The magnanimous extent of old Calcutta is in the wake of modernity but an incongruous outline of the last monumental visage of colonial elitism resplendently shouldered by the bhadraloks of Bengal. A branch of the maternal half of my family have lived and breathed its classic beauty handed down through three generations of men, pioneers in their field of expertise. Although North Calcutta is the quintessential abode of this antiquity, demarcating it sharply from the more modernised southern half, the currents of the archaic strain have washed over the oldest locality of the south- Bhawanipore.
Cloistered in one of the corners of what would have now been a hundred and eighty-two-year-old stronghold of the past, I have personally witnessed the sweeping technological progress that has increasingly changed the architectural makeup of this place. Our generation would have been gratified to access the forum mall on Elgin road not to mention the numerous other aggrandised commercial brands that have become a household name after the liberalisation of the Indian economy. My grandmother would instead sneer at the superficiality of the uncultured west passing its venomous vulgarity of an ethos to the present generation. To her, the British amalgamation with the intellectual Bengali heritage was the best representation of the Calcuttan spirit. With lavish estates yielding to economising high-rises, I often questioned her where the allegiance of Bhawanipore lay in this binary choice of siding with either the old or the new. To me, she would respond in a patronising tone glorifying the old Calcutta although not pithily being a part of it. “I’d like to imagine Bhawanipore is the last remaining buffer-zone before the torrent of modernity rattles the gates of the Old Calcutta of the North.” My grandmother was extant of her generation stubbornly defending the legacy of her forefathers who would have unflinchingly stood against this renovation if they had been alive. “We’re storytellers,” she’d say pragmatically, “we have a glorious burden of upholding an identity so intrinsic to Calcutta whether it belongs Derozio or Satyajit Ray.” I for one have never felt an attachment so deep-rooted to the dilapidating red brick walls of the house although I understand the subliminal intimacy with the monoliths that have now become the vanguard of the same legacy. Whether it was the guided walks to the Mahabodhi Society or the self-navigated lanes of College street; whether it was getting lost innumerable times in Jadubabu’s Bazar or splurging on Charles Dickens at ‘Seagull’, Bhawnipore was a strong resonance of the North although being the geographical adherent of the South.
“Why, you have been named after Russa Road yourself”, one of the few subtle attempts my grandmother made to persuade my opinions to her advantage and bring a close to the debate. Of course, some fabrications of her nuances I could look past, given that Buddhadeb Guha’s ‘Modhukori’ says otherwise. I guess my academic journey at Jadavpur University left her violated as against my sister’s in the Loreto College, such that she often termed me as ‘Ghawr shotru Bibhishon.’* I don’t know whether half the sentiments tied to the old Calcutta is for the marvelous colonial architecture and the octogenarian remnants who have seen their lives assume myriad roles from one political era to another but they keep telling me that there’s something about this side of paradise with its indelible outmoded charm that does not elude your senses. The mere written descriptions of a city unadulterated through time illustrate a kind of affinity you never knew you had with this place. Even if one has not been a lifelong member of its lanes and alleyways, they automatically become a shared inheritor of that fragmented past they have never lived. The Calcutta unabashed is the invariable singularity of one life experienced through the souls of many. The ground beneath those feet has weathered the storms of irrevocable refurbishment and still retained its ecstatic nostalgia. Something about it keeps you captivated. And as my friend had appropriately put it, the brick and concrete might be bleak but the stories they hold are not.
*Ghawr shotru Bibhishon- Brother to the demon god Ravan, Bibhishon had turned over to Lord Rama’s side because he was disgusted with the violent and unethical treatment of his people and Lady Sita by Ravan and his henchmen.
In the idiomatic expression, the phrase applies to a turn-coat or a traitor who was vested with enormous faith and responsibility and considered a loyal part of something he later turned against.
P.S – all my friends at Jadavpur mischievously call me the same in their own right, for my unbridled allegiance to something now clarified with this blog post.