Inconstant imagery

It was her festival and so everyone was on the streets dressed in their brightest and best.

I saw a riot of coloured saris, flowers and every few 100 yards, there was a statue of her. Sometimes she peeped out from a small pink papier-mache conch shell, or sat on a swing made from gold and marigolds and once, inexplicably, she stood on a pirate ship, a skull and crossbones fluttering on the sail above her head. I should have realised then that nothing stays constant in Kolkata, certainly not first impressions. 
Still hoping for more informed perceptions, I enlisted a Bengali friend to give me an orientation of the city — but within half-an-hour, there were polished marble, five-star floors and rubbish crawling with rats. Neither was judged, and the locals, like my friend, moved seamlessly between, taking shortcuts through palatial whitewashed clubs, where women are still not allowed to be members in their own right, and past stacks of wood and plastic bags that turned out to be homes.  

I followed her, disoriented,  and took  a short ride on the metro rail. She pointed out, how the stations have television screens showing cricket, old football matches and sometimes Charlie Chaplin films.

I showed her the sign that forbade gossiping on the stairs and carrying ‘skin, poultry, dried fish,’ and in a category all of its own, ‘a dead body’on the trains. “Makes sense,” she said and shrugged, “the train stops at the burning ghat.”

Out again, we took another shortcut, this time through the Calcutta Film Institute (where signs said there was ‘strictly no sitting on the fence’) to the Academy of Fine Arts.  Inside were stalls selling arts and crafts from all over India.  There were pith workers, weavers and jewellery made of beautiful broken chunks of shells from the Andaman Islands.

There was also Manaranjan Chitarkar, a Kalighat painter, with his images of
Kali — resplendent, as always, with her blue skin and streaming black hair. He also had the longer, more traditional, scrolls I had read about. The visual props for itinerant storytellers who would slowly unfurl the cartoon strip images as they sang or told their tales in the villages. Seeing me look at them Manaranjan explained in a quiet voice, “This is the Mahabharata, this is the Marriage of the Fishes and that is the tsunami.”

The tsunami was personified as a giant’s head, its gaping mouth spewing out
the lethal waters. “I also have a song that goes with it,” he said, “would you like
to hear it?”I said yes, and he took a breath and began to sing. His voice rising, lilting, exquisite, expressing the pain of those caught that day in the black wall of water.

A crowd gathered, attentively listening, young and old, poor and rich — the full mix of society that perhaps Kolkata or communism brings. Something very different in any case from what I was used to with the usual grabbing housewives at the craft fairs in England.

There was I thought, something alluring about this respect, something that spoke of the city, but by then I was too tired to analyse it. The sun had set and so my friend took me to the Olympia bar. It used to be the place to go in her father’s time — full of the financial set and reporters — but it had slipped over the years to be more downmarket.

Recently, to try and reinvent themselves into something more hip, they renamed it Oly bar “but everyone just calls it Oily bar,” she said.  

Low ceilings made those walking in seem like giants and the strip lighting gave them green gills even before they had started drinking. Under my feet, the red carpet had years of ash and mixture ground into it. There were no windows in the brown room, only the hum of several extractor fans trying to suck out the cigarette smoke that hung in the air.  The room slowly filled and generous pegs were poured with a brass measurer, always in front of the customer, who was usually a man, drinking alone. There were few women, only two to be precise, one of whom arrived wearing a baby pink chiffon sari.
She laughed long and hard until the drinks and food arrived.

At first my cool drink slipped down easily, the cold and wet of it satiating my tired senses, but somehow, over time, the stench of the room grew so that my drink  began to taste of it. And then there was a rat-ragged and large - ambling calmly across the floor, so we left.

Just a few minutes walk up Park Street and then down the long sleek black tiled tunnel was the Park Hotel - all polished granite, fountains, cheese toast, nachos and asparagus salad in a chilled air-conditioned cleanliness that felt unreal.

Falling into bed that night and I tried to make sense of all I had seen. I felt Kolkata was a city bursting over the brim, with people, architecture and culture, but the different layers mixed in a way I hadn't seen before on the same street, on the same underground; in a shrug of acceptance and the quiet, respectful attentiveness to a song.  I went to sleep seriously thinking of asking my friend about renting a flat in Kolkata because it seemed to be a place where an outsider might fit unnoticed, or even be welcomed. Frankly I wished I had been born there, and had never left.

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