of our household needs.
Five months in Kolkata. Enough to know what this place is about. An unconscious evaluation always hovers at the back of the mind. There are vast differences on many parameters between Chandigarh and this city, the first being the size of the roads and space; the second, lifestyle. We keep comparing. People here live life as if life is forever which is good in a way. This brings me to the second lesson.
Visiting shops in Kolkata between 1:30 pm to 3:30 pm (stretch it to 5:00 pm in case of local shops) will be punishment for the needy because it’s ‘sleep-time’ for shopkeepers and the attendants during these hours and nothing could wake them up. Trust me. This schedule is true for some other sections too (some offices) who I would not like to name for fear of being sued 😉
As an outsider-turned-temporary inhabitant of the city, I must say food is good here. People are simple but do not open up easily or at times, even favorably, to non-Bengalis. For our enjoyment, we often relish the melt-in-the-mouth sweets, mishit doi (sweetened curd) and good non vegetarian food. In October, we soaked in the Durga Pooja fervor, absolutely awed and mesmerized by the beauty and grandeur of this celebration. The spirit was palpable in the air.
We have enjoyed visits to tourist attractions like the Victoria Memorial, Belur Math, Dakshineshwar Temple and loved the panoramic view of the Howrah Bridge, built upon the Hooghly River. Sadly, this beauty is lost in the filth and garbage, capable of anesthetizing the good senses.
What I have not been able to adjust with till date is the traffic and humidity and the sight of people sleeping for so long. It amuses me, surprises me. For one who has had a chance to stay in cities like Bhopal, Mumbai and Chandigarh, used to a different lifestyle, Kolkata comes across as a question. But I am sure, for many, this city may be the answer. I am still trying to come to terms with it. As somebody said to me: ‘this place grows on you with time.’ I hope so too.
Am I dozing off? The clock is ‘striking thirteen’! Ummm, one!