Slices of Old Calcutta and the Childhood Sky

It was a day like any other, in Calcutta (or Kolkata, if you insist) last week. After one sugary confection too many, I put on my running shoes and sauntered down to the neighboring park.  Dusk was settling in for the night, comfortably spreading her dark wings over the sky. Someone had lit a bonfire to cremate autumn, and the smoke drifted to join the waft of incense from the temple nearby. Motley groups gathered around benches, passionately discussing the latest gossip and politics, providing the tea vendor with some brisk business. I could not only feel, but also see the strings attaching my heart to the city. It set me thinking about roots and wings, a subject a friend had brought up a few weeks ago. A childhood spent in the city has given me the wings of wanderlust, and yet, I shall always remain mysteriously attached, never truly leaving ‘home’. Sharing below, an edited version of a piece I wrote a few years ago – to celebrate, to say thanks for and – to remember slices of old Calcutta and the childhood sky.

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My grandparents lived by a railway station in the heart of old Calcutta, right on the main road where an electric tram line ran. I wish I could find words to describe what this home was like. People who have never visited that part of the city at that particular time in its history, how do I explain the child that I was and how this house nestled deep inside me, even as I became a part of it. I write today, of course, to capture childhood memories before they fade away along with that era and the images. More importantly, I write to hold on a little longer, to the wonder that was, the sense of mystery and connectedness, understanding what it was to be a person, important but inconsequential, in a world so large but tiny. I could not have explained it, nor did I understand it in so many words, but the times I spent at the my grandparents’, is when I realized and lived in a world of opposites, imagining, dreaming, observing, making sense and being puzzled, longing to fly away and yet staying forever.

The rear of the house, which had stairs leading to the attic store rooms, was where the fragile Tulsi grew in its pot. I sat cross-legged by it, reading my grandfather’s yellowing collection of Reader’s Digest (dating back several years), and observing the cats which daintily climbed all over the neighboring house. These neighbors had an eating area which was open for the entire world to see. After all these years, while I can remember in minute detail the constant objects that graced the dining table – the money plant, the plastic orange jug, the white lace doily – I cannot, for the life of me, recall any people around the table. Perhaps there weren’t many that frequented that spot, or memory being a strange affair, is blocking them out. I do remember, with certainty, that this was where I made friends with the Tulsi, communed with the moon and the stars, and became a glutton for happy endings. I envy my then ability to soar out and connect to my slice of the sky. I regret the price that I have paid for growing up; severing that bond and losing the language I shared with the now stony moon and the faraway stars.

A completely different world was the view through the window along the length of our home. The window, with its little recess and wooden shutters afforded me hours of joyous absorption. I endlessly raised and shut the slats, letting strips of sunlight in and then playing darkness, controlling the flow and mood of my imagination. Come dusk, I would settle into the window seat to watch the thin winding lane which it overlooked. So narrow was this dead-end strip that bicycles were the only vehicular traffic that could enter. My fascination lay, however, with the people returning home, some with their work briefcases, most with their carry bags. The silent hustle-bustle of the lane, those little doors which led to homes and lives, I would look at them and wonder what it would be, to leave, knowing that you will return, every single day for the rest of your life. Will you be bored, or will you enjoy the comfort of certainty?

The front of the house, right by where the tram ran and opposite a cinema theater – had the busiest view. One could see the spires and just about make out the happenings of the railway station far to the left. Oh, the excitement! Where all was quiet and subdued elsewhere, this was where all the action took place. The horns, the traffic, the streams of people and cars, the trams chugging along (or standing still in a power-cut) the queues on Friday for the latest film release; happy and endless was the noise. Already bitten by the travel bug, I would peer through the railings of the veranda and imagine the people at the railway station. How wonderful to board a train, what held the journey onward, new places to visit, the world waiting to unfold! And yet as evening drew, with the birds flying back to their nests and the lights being switched on, I would be filled with a deep sense of loss and foreboding of the darkness. I later came to identify this feeling as homesickness. Back then it was only the nameless desire to return to safety.

People who know me now, know there is nothing more my heart desires to sleep the day away. Yet, as a five year old, I would be awake at the crack of dawn for the momentous feeding of the pigeons. My grandma stored the special grain for the pigeons in great big drums,  large enough for me to disappear into or build home in. In the darkest areas of the attic where the water tank gurgled, you could feel the coolness as the rustling grains slipped through your fingers and be filled with a calm deep joy. And then to go out to the open terrace; have the cool breeze of the deep pink dawn wash over you, scatter big handfuls of grain, and watch sheets of pigeons fly from roof top to roof top. Those still and quiet mornings, amidst the soft cooing of the pigeons, my grandma silently taught me the joy of sharing; not as a chore but as a way of life, one which benefits the giver far more than it does the receiver.

As I leave that chapter of my childhood, the image that I want to hold on the most to, is that of the kites as seen from my grandparents’. From the hundreds of colorful specks amidst joyful and competitive shouts during the annual kite festival, to the more daily two or three lonesome kites lazily flapping about; the kites, to me, will always symbolize soaring over the earth and going up, up and away.  And bring with them the delight of dozens of colors, the freedom amidst the ebb and flow of life, and the one hope and conviction that today, more than any other day, anything and everything is possible.

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