By Srirupa Dhar
Today I share a new dynamic in my relationship with Kolkata. It is the city where I was born and grew up. I still perceive it as “the City of Joy,” but with a difference. What still most attracts me about Kolkata is the life on its streets. It is a very happening place: a myriad of sights, sounds and smells rendering it its powerful eventfulness. As a resident of the United States for 17 years, there is not one day in my life when I don’t think of this breathing liveliness. Even if I don’t think about it in a day of hectic schedule, I certainly see it in my dreams. And I have a very strong affinity for movies such as Maach, Mishti and More and Kahaani. I can watch them again and again simply to feel the energy animating the streets of Kolkata. I have explored and walked those streets in my early youth with my friends. The places closest to my heart are those around College Street. College Street still holds a romance for me. It is the street that was so much a part of my life when I was a student in Presidency College and Kolkata University. The way to Auxilium Convent School (where I received my secondary education) also evokes happy and innocent memories.
Such memories became more soulful when they were relived through the eyes of my son, Abhik. In the summer of 2014, when we visited Kolkata, I took my twelve-year-old son on a bus ride. In Kolkata, I make it a point to occasionally use public transport. That helps me feel the pulse of my native city. This time I decided to do the same with Abhik. So, there we were, both mother and son, on one of those white buses from Dunkuni to Bangur Avenue. It was an hour’s ride that provided enough food for thought for both of us. Memories came flooding to me when I saw the bus stops: Dum Dum Station or Nager Bazaar.
Abhik saw these places through a different lens. The murky streets, the overwhelming crowds both on the buses and the roads opened to my little boy a world he had never experienced before. Previously, Abhik never felt the life on the Kolkata streets while sitting in an air-conditioned car. This time the city came alive! That morning he was closely aware of the Kolkata people trying to lead their daily lives. The crowds they had to elbow through, the screams they had to face and retaliate with, the ceaseless rush they had to embrace to board a bus: all of these emerged as a breathless war to him. A war they must fight; or else they won’t meet even their mundane needs. Abhik told me how it saddened him to see those faceless crowds clamoring for a little space in the sweltering heat. Sitting at the bus window, he found it hard to fathom the everyday challenges of a city his mother is so much in love with. He called the Kolkata people, “everyday heroes.”
Heroes they are! Their ceaseless energy comes through as they run to board a bus that is already overcrowded. Such a scene looks revolting, but the people never stop fighting this battle. They beat the unforgiving heat and carry on with this struggle. Abhik could not but admire the resilience in these people. Had the spirit of the city been different, it would have easily lost itself in a mindset that is wholly enervating. The people of Kolkata are unconquerable. They have a sense of defiance against the cruel physical conditions they encounter every day. And therein lies their real heroism.
Abhik observed that these people were undergoing an ongoing struggle. After boarding the bus the passengers grappled with a new problem. They had to face the challenge of just making enough space simply to stand somehow clinging on to a support. However, the cramped space failed to suppress the energy of the people. Each individual continued to accommodate himself/herself in the confined space dominated by multitudes. Abhik perceived this to be a brave acceptance of the dreary realities of life. He told me that he wondered what life actually signified for those people on the roads as well as on the bus. Could life mean just living to survive? Or, did this huge effort to survive the onslaught of regular life enable them to find out who they were? Was this self-seeking fraught with a meaningful energy? Abhik came up with certain answers in the process of asking such questions. It struck him that these people were not just sedately caught in the drudgeries of life. They might be a small part of an entire struggling canvas, but, through their invulnerability, they emerged as distinctive individual entities. They all had immense potency to combat their difficult lives. No one in this throng gave up the spirit to go on. And that was what made each of them come alive as a hero.
As I heard my son spell out his observations, I started seeing the city in a new light. All these years, Kolkata occupied a special space in my memory. It was always the city that bubbled with vitality. Now I began to feel that my birthplace was much more than just a memory. When Abhik spoke of the heroism of the ordinary people of Kolkata, I felt that they have indeed created a space for themselves even though it may seem that they passed off as complete nondescripts unobserved and unappreciated by anyone. But here was a twelve year-old boy born and raised in a faraway different land admiring them for who they were. He saw how a mother desperately tried to keep her little child from getting suffocated in the crowded bus. The mother herself found it difficult to hold on to anything that would prevent her from losing her balance when the bus came to a sudden halt. But she made sure that her child was safe. She lived up to the role of a mother: so dependable, reassuring and self-effacing. This self-effacement of the mother vowed for the identity of her humanity. Abhik also observed an elderly, almost hunchbacked man trying to get off the bus with great difficulty. There was a passenger precariously hanging on the steps of the bus entrance. He could fall off the bus on to the street any moment. But when he saw the hunchbacked old man fruitlessly endeavoring to dismount, he held the old man’s shaking hands and got off the bus with him. The hanging man would certainly be late to his destination (probably his workplace). But even at that rushed, berserk moment, he chose to help someone in need. That was a thoughtful gesture. An instinctive urge to be humane.
Abhik was deeply touched to see these shared fellow-feelings even in such mad moments. He realized that humanity is so intrinsic to our nature that even cruel situations like these, which many people face every day, do not take away the power of innate goodness. I too felt that the strength in these people came from both the goodness engrained in them and the willingness to put up with the adversities of life. Previously, I loved Kolkata purely for its energy. This time I had a deeper insight into the meaning of that energy. I saw that this was still the “City of Joy” because it is empowered with this strong urge to live and keep on living, no matter what. A superficial view of the overpopulated city might reveal a severe lack of physical space. But in truth, the city lives on because its people have internalized a space for themselves. This space is in their minds kindling in them the zestful rhetoric to live.
So, there I was, sharing a new relationship with Kolkata. I felt immensely complete when Abhik found the streets so richly alive in spite of their loveless dirt. It was a happy find for me because I saw that my son had a new perspective. He saw how real people live. And Kolkata now became the metaphor of life for me in a renewed sense. I could believe in this place that so many people de-glorify as “a dying city.”
Kolkata is not dead. It breathes the genesis of strength, courage, fortitude. The streets of Kolkata have many tales to tell, all of which redefine the power to live. A power that stirs the inner resonances of the humble, homely and creative legacy of a beautiful old city. Ever since that bus ride with my son, the streets of Kolkata don’t just epitomize a youthful excitement to me. Now, I see my vibrant hometown as the proud icon of the elemental impulses of goodness that we all share. A natural benevolence that remains unsullied even in today’s jostling, aggressive hustle of life. After all, life is a promise.
Srirupa Dhar is Indian by birth and has been living in the United States since 1998. She completed her M.A. and M.Phil. in English Literature at the University of Kolkata, India. She obtained another Master’s degree in English with Technical Writing Certification from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, U.S.A. Srirupa taught as a Lecturer in the Department of English at Bethune College, Kolkata. She has also been a Middle School English teacher in Columbus, Ohio. She is a voracious reader and takes an avid delight in all genres of art. Occasionally, she acts in plays in Columbus, where she is part of an amateur dramatic society.
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