My Days in Kolkata, A Memoir, Part 2

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Of the several visits to Victoria Memorial, a couple of visits remain strongly etched in my mind. My first visit in the early 1980s with my parents has bequeathed in me a treasure trove of love and longing: firstly, a secret idea of belonging to the then undiscovered city via the grand Memorial lawns and the Alipore Chiriya Khana(Zoological Park); and secondly, a mysterious manifestation of providential love which was to stay with me for a long long time to come and which is still throbbing in my heart with its innate feeling of love and joy properly intact. But my second chance for a visit to the white Memorial came by only after more than 10 years, and that’s another story to write about. The pristine gray lakes, the manicured green lawns, the perfectly oval pebbles strewn on the walkways and the wrought iron park benches surrounding the entire park still emanate those wonderful memories of the days long gone. The place, according to me, is like a Gospel of love; an eternal book of love, in which are there unending stories about virgin love, also a sneak-peek into one’s own opportune destiny, dazzling glimpses of one’s future and to be able to profess one’s undying love for each other by putting one’s hand firmly in hers – all of it is written in gold lettering from the crack of dawn till the evening twilight, every day, and day after day. Those were the best days of my life. A flowery pink dress fluttering there in the cool summer breeze reminds me of my days past. I remember Vanessa Williams’s beautiful song: “sometimes the snow comes down in June / sometimes the sun goes round the moon / just when a chance had passed / you got to save the best for last”; I was set free there…

On a pleasantly cold winter day, I found myself sitting in the Elliot Park. It is not very far from the dazzling streets of Park Street and its much-visited bookstores and restaurants. In fact, when I climbed up the stairs of the underground Maidan metro station, Elliot Park lay sprawled on the right and I instantly knew that the park sure is one of the best maintained parks I have ever hoped to see in Kolkata. A brand new meeting point for most love-birds of the city looking to snatch up some cocooned private moments on the velvety grass. What was I doing there? Well, to admire nature’s bounty; to spot a smile or two; to catch a few breaths really and to be far away from the madding crowd. Across the park on the other side is the sprawling expanse of the historic Maidan grounds. Just yonder, the stately Eden Gardens Stadium towers over the eastern horizon and further up can be seen the breathtaking second Hoogly Bridge called Vidyasagar Setu.

I am sure the Citizen’s Park with its musical fountain just down the road towards the Birla Planetarium and the Victoria also comes in the same bracket of well-earned reputation just like the Elliot Park. I feasted my eyes on everything decorated there. From the steady march of people buying tickets to enter the park to the playful birds (including crows and sparrows) and insects (honeybees, beetles, and other revelers), the flamboyant trees, the lavish arrangement of ornate flowers and even an occasional shift in the wind trudging in a discarded plastic bag or two whirling about on the elegant grassy pastures, all serve up to ones’ pleasant senses and general well-being.

Maidan is a famous hotspot for sports, especially football. Although one doesn’t see a Bhaichung Bhutia playing football on the spacious grounds of the Maidan every day, but one finds scores of people kicking, jostling and generally reveling in the beautiful game. Hundreds of footballs are passed around. The football clubs of Bengal like the East Bengal and Mohun Bagan have come to be revered by all. These Bengal clubs have many domestic achievements under their belt. Except achieving success in one or two Olympic Games or in the yesteryear’s FIFA World Cup, the clubs have yet to conquer the world on the lines of, say, Manchester United or Chelsea clubs. That’s a long shot even before football lovers can dream about it. Cricket has IPL, but what does Indian football have? If Brazil, Argentina, Germany, England, Paraguay and others have an immense fan-following in Kolkata, then the fans’ love emanating from this part of the world sure is requited oftentimes by some internationally treasured footballers. Diego Maradona was here in Kolkata on a goodwill visit and so did Pele. They played soccer in Kolkata; inside packed stadiums. Yes, there is football in every Bengali’s blood and I am no different from my fellow brethren. Thanks to Sourav Ganguly, since the 1990s era, Cricket too managed to climb up the sport popularity charts.

I boarded an early morning underground train from Shyambazar to reach Park Street via Rabindra Sadon. Well, travelling in an underground metro is a noisy business, but no worries: The gleaming carriages snake in so smoothly into the station and glide out so effortlessly carrying the passengers. (Back in the late 1980s, riding in an underground Calcutta Metro train was very extraordinary for me an experience and it still is. The first time when I got to ride in it I was stunned, and felt instantly inadequate as a Southerner. The experience of it all was fantastic). I love the sound of the automatic doors close shut and open, and the train starts to glide. They told me that taking the Metro is an intelligent way for faster commuting in Kolkata, and so I always did.

That day after reaching Park Street station, I was headed for my Meshomoshai’s (uncle’s) office at the Plaza. Of all things, as I had readily determined, my uncle – Mr. Bhattacharjee – is going to say or rumble about by means of a free advice or two thrown in, I just knew that a couple of yum egg rolls, chow chow (probably, a moghlai dish or kati rolls were also in tow) and most certainly a couple of ice cream softies will be at his express disposal to be presented to a first-time guest like me; but that too the dishes were laid only after he made sure that he had emptied his oratory barrel, stuffed with resounding firings of his advice-quotas, on this poor uninitiated soul!

Nevertheless, I was stealthily prepared to take on the battle without getting visibly shifty in my seat and, therefore, weathered it all for the impending hope of a feast: soon to be spread out in his private dining space. Throughout his stylish advice-cum-suggestions admonitory express train, which had been already running late for over an hour inside my head, I could rather manage to shake my head up and down in mock devotion to all of that he had to say. Finally afterwards, egg rolls, ice creams and other heavenly-looking coco-pastries and misti doi were brought in on a couple of silver platters. And here I was suddenly glad to be alive and kicking and have my gourmet prospects gratefully uplifted as I binged on to my heart’s content like a hungry soul.

I never miss Oxford Book Store on Park Street to buy books. When in Kolkata, I make it a point to go there and buy loads of books from them. Their Cha Bar bistro is pretty impressive. I am greatly nostalgic about Park Street area. I spent a lot of time hanging around there; browsing through the music CDs at the Music World. I remember the front glass panes of the iconic Flury’s bistro. A little away from the 5-Star hotel The Park, the Trinca’s and the Moulin Rouge restaurants make good sense for restaurant hoppers to dine in. On my way to the huge New Market boulevard – a little far away from Park Street – where I once bought my office essentials, I once tried a very special eatery located just on the inside lane leading to the actual market place. It was a mobile restaurant serving out of an open white Trailer Van. I bought special paneer tikka and red chilly chicken kebabs spread on a plate of hot noodles. That evening, I really had freaked out eating…

One last snippet that I don’t want to miss writing about is the Salt Lake’s spanking City Centre Mall. This was one trendy address in this part of the town for everyone to be seen in; even the technology professionals who worked in the nearby Sector V area visited it and in style. I had first come to see City Centre along with my cousin Joy. With him, I explored Kolkata’s never-to-be-missed places. I remember our first visit to theDalhousie, a business district in Central Kolkata. I was simply awestruck by what I saw there: grand old palaces with high arches and stately domes, the modern multi-storied buildings reaching up to the sky above with their majestic facades in front and the not-so-spacious footpaths below. The place humbled me into an instant submission. I bought a long black and white portrait of the poet Rabindranath Tagore there from a shop’s front window. I remember the man: he was tall and sporting a long flowy beard like Tagore, selling his posters with welcoming smiles playing on his weather-beaten face. This part of the city is meant to be well-maintained, but it wasn’t. Several buildings were rather ill-maintained and others managed to be spanking new. It was amazing to see that the area was absolutely bursting with energy: with people, cars and trams all seemingly hobnobbing with each other and going wherever they wanted to go. I never knew this vibrant side of Kolkata before; I mean, I had regularly explored quite a bit elsewhere in the city, but these parts were really a pleasant surprise that I reveled myself in. The reason why Kolkata is called the City of Palaces, as I can see here, is very well justified.

We went to the iNox multiplex theatre and watched 15, Park Avenue. We knew Aparna Sen would deliver a great package again after her last movie Mr. & Mrs. Iyer, but this time the movie disappointed us and tested our patience for a bit too long; and so we left it half way and proceeded straight to dig some ice cream desserts. City Centre was special indeed. Fortunately, I remembered to buy a few souvenirs for myself. So apart from a pair of Denims and a stretchable-cotton polka dotted white shirt, I bought a fashionable Submarine jetter pen.

Back in the month of January, when a Hindi film called Rang De Basanti was released; some of our office folks – we still were very high on the new IT experience in Salt Lake’s Sector V – went to the iNox at the Mall to see the film. I couldn’t join them; a couple of others too could not go. In fact, since I had to get back travelling a great distance to reach my home and Kolkata was yet a new city for me, in terms of commuting by means of buses and trams, I had to sadly excuse myself. But I still weep a lot thinking about that missed opportunity; I knew I could have had some real fun going out with them, stretch my legs and sip on some nice Cola; and it would have turned out to be a memorable event to rejoice.

I finally went to see the film, after many months, with my cousin, not at the City Centre iNox but at the 89 Cinemas – a new multiplex nearby. I remember, we both wept like kids in the hall; in fact, it was a film we realized that we couldn’t really have afforded to miss by any chance. I’ll never forget the movie; for me, it signifies the memorable days I had spent in Wipro: a quiet affirmation of my memories and of my love and longing in Kolkata. Thank God we spent 150 bucks each to see it. Now, after so many years, when I nostalgically think about my precious Wipro experience, my heart reaches out to those days; to those fine people; to those special moments that have all deeply affected me and remained with me to this day. I wish I could travel back in time and relive that piece of my life again. Alas.

An epistle to a lost friend

Never would I have made up my mind to take that other project offer even if I had stayed back there because that would only mean that I would have to forego the chance of working sitting alongside my friends who have come to know me and cherish our friendship as I have come to cherish theirs. (Stuffs like one-upmanship, internal tug-of-wars, office politics and such like experienced in a profession never come to be of my liking.) Parallel to the Healthcare project, there was another project which was being set-up for me by my manager when I was asked to relate more on my additional skills. When I was invited to have a tête-à-tête with one of perfectly behaved senior managers, I went ahead and spoke with him in a nice interview. After we discussed about my valid need for a separation, he respectfully agreed. Had I stayed back, I would have taken up that project, but since it clearly meant that I have to be away from my colleagues and a separate place of work was to be located for me, I had to quietly decline the persuasive offer.

I just would have gladly continued working with Andy and all other colleagues, but sadly that never was to happen even after I have worked on back to back, for quite a while. I’d already made up my mind to go away. Wipro, Kolkata was truly a wonderful company to work in. I really adored their way of doing things. The managers there are very well-behaved and respectful to everyone and that is just only one of the strong points of their manpower pool. They never leave you. Their subtle acts of persuasion oblige you to reconsider your decision back from the scratch. God! I miss those moments and oh so much. Nonetheless, I had known from somewhere that… hope floats. Let’s see what does it ‘float’ for me. It seemed as if I hungered for emotional security and kept going for more. And today as I write this to you, I can’t help but feel depressed that gone are those days and gone are those moments of unending joys of working together with the ones I adored, cared and loved: remarkable people like you, Andy and a lot of others. I lost the treasure of a lifetime that would have, as I had once hoped, to last forever. Kolkata beckoned me; I went that far to be able to drape around me its warm quilt of love; around the shattered ruins of my broken heart; but only if I could hold on to its warmth… just that once… just for that while… just for that very moment, then I would have gravitated towards the warm cockles of its heart for all time to come, and never let go.

Later I met Andy. I found myself saying to him: “I am sorry… am leaving Andy”. Perhaps, he knew it that something like this would come someday, may be even faster. He could say nothing to me at that moment and his eyes betrayed him to say anything at all. Finding a little space within him, he spoke: “O don’t be sorry Albert, if you have to leave then maybe you will one day and one has to take such hard decisions in life that are sad enough to deal with in the first place, but… “ He couldn’t complete his sentence and my heart choked and I asked myself: what am I doing? His parting words were premonitory… (He gave me an alias name Albert at the workplace and calls me by that name ever since.)

It was always reassuring to see Andy every day while in office; he was such a nice person and a true friend one can infinitely be proud of. We talked and talked so much, shared jokes, or simply hung around the lush Wipro campus. He liked smoking, so I once gifted him a pack of Gold Flake cigarettes during the Bengali New Year’s Day. I bought it from a local shop in the suburbs where I stayed at my Mashi’s. That was the first time in my life I bought a pack of cigarettes for a friend from a tiny paan shop! Never have I gifted anyone with a cigarette packet before on a new year’s day, but, you know, I let myself do it this time, for I knew Andy loved the joyous taste of smoking and I guessed he would really like a swig-pack from me. But of course, I thought of other gifts such as a book or a special Watermark pen or a Zippo lighter, but I chose a Cigarette packet instead, for that was meaningful enough a gift for a smoker who smoked like a gentleman hailing from the far away hills, up in the beautiful north-east. I just presented him that and he looked at it; his face brimmed up with such delightful pleasure that even as he was so freaking out with joyous laughter his round face flushed in a pinkish white complexion. And I thought that was an awesome heart-melting reaction I ever saw.

Never was I a party to encourage smoking in my friends’ circle, but all that changed for Andy. What I saw and felt in the corridors of my office was a sort of deepening understanding of the people who’d like to smoke and revel in it and never get to worry about its deadly effects. After what I saw not just Andy but some other well-learned friends smoke and feel good about themselves, I moderated my belief system about the ills of smoking and the actual idea behind smoking. I never smoked myself; and perhaps will never be able to do that, but I do claim to know that familiar sort of castle-in-the-air feeling because since I love my hot cups of tea or coffee and can’t do without it, so I happen to agree with them who like smoking for the same kind of subtle comfort and tasteful pleasure all the way. (Yes, I jolly well know that smoking is cancerous and much more, and is different from drinking Tea or Coffee which is at best therapeutic.) The case is closed.

An honest confession: at one sweet time when Andy and I were together chatting in the balcony, I almost considered letting myself off the hook and have a smoke with him that day, but somehow I could not do it for some reason I never could come to know of. I hovered around to have a closer look at all the people who enjoyed smoking; it seemed to me – perhaps a little foolishly as one might think – that the art of smoking is obviously about a personal expression that involves style, fashion, elegance, technique, panache, élan, flamboyance and more. So, a smoker smokes his/her cigarette not because he is addicted to it (may be, a part of it) but because of his/her intense desire and to help themselves stay healthy in mind and confident by several degrees higher. Truly, I am fascinated by it but never gave in to it.

That day I came very close to having a swig. So many people gave in to it. Why didn’t I do it? I don’t know; I never held a cigarette stick in my hand before, so I didn’t want to hold it even then. Perhaps, I was inadvertently conscious of negative repercussions from such a thing; that came dangerously hither to roost in my own family backyard and things weren’t the same again for some of my own people.

It was a breather from training; Andy smoked on and I kept watching him do so by being on the ‘passive side’ of smoking. God forbid: it is so fashionable, luxurious, sophisticated, and superb! Many a times I have accompanied Andy to the smoke stalls outside the campus, and during those snatching moments I have discovered fine things about friendship and passive-smoking. No, the poor smoke stalls outside of our office don’t have any inkling as to what happens inside our educated heads concerning the dreaded ills of smoking. So please spare them. Why blame paanwallas for their spartan enterprises? If at all, then abolish smoking only when you can stop producing Tobacco at the first place! Can you (the government that is) do that? Why do you need to produce Tobacco at all if you think it is directly going to be used to make cigarettes and beedis and gutkhas? If not for smoking or chewing then what else is it used for: drugs? Does it not fuel your ISRO rockets into space? It apparently does. After all, you guys don’t forget to exploit their taxes to fund your rocket science, do you? If Tobacco is an instant evil, which it surely is (who’s saying it isn’t?) then why produce it all? Stop its production and get the results!

I know smoking kills; it’s a one-way ticket to the stinking bowels of hell and all that jazz. It is far more injurious to one’s health than one can hope to imagine; yet the way of life for many includes ‘white smoking sticks with brown ends’ with a possible addition of some other homespun beedis on the side. Somehow, I found myself telling Andy to cut his passion smoking by half or more; he really did agree with me. I realized friends and acquaintances can make a feasible difference; only just need to resort to a kind of emotional blackmail to awaken a smoker to quit smoking, and viola! He or she quits it; governments with their callow warnings don’t. Andy promised me that he would forego the pleasure of smoking just because I told him to do so!

I used to be with him like a passive-smoker whenever we took a breather from our project training. And talking about training, I’ll never forget those moments, I swear. What a good time we all had there… a blast really… those Bangla jokes, those poky situational affronts that needn’t upset anyone were delivered over many of those endless coffee sessions we had at the balcony. Coffee, tea, cardamom tea, lemon tea or whatever… gulped down during break time: I’ll never exchange them for anything else.

Andy was almost beyond words that day when he received that packet of cigarettes from me. He laughed his easy laughter. It was just a small gift, but his whole being seemed like he blushed with thousand thankyous for me and he again laughed heartily and smiled a mile wide with his brilliant white smile that he has across his axiomatic face. I felt so humbled that moment and felt overjoyed musing over the fact that one possibly could never be able to weigh his friendship in any way for anything else in life. I know we are friends forever but alas! I lost a true friend of mine in Kolkata when I came away from there. Wish we all worked and stayed that way for all time to come. Yeah if only wishes were horses! I also miss the way of life in Kolkata. I miss Wipro too much as I miss you, Andy and others. My life will never be the same again from heretofore, that I now have come to painfully understand. God bless him and everyone. And I so terribly miss you and Andy for all my words could speak…

I can’t possibly come anyway near to explaining how much I miss Wipro and Kolkata. Now in the delicate bargain of my sad feelings, I keep missing you, Andy and other friends like Tom (He is Tomaghno, you remember? short guy with long hair from our batch. Later he cut them short… at the time when I resigned in the rainy month of June. His short crop made him look rather decent) and the amiable, eternally-decent Rajorshi (He was from your batch. We became good friends later; I could not contact him after I came away to the South). I will never forget Tomoghno, Rajorshi, Andy, Mandira, Ayantika, and a couple of other beautiful folks like Bhagwati, Susmita, Ruru, and others; their voices still ring in my ears. I really am not hopeful to meet any of them except may be – by a stroke of luck – I might run into Rajorshi (because I know his place) and Andy (because we kept in touch). There were other friends too but I am no longer able to recollect their names now. There’s one name, however, that stuck with me the first time I saw her: Amrita. Tom with whom I always sat in the training knew about it. He used to roll his big eyes and stick his elbow into my ribs every time when she came in the training room for a special inputs session before I flushed a deep shade of pink in my face. Andy too would turn his neck towards me and pout his lips envyingly; he’d once said: she’s perfect for you Albert… seriously. Later, when I’d left my job on one summer night of May/June and came away to the glassy cafeteria to recoup from the pain of getting away, sitting alone, eyes liquid with hot tears, looking blankly at my plate of Paneer Sushlik in front of me, I did realize to a great degree of sadness and helplessness that the feeling was far more deeper than I had previously thought it was. What could I possibly have done to turn a new leaf in my life? Poor me! I never knew that leaving Kolkata would have me leave her as well apart from all other things I have come to care for. Alas!We all did well in the project. We had passed out of the training session one by one and hoped well for each other to stay put. It was so much fun.

I particularly remember a short guy who had a slight paunch on him; my memory fails me to recollect his name.He lived in Nagerbazar; just a couple of blocks off the Nagerbazar-Dum Dum main road. Once when we were discussing our educational pursuits, he told me that he had a master’s degree in economics and wanted to run a business house. In January ’06, we went to the Kolkata’s Boi Mela (Book Fair) at the Maidan and bought some books. In fact, I had long nurtured a dream to go to the book fair and when the opportunity struck, I never winked. I remember his amiable personality and his sincere smile, but sadly I am unable to remember his name, how much ever hard I try now.

You remember Mrinal? The guy with whom we sat together during the training, Andy was there too in the bay area as we sat among the empty cubicles. We laughed like hell that day on his brilliantly funny jokes and his way of cracking them up hilariously!!! The jokes that gave us many a tummy-aches! Mrinal spoke immaculate Bengali. Must say I have picked up a little bit of pure Bengali from him; he was too fast for me though. Guess dabbling in Politics could have been his natural calling than the grime of I.T. occupation. He seemed to play with the language just like a well-learned professional speaker or a magnificent orator. I dare say his English comes a close second to his lovely Bengali.

I remember I once felt that he turned himself into a conspicuously sophisticated person. I thought, may be, his earlier spiritedness has taken on a new colour of life which seemed to have changed quite a bit of his personality. His charming down-to-earth and easy-going temperament was gone. He had a sort of high-air about himself, which seemed slightly misplaced. Nothing wrong with that but nice guy though; but we hardly met each other after he graduated and went about handling Healthcare project work before we did. Afterwards, when our batch started the work on the same project, I hardly could see him at all. I remember his electric way of cracking up jokes and making it seem all so easy and enthusiastic. His general persona seemed really so full of spontaneity. A nerve of electric verve seemed to run through his mind and soul and every time anyone can get to feel it when talking with him. I mean, it’s very rare to have such individuals like him in our midst. The crackle of his spontaneous jokes will be sorely missed and they would be missed forever though. I never felt that good old familiar feeling ever after. They say all good things must come to an end, and this time, alas! It came to such an abrupt end. I’ll never forget Mrinal and his crackling way of speaking. It was simply too much for me to catch up with him while he spoke. I think he told me he lives in Nagerbazar, north of Dum Dum or somewhere beyond near Chiria More.

Things change so blindingly these days that I hardly like it that way, and I have little choice if it is meant to be that way, lest loving it! Saddest part of it all is: That’s life.

End of Part 2

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