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4 Feb

Calcutta’s volatile temper is a bit frightening. How quickly people come to blows and burn down vehicles. Road accidents are more of a tragedy than usual because the vehicle perceived to have caused the accident inevitably has its driver pulled out, beaten, and sometimes killed on the spot. Is it any wonder then that drivers of said vehicles attempt to flee?

How to comprehend this Calcutta living alongside the Calcutta where old people actually have space to loiter in the city, which has time to laugh and joke with strangers on buses, which enthusiastically patronises telebhaja stalls in the hottest of weathers? Which Calcutta is the real Calcutta? How to reconcile such opposites?



15 Feb

There is something immensely endearing about the Bihari (Bhojpuri?) accent on Hindi. One of my favourite things to do on public transport-especially on trams and buses (although I no longer take tram rides as frequently as I once used to)- is to overhear conversations. My eavesdropping ear stays peaked and travels from one conversation to another, and homes in on one that suits.

Today morning on the 1.5 hour ride to Dakshineshwar, I overheard a mother and daughter have a brief not-quite-a-quibble about who will pay the bus fare (the daughter was quite business-like about how much her mother owed her for the preceding auto-ride-Rs.11!- and would not shell out for the bus fare, even though the mother promised to pay her back later. The mother was apprehensive about whether the bus-conductor would willingly accept the hundred rupee note she had for a fare that would be under twenty rupees). The mother wondered whether the conductor had over-charged them (I think he did, for he took one rupee more from me than is the usual fare). They also spoke about how the daughter’s new workplace would be quite far from home. Rather mundane, and all in Bengali. My ear did not happen upon anything interesting.

On the return journey, there were two voices behind me. I’ve never aged people by their voice before and it was interesting to recognise an ‘older’ voice and a ‘younger’ voice. In Bihari (Bhojpuri?) accented Hindi the older one one was recounting how during the 1992 World Cup* (cricket, ofcourse; I never did football B-)) he and his friends used to rent a television to watch the matches. And how he bought celebratory fire-crackers in anticipation of India’s win against Pakistan, way before the match day. And how the true joy of watching the matches, especially after wins, was switching between the various news channels to hear what the experts had to say accompanied by the many replays of particular moments. They were wondering whether to go to Mani Square (a biggish mall with, I assume, large screens airing the match for free) or Tiljala (a neighbourhood known for its notoriety in the 60s and 70s, according to my mother) for today’s match. The older man was trying to convince the younger man, boy, really, to come to Tiljala. But what is there in Tiljala, the boy kept asking. Oh, you come, and I’ll show you something wonderful, the older man would laughingly say. The second time he conceded there was an ashram there which he was keen to take that young boy to. I’m not exactly sure how an ashram is related to cricket,lol!

All this to say that the Bihari/Bhojpuri accent, coupled with their way of delivering speech, makes language sound warm, endearing, and straight from the heart. Every word sounds like a verbal hug. You’ll have to imagine what that sounds like 🙂


*Certain liberties have been taken with the dates. It could also have been the 1996 World Cup, or some cricket series in 1994. All three years made an appearance during the conversation but my memory chose to be all Oral History** about recollecting the sequence of their appearance.

** Oral history, with its privileging of narratives recounted from memory which often contradict officially recorded ‘facts’ and timelines, and their own facts and timelines with every re-telling, used to frustrate me when I first encountered it as an undergraduate student of literature taking a compulsory concurrent course in history.  Later, as an MPhil student, it began to really teach me about how we think about ‘what was/is’ and how much of our history gets written by privileging a few versions of the ‘truth’ as opposed the many that exist. I now find its premise to be a very valuable tool in knowing how to listen to other people before making sense of a problem, a situation or a picture.

What just hit me?

11 Mar

There I was, trying to work on my dissertation, failing to do so and merrily googling ‘hairstyles for long, unmanageable hair’, when I got an emailed submission for the feminist blog that I am a section editor for. Her bio, which we require, included a link to her blog. Always happy to click on a blog (and having just finished a satisfying perusal of hairstyles I intend to try out this week), I clicked.

And that’s when I felt as if a huge truck had just come out of nowhere and slammed into me. I should probably not use this similie, as the closest I’ve come to realising what this feels like is when I was actually almost run over by a speeding scooter. In Goa. My fault, entirely. Anyway! What I was saying is that I clicked on the blog and I see that its mission is to expose the endemic misogyny of Calcutta. Her words, not mine, and I’m not quoting or linking because I don’t want this to show up on search. Anonymity and all that, remember? 🙂

This is so not the Calcutta I know and have experienced. And I know that there are many other Calcuttas outside of my experience, as indeed is the case for every city and every incident. But gosh, really? So much anger, so much bitterness, such a focussed lens, such a…mission…to expose…

I’m conflicted about how to think about this. I identify as a feminist; I know the experiences she states DID actually happen to her and there is no way I want to negate or minimise that; I know that critics of feminism (and there is a whole spectrum of them, just as there is a whole spectrum of feminisms) might say she is creating a mountain of a molehill, that she’s delusional or negative or whatever, but that’s not what I’m saying. I’m struggling to put my finger on why that blog, or that mode of thinking, is just so WRONG. I feel it at a soulular level, that its wrong (and I don’t mean morally). I’ve felt the same earlier about similar narratives of class violence and caste violence.

I think what I’m trying to say is that-

1) The world is full of a lot of crap. If you go digging, you can go on forever without ever emerging for light and air. This is not to say that a desire for light and air means you just brush the crap under the carpet.

2) Light and air is our goal. We are Divine Beings, the world around us is a Divine creation with a purpose of leading us to the Love.

3) We need to focus on light and air, like we need to breathe. And when this attempt is made in tune with Divine discipleship, it results in an effort that doesn’t lead to amnesia about what is wrong in this world.

4) Thoughts have a tremendous power to create reality. I firmly believe this now. A happy, positive outlook creates a happier, more agreeable world.

5) If I’m looking to see love and acceptance, I will. If I’m looking to see persecution I will. This is irrespective of what is ‘out there’. Because what is ‘out there’ has a very real connection with what is ‘up there'(in our minds I mean).

6) There has got to be a better way, a less violent way, to express the crap we deal with sometimes. Because words and lenses too can be violent if they are so steeped in negativity.

Also, a part of me wants to only see the Calcutta of free movement and gentle people that I so far have been seeing, because it fits into how I wish to continue relating to the city.

Ok, that’s it. Now on to some dissertation reading.

Funny Friday

22 Feb

Next time you want to be treated to tea and the would-be treater refuses to oblige, do what I saw these two young men do today. Hoist her/him onto your shoulders and bodily transfer her/him to the tea stall. Ignore by-stander who may or may not comment on how this hauling process resembles a ‘hori-bol’ procession, or a (Hindu?) funeral procession (ferrying the dead body on a minimum of four shoulders).

At the Centre today, a three day international conference began on feminist theory. At the lunch table I overhear a member of the audience asking another, “So what are you working on?”

“Body and disease”, says he.

“That is SO interesting!” says she.

I’m snickering into my plate because I can only imagine students of social science getting excited about disease: the more screwed up the better! It’s a bit like those scenes in Grey’s Anatomy where Christina Yang openly celebrates the horriblest ER cases (because she gets to do them!) whereas some of the other doctors feel morally obliged to show a little restraint even though, inwardly, the more the mangling, the more the rejoicing!)


The Bengali challenge to Copernicus-and the Calcutta Book Fair

3 Feb

So you thought the sun was at the centre of the universe?



K.C. Paul begs to differ.



My mum tells me these signboards of his (outside the Kalighat Metro Station in South Calcutta) are atleast as old as her college days in the city.


He’s still going strong. At the Calcutta Book Fair, he hired a crier (unless this is him) to advertise his theory.

Edited on 25 February 2014 to add: The gent is indeed Mr. K.C. Paul.


Speaking of the Calcutta book fair, look at the books being sold outside of it, near the Science City.



I love how things leak in Calcutta: books out of the Book Fair, addas (conversations) onto streets, good humour in rush hour metro/bus rides…

Shadow and Light

29 Jan




Bolaka, the heritage tram. She has a sister, the Bonolata.



Thanks to fieldwork (for my dissertation), I’ve got to see more of the city than I otherwise would have.



I’ve also hung out alone on a foot overbridge, watching traffic pass by. It’s an awesome feeling!

Calcutta Photo Logs

26 Jan


Look what my morning began with! A new five rupee coin, commemorating the State Bank of India. 1806-2012, I think it says. Too bad the phone cam has zero macro capabilities: all I managed to-sort of- capture was the State Bank logo.

I’m a collector. I collect fun things, some with value, mostly valueless. My lovelies have modest homes-the pages of my diary, my person etc. This coin though is destined for a far more colourful resting place. It will share space with a Bangladeshi coin in this-


This is how our Liquid Petroleum Gas comes packed: in a beautiful red gas cylinder. But this is made of clay. I’d add, ‘obviously’, except for the fact that when I first saw this-


Outside the Khadi Gram Udyog in Chandni Chowk, I really thought this happy man was selling mini cylinders. When I saw-



Fishes and pumpkins and this little baby hovering around, I doubled back for another look. This gentleman with the mad hair, pan stained smile and golden hooped ears was selling piggy banks-with a difference. You put your money in them and when you think your done saving, you smash it open. That must make it somehow more satisfying. He really was a happy, carefree man. I asked him where he’s from, and he said he gets these from Krishnanagar. Where does he usually sit? Whereever he pleases. He roams the city and sits whereever he wishes to that day. I couldn’t help but think of the song ‘Ami Ek Jajabor’. It’s hard work, but there is something so romantic and free about being a nomad, a footloose pheriwala.


This artist prefers to keep his workshop stationary though. He models little blobs of clay into little Ganesh/horse/etc incense holders at the bus stop outside the Ramakrishna Mission Seva Pratishthan Hospital, better known as Shishu Mangal, on Lansdowne Place Rd (near Kalighat). You can see him in the mornings, though by afternoon he’s off.


This man is also from Krishnanagar. Today he was on the footpath along Ultadanga (which is home to a wide variety of very interesting books, food and knick knacks) selling these items carved from bulls horns.


Just a few paces ahead, a tempo was being unloaded of crates and crates of Old Monk. Old Monk mixed with coke is, if I am not mistaken, a favourite drink of proud commies.



The White House doesn’t like commies. Neither does the Pentagon. Last week, I found out that Burrabazar, the huge wholesale market area near Howrah, is home to both. It is also home to a Turban Tying contest!:D


One photo that I really wish I had captured: an ochre-robed Sadhu carrying a -live!-snake coiled on his arm. In Burrabazar. I blame the lack of presence of mind on the fact that the (live!) snake passed within centimetres of me.


Calcutta is a political city, and a city of political parties. You see protest marches everywhere, almost every day. The banner above is asking for an All India Institute of Medical Sciences in the state. AIIMS is a premier medical research and teaching hospital in Delhi. I didn’t know its model was popular enough to warrant a demand for another one though!

The photo below that amused me because the Communist Party of India (Marxist) flag and the Trinamool Congress flag are REALLY competing for attention at the Gariahat Tram Depot 😀

Some more photos.



Yes, that’s a horse. In the middle of the road. 😀