“The more things change, more they remain the same.”
Just like human beings, places evolve. The look and feel of a certain place at specific points in time also change over years. Most importantly, our perception of a destination changes vastly as we learn to look at things with a fresh pair of eyes the next time we visit. One such experience was Kolkata.
I was 10-years-old the last time I visited the city. Today, I am 30. And truth be told, the place is just how I left it two decades back, preserved like an ancient relic in a museum. So much has changed, yet things are the same. Especially, Central Kolkata. Viewing the city through the prism of nostalgia brought back scenes from 1995: well-preserved colonial buildings, colonnaded market areas, ganji-clad hand-drawn rickshaw pullers, the omnipresent yellow taxis, a deluge of people on streets, familiar tram system cutting across the road and several dilapidated structures from yesteryear left unattended.
There seems to be a lot of frenetic activity on the streets, on the pavements, in parks, busy market areas. Then you see people sleeping on pavements, under the shadow of trees, inside taxis will their legs up on the windows, in parks with their heads resting on office bags. Siesta is the name of the game here in Kolkata. Why does it feel as if things aren’t really moving? “It’s a classic place of contradictions,” a tea-seller in the busy College Street area informed. An astute observation.
I imagine it to be a city that’s trying hard to stay relevant in the current scenario, while clutching at its glorious, but faded past. Seems it wants to pull away from the tenacious claws of the years gone by, but somehow not trying hard enough to free itself. It’s happy living out the contradictions. And that’s the beauty of the ‘City of Joy’. A jab of nostalgia awaits you at every corner at the same time never too far to enjoy the modern necessities of life. It’s a city that you can ‘feel’, throbbing with life.
The local tour guide also gave me a nugget of information that’s not only hard to deny, but is very mush visible in the day-to-day dealings in the city. “Kolkata is stuck in a time warp,” he explained. “There’s a major identity crisis as the locals now speak less in Bengali and more in Hindi. It’s a multi-cosmopolitan city. The ‘real’ Bengalis are basically involved in office work and are not inherently business-minded. This gap is being filled up by the workforce primarily from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh,” adding that the percentage of Bengalis to migrants is 40-60. In a sarcastic remark, the tour guide says, “Because outsiders are filling in the jobs, Bengalis are left with playing flutes.”
Kolkata, in essence, can be likened to a beautiful old painting, whose colours are fading. But back in the day, during the British rule, it served as a beacon of enlightenment for the rest of the country as prolonged British rule exposed the city to Western education, development of science, social reforms in the region which turned into a movement popularly known as ‘Bengali Rennaisance’.
The movement spearheaded by prominent Bengali luminaries such Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Nobel Laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore, and many other stalwarts who upheld the intellectual and creative output of the city. This is partly the reason why till date, Bengalis are proud of their rich cultural heritage. Formerly known as Calcutta, Kolkata was also the capital of undivided British India and all of British-held territories in South Asia until 1911. So the sense of pride stems from these undeniable facts.
There is still a sense of old-world charm associated with the city. A north Indian friend, who lives in New Delhi but has worked in West Bengal, aptly summarises what the city means to him as a traveller and as part of the work force: ‘A sense of periodic romanticism”.