Even a casual mention of Kolkata (then Calcutta) triggers in me a Proustian rush of memories of my teenage days when the ‘City of Joy’ meant so much to us. Growing up in the 70s and the first half of the 80s as a school student in Delhi, my visit to Calcutta, along with parents, elder sister and younger brothers during our summer vacations used to be charming interludes in an otherwise hectic school life, burdened with homework, algebra formulas and chemical equations.
Summer is not an ideal time for a visit to the city, but the vagaries of weather hardly mattered to us. My father would book the railway tickets well in advance to avoid any confusion at the eleventh hour.
As the Kalka Mail pulled into the Howrah station in the early morning, our heart would leap with joy. Our destination used to be our eldest Maasi’s house tucked away at one of the suburbs. It was a sprawling two-floor mansion with big rooms, a capacious courtyard, and a windswept terrace from where one could, with a rare Wordsworthian solace, behold the majestic rows of tall coconut trees swaying sensuously in the gentle breeze; the vast sky stretched out.
Maasi’s house was like our second home. It was a visceral pleasure spending time with both Maasi and Mesho, who would smother us with affection and care. Moreover, the verdant ambience of the place made us temporarily forget the cut-and-dried monotony of Delhi-centric life.
The beautiful pond with its unruffled waters in front of the house was our favourite haunt. In the soft-coloured glow of dawn, we would drink in the ethereal view of ducks swimming and creating ripples and reflections, while a gentle breeze caressed us. My younger brother and I also would observe, with a rare interest, the absorbing adda sessions in tea shops near Mesho’s house right from the early morning. Tempers flared and sparks flew with great ferocity when it came to dissecting a Mohun Bagan-East Bengal match with goal opportunities missed, and sometimes one could often see a furious debate erupting over the shenanigans of a local politician or the acting of Uttam Kumar in one of his famous movies.
Also read: Discovering Home
Come evening, our adorable Mesho would promptly go to the nearby market and ply us with tangy Bengali snacks, popularly known in Bengali as tele bhaja comprising begunis (aubergine fritters), peyajis (onion fritters) and the not-to-be-missed aloo chop. While our elder sister would lay claim to the spicy aloo chop, we three brothers would gorge on begunis and peyajis.
During the seventies and the early eighties, load shedding, especially at night, used to be a veritable nightmare. No sooner did we settle into bed after hanging the mosquito net, the house would plunge into darkness. The ceiling fan, the only luxury during those days, would stop whirring. Now, one could hear the loud croaking of the frogs from near the pond, while the glow of the fireflies in the darkness, though visually alluring, would look curiously eerie.
The load-shedding at nights, which was a regular feature, would test our nerves to the limit, as we would grapple with mosquito bites late into the night while wiping away the beads of sweat trickling down our face. Exhausted by this struggle, sleep would slowly overwhelm us. The balmy morning breeze drifting in from the windows would make us forget the miseries of the night.
Lunch used to be a gala affair almost every afternoon. We would relish the spicy rohu fish curry cooked in mustard by Maasi, accompanied by mishti doi (sweet curd) and rosogollas to our heart’s content. The rohu used to be freshly caught from the pond for the meal. Culinary delights apart, there was so much else to keep us busy. Sometimes, Mesho would take us to a neighbourhood ground where we would spend a few hours watching mud-splattered youngsters play football in wet and muddy grounds risking their limbs. Every time we visited Calcutta, watching the majestic Howrah Bridge from a close distance while travelling in a ferry with Mesho used to be another surreal experience for us. The water of the Ganga shimmered in the morning sun. Those were the days!
In one of our visits to Calcutta, I had once called, with considerable trepidation, our venerable Manik-da (Satyajit Ray) to ask him when we could visit him. Meeting him had always been our dream. Manik-da, in his deep baritone voice, told us to come over on any morning. However, when my younger brother and I reached his home at Bishop Lefroy Road, he was unwell, and was not up to receiving visitors. Our dream remained unfulfilled as Manik-da soon left this world.
After the death of Maasi and Mesho, the mansion is in a dilapidated state. No one lives there now. The pukur (pond) has long dried up and the ogre of urbanisation has reared its head as flats and buildings have come up in the area, robbing the place of the greenery and tranquillity it once symbolised. I wish I could turn the clock back to those halcyon days when life used to be simple, sans any social media and mobile phones. But isn’t the idea of eternal return, as Milan Kundera said, a perpetual mirage?
Aditya Mukherjee is a writer is a journalist based in Delhi.