I’ve never driven in Calcutta. You know, being at the controls of a set of wheels. Never, when within these city limits, have I piloted a car, or bicycle, rickshaw, auto-rickshaw, two-wheeler, Royal Enfield, Ambassador, Contessa, Tempo, lorry, truck, microbus, bus, mega-lorry, tram, circular railway locomotive, Metro-liner… Nor even a vendor’s trolley. Not one. Except for maybe one of those rolling luggage-mobiles.
That being the case, I’ve nevertheless been in or around, or at least near to most of the above conveyances at some point or other while in the great city of Calcutta, which I affectionately call the Star of the East. And certainly, like millions of others, I’ve experienced what they do, how they run, and where they go, mostly in some beneficial way. They’re all part of the city’s pleasure – the zest, spice, thrills, chills… and not a few dangers and annoyances.
We all know about urban issues, such as too much traffic, crowding, pollution, bad development, and other negative factors. Calcutta is right up there with Cairo, Mexico City, London, Los Angeles, Lagos, Rio de Janeiro, Changsha – and Delhi – as far as facing the consequences of these global problems is concerned. But they’re not what concerns us here. Indeed, they are bonafide dangers, but for me, what’s particularly annoying is that Calcutta is all too often written off as consisting only of those things, rather than the extraordinary metropolis it is.
With the requisite over-obvious notions established, the excitements of the city await, as they always do, and with courtesy.
I am what you might call an ‘old Calcutta hand’, or to put it plainly, a Calcutta fan. It took some time for me to attain such an enjoyable status, but I did it simply through exposure and exploration. At first I felt rather solitary in such a special interest, but as is the case with socialising, whether through media or in person, I’ve been thrilled to discover just how many people – Calcuttans themselves – are enthused about their city and eager to discover, appreciate, and even honour its remarkable features, its personality, culture, and of course, its people.
Naturally, there are many methods of discovering this vast conurbation. Visitors – and even lifelong residents – are often astonished at how huge it is. The great slab of the core city is extremely concentrated, yet engagingly varied, and wholly accessible. Pretty much everywhere is vehicle-oriented, but to my mind, the ideal conveyance would be an eco-friendly bicycle, despite its vulnerabilities. But so far, as I’ve said, no such pedaling has been attempted by yours truly.
Upon reflection, I’ve bicycled about in the middle of busy Nagpur, through the dusty grandeur of Bikaner, the wide open expanses of Chandigarh, and around Dal Lake in springtime. Pretty easy stuff, especially in years past.
Not long ago, when my wife Sandy and I were visiting friends in Karnataka, our charming hosts freely invited me to take the wheel of their brand new (and very cool) Tata Nano. It sort of reminded me of a 1959 Renault 4CV I had long ago. Anyway, I declined, not out of trepidation, as the byways thereabouts are delightfully quiet and scenic, but because I simply wanted to be a shutterbug in the front seat. Also, I was particularly comfortable in that position, as is the custom for those of us who are used to having our steering wheel on the left side of the vehicle.
I’m certainly hip to the realities of driving in India, whether it’s the Jammu to Srinagar run, or an average bus link from Jabalpur to Panna – or negotiating Armenian Street on almost any occasion. Where I come from, cows, deer, coyotes (and skunks) can come out of nowhere at night. Blizzards, ice, severe heat, and mad drivers are also threats – and at high speeds, too. I’ve driven in rush hours in Barcelona (thrilling!), Paris (nerve-wracking!), London (intense!), Los Angeles (boring!), Vancouver BC (a mess!), Seattle (terrible!), and on German autobahns (very good!). It’s just that when it comes to Calcutta, I prefer to take in the city right down on the ground. Doing it footloose can’t be beat. I guess it’s really because I don’t want to miss anything. I’m kind of an omnivore like that, which I suppose makes me greedy. However, I don’t think that being greedy for Calcutta is among the worst things in the world. Besides, rarely have I encountered a city that is quite so giving.
So yes, it is my pleasure to praise what is good, and there is plenty of good in Calcutta. What is lesser is certainly worthy of comment, but not as criticism for its own sake. Because I am such a fan of Calcutta, a true admirer, I don’t need to be its apologist. And there are plenty of critics to cover that particular aspect of our town.
Whether I’m in the US, or Europe, or most anywhere else in India for that matter, I’m often asked why I’m attracted to Calcutta, because sooner or later the subject comes up. I’ve never had a good answer, or at least an answer most can really absorb without me getting all lecture-ish and instructive, with show-and-tell photo sessions and such. And even then, people can still not ‘get it’.
But I think – just now, in fact – I’ve finally come up with a pretty good explanation.
Probably what appeals to me most about Calcutta is that, with its sweeping array of diversity, personalities, intricateness, grandeur, humbleness, historicity, quirks, intimacies, neighbourhoods, and distinctive styles on display, all these and more add up to a comprehensive, expansive, vital, memorable, and EPIC experience. Thus, it’s easy to proclaim, proudly, accurately, and lovingly, that my Calcutta, our Kolkata – any way you spell it – is an EPIC city indeed!
Delighted to be here. The 100th issue! 100 is a number that, once reached, means things are here to stay. For centuries. No matter what demonetisation may come!
Stay curious, have fun, and be sure to come when Calcutta calls!