28 June 2007

City of Carroms, Leisure and Culture

I fell in love with Kolkata at first sight. You can clearly hear the heart-beat of the city as soon as you get down the train in Howrah station. I haven't seen so many people out on the streets in many years. The breeze is luke-warm and humid. The cabbie who was driving me to the youth hostel was an expert. I say this because he drove through a narrow street that has wholesale shops and warehouses on both sides with big trucks parked on the street, yet made it in 25 minutes to the hostel.

The Youth Hostel is located in a residential area. After dinner, I went out for a stroll and the scenes I encountered were truly a feast to the eyes. It's like the clock has turned back to several decades. The streets are really narrow and the houses are huge mansions. The streets are dimly-lit by tall lamp-posts that are old-fashioned and ornate. Most of the intersections are not the regular 4-way ones. Sometimes it is three roads meeting and sometimes it is five. There is usually a Banyan or some big shade-giving tree in the intersection which has a platform built around the tree trunk. I saw middle-aged men and retired men sitting on that platform in groups and chatting away leisurely. If you stand there and lend a ear, you'll hear conversations flying from topic to topic touching politics, art, music, economics, research, globalization... what not. The thing that amused me the most was that these men brought bottled water to drink. They came prepared...... I saw many men dressed in dhoti, some even younger.

In many cul-de-sacs I have seen carrom boards and players. The carrom board is usually set up in a strategic position like under a lamp post, with a bright lamp hanging very low onto the table from the post, casting shadows on the players lending an enigmatic aura to them. There are four players and another six people or so sitting and watching them... or may be waiting for their turn. I haven't seen any liquor shops but I have seen many carrom clubs and street-side carrom boards. Kolkata has a love affair with carroms.

Another interesting feature of the city is the number of cats. Bengalis are obviously fond of cats and consider seeing a cat first thing in the morning a good omen. I guess there is a geographical reason for this. China and North-Eastern states of India have the custom of treating a cat as a sacred animal.

I went to Maidan in the afternoon. The subway ride reminded me of New York. I finished my work at US consulate and started walking by the Victoria Memorial Gardens. It was just 3 in the afternoon and already there were many people sitting in the park. They didn't look like unemployed people to me. The ladies looked like working women with their hand bags and lunch boxes. The men had office bags or briefcases in their hands. It was a mystery to me. If these are working people, how come they are here in the park at this hour of day? It is a week-day and not a public holiday either. I saw many young people, mostly students walking into the park hand in hand. Are the colleges closed too? I'll never know the answer. Groups of people just sat there under the trees on the benches and chatted away happily. I really envied Kolkatans. They live a life of leisure and happiness. When was the last time I went to a park with my friends and had such talks? Another thing I noticed and report with a little shyness is - the couples I saw always held hands while walking, young and middle-aged both alike.

People in Kolkata are die-hard fans of theatre. In the present day of film industry dominating all the art-forms, they still kept the fire of theatricals going. Whenever there is a play in an auditorium, it is sold out completely. The auditorium management arranges for speakers outside the auditorium for the benefit of the people who couldn't get the admission for the play. You'll see many people standing outside the auditorium or perching on the walls nearby listening to the play. The manager of Youth Hostel was telling me that every year, many people from other countries come to Kolkata just before the Autumn and stay for 4-6 months to learn music, dance, painting, acting and other fine arts. This city is still a hub for art and culture.

Kolkata has so many facets - looks very conservative when you see young men in dhotis and young widows looking so widowed, and looks very modern and liberal when you see the subway trains, couples holding hands, young women dressed like film stars.

At the end, the only thing I didn't like in Kolkata is the Rikshaw that's not pedalled, but hand-pulled.