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Lights, blights and Bengal nights - Shipra Chaudhury

Kolkata is not for everyone. You want your cities sparkling and green; stick to Delhi. You want your cities gorgeous and impersonal, go to Mumbai. You want them high-tech and full of draught beer, Bangalore's your place. But if you want a city with a soul, come to Kolkata. And what is the best time to understand this lovely city? You got it! It is the time of Durga Puja!

Couple of years ago, we chose to spend some time in Kolkata during the pujas. Reaching Delhi, we decided to take the trains to relive old memories. It was a late dusky evening as the Rajdhani Express from Delhi slowly edged its way through the numerous tracks to enter Howrah in Kolkata — one of the largest railway stations in the world. As the train entered the busy platform and came to a hasty halt, the hustle and bustle of the surrounding scene reminded me of numerous things. I peeped out of the window hungrily for more. Not that there was a lot of changes since I left this place. Busy porters in red with metallic plate numbers tied to their arms running hurriedly, keen hawkers watchful for a potential buyer, small beggar lads hoping to get some coins and empty bislery (filtered) water bottles and above all, anxious friends and relatives waiting eagerly for their loved ones in this auspicious month of puja. This is the city that enlivened my spirit during my childhood days, guiding me through the stormy teenage years and finally teaching me to live life as it comes, no matter what.

Kolkata means many things to many people. For some, it is the city of joy, while for others it is dirty, crowded and noisy; a cultural capital and friendliest metropolis for lovers while for others conjuring up images of squalor, poverty and urban disaster; teeming humanity, chaotic streets and crumbling colonial heritage for some, but representative of a place of depth and contrast and home to some of India's well-known political activists, poets and artists.

 A city of contrasts! Fascinating! Bewitching! Bewildering! An ancient city that has seen history unfold itself in front of her. A city that has adapted to lifestyle and the calm accumulated over ages. A city that has been home to writers like Rabindranath Tagore, Bankim Chandra and Sarat Chandra. The home of filmmakers like Mrinal Sen, Goutam Ghosh, Rituparno Ghosh and Satyajit Ray, known for their humanistic approach to cinema. This is where Professor Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winner and Master of Trinity College, spent his youthful years in renowned university lanes in North Kolkata, famous for campuses. Mother Teresa, the saint of the gutters, provided home to numerous homeless children.  Jyoti Basu, the Marxist icon, became a political legend for being in the chief minister's chair for 24 long years. And, not to forget, this is also where the elegant left-handed batsman "Prince of Bengal" Saurav Ganguly learnt to take the responsibility of captaincy of the Indian cricket team.

Of course the city is not without its darker shades — chronic labour unrest, population overload, political ineptitude, environmental degradation and traffic snarls. Housing shortage has resulted in the growth of slums that foster criminal activity. But whatever be it, Kolkata gives a chance to live. The city is suitable for all budget goers — with five­star hotels like the Taj Bengal and Sonar Bangla on one side, and street vendors selling Chinese noodles and chicken rolls on the other. Where you have towering shopping arcades springing up everywhere, full of international products like Gucci, Prada and Guess versus the common local markets with everyday commodities for a meagre living.

As we moved through the busy traffic on Howrah Bridge towards my hometown, darkness descended on this boisterous and vibrant metropolis! I could visualise the Kolkata night gradually unfolding its myriad and spectacular forms, from the throbbing night clubs, the scintillating discotheques to dirty pavements, smog filled twilight, shadowy street lamps and endless crowds. Being the puja season, I also remembered the numerous potters working day and night at Kumartuli, moulding mud into mythology, and the throbbing heartbeat of the Bengali soul. Durga Puja! The best time to know this city!

Over the years I felt the puja celebrations have also changed. Earlier, it was the most expensive of all festivals and could only be performed by the rich and the big business tycoons. But today it has a different scenario. The evolution of many clubs, associations and societies has made the Durga puja more cosmopolitan in character. The social and ritualistic significance of the Durga puja has also been modified to a great degree. The people of Kolkata are crazy about this most awaited festival.  Festival preparations begin a month or two in advance. Pre-Puja bargain sales and exhibitions introduce the sartorial style. Bengali newspapers and magazines publish ‘Sharad Sankhya’ that comprises of the works by today’s eminent writers. Music companies have a number of new CDs, DVDs and cassettes published in every Durga puja and the music lovers await eagerly for the new releases. Where else would you find the ‘dhakis’ beating their drums? Which other Indian festival – in any part of the country – is so much about food, about going from one roadside stall to another, following your nose as it trails the smells of cooking? And gradually I could visualize the atmosphere changing in a rapid way…. blue sky beckons…. the mild fragrance of ‘Shiuli that gives another familiar tug at every Bangali heart….another magical moment is round the corner. This is the time I always greatly miss Kolkata – the time of Durga Puja!

And at this precise moment something hit me hard. Beyond the facade of Kolkata’s concrete jungle, you can never miss the big­hearted city — a city of culture, of creativity, of sport lovers, of festivals and above all, of friendliness.

If you have lived in Kolkata, you will understand my restlessness; if you have loved Kolkata, you will appreciate the way I feel about her.

My name is Shipra Chaudhury.  Born and raised in Kolkata, I began my professional career by graduating with masters from Jadavpur University, which led me to numerous teaching opportunities. Soon I moved to Dubai, to start my freelancing career for Gulf News, one of the leading newspaper in the Gulf. In 2001, I moved to Toronto with my family and have made this lovely city my home!

Besides teaching in the private sector, I have continued to be a freelancing journalist, writing for community newspapers and magazines here.

I love to read in my free time as that broadens my horizon. Dancing is also my hobby as I love to be fit and healthy. Another hobby that I enjoy pursuing is helps me to be one with Mother Nature. 


#2 Parames Misra 2014-10-21 19:57
Wonderful!!! Keep writing, Shipra.
#1 Sunit Datta 2014-10-01 10:02
Nice reminiscence of our beloved city! খুব সুন্দর!

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