The calcutta connection


The calcutta connection. Calcutta - Kolkata, the new name given to it makes it quite alien to us as we got used to the old name ever since childhood.

Calcutta - Kolkata, the new name given to it makes it quite alien to us as we got used to the old name ever since childhood. The first acquaintance with it was through a children’s book on Rabindranath Tagore entitled “Pillala Tagore” which was published by National Book Trust and translated into Telugu by my father. The imaginary adventures of the boy Tagore in the old palanquin at their palatial house, Jorasanko Thakur Bari and his grappling with the Bengali prosody quite naturally haunted this budding creative writer for a long time.

My acquaintance with Calcutta for the second time was through the works of Sarath. The illustrious Sarath Chandra Chattopadhyay had become the popular household writer Sarath babu to the Telugu people due to the great translator, Bondalapati Sivaramakrishna of the renowned Desi Publications. Telugu book readers ad me in particular are forever indebted to that translator par excellence. When I went to my aunt’s house during the summer vacations after writing my S. S .C examination in 1972, by a curious stroke of luck, I found the complete works of Sarath in Telugu translation in my uncle’s library. Calcutta was to Sarath what St. Petersburg was to Dostoyevsky, London was to Charles Dickens and Paris to Victor Hugo and River Mississippi was to Mark Twain. The seamy side of it presented in ‘Charithraheen’ and the spiritual dimensions of it portrayed in ‘Vipradas’ complimented each other perfectly. His ‘Devadas’ studied there, ‘Srikanth’ stayed there for considerable time and it had been the nerve centre of entire fictitious world of Sarath.
Calcutta became dearer to me due to the stories of Ichchapurapu Jagannadharao, a renowned Telugu short story writer. Some of his stories of Sujatha and Jagan, a married couple, have Calcutta as the setting in addition to Agra. I read these stories scores of times when I was a bachelor as he created them as an ideal modern couple and Sujatha was conceived as the ideal wife that young men dream to have. Sujatha is fond of Rosagullas and Jagan finds it difficult to get them for her as they are sold out every day.
I learnt that IJ Rao worked as a Customs officer and was posted in Calcutta where he stayed for a few decades. It took some years for me to realize that Calcutta was closer to the North- East districts of Andhra Pradesh like Srikakulam and Vizianagaram and the people of those regions went to Calcutta for education and employment especially during the pre- independence days as we, the people of the south-east districts like Chittor and Nellore went to Chennai.
To visit Calcutta had been one of my ambitions that I could fulfill when I took a day’s break from a seminar I was attending in Guwahati three years back. A friend helped me book accommodation at Sri Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture. It was a huge quadrangular building and I reached there in the evening. The room was spacious and simple very much like that of an ashram. I saw many foreigners in the dining room and they were all serious, well-mannered and cultured. I was surprised to find fish being served there and all of them ate it. Then I remembered that fish was staple diet to all the Bengalis and even Brahmins there eat fish. Some of the people in our region call them Jalapushpalu which means flowers of the water.
I had a sound sleep after the day’s travel and I was woken up by a call early in the morning. When I opened my door, I saw an institute staff with a big trolley in front of him. He poured hot water into a big mug containing tea leaves and placed it on a tray and handed it over to me. There was a big bowl of milk on the tray and the tea I prepared for myself was fresh and tasty. But I was amazed to find people drinking so much tea every time.
Later, I telephoned a friend who once promised to be my guide in Calcutta. He informed me that we weren’t allowed to travel through the city till 3 O’ clock in the afternoon as a municipal election was held on that day. So I had to sit behind a window, watch a small stretch of road and recollect many incidents that took place in similar surroundings in many novels like ‘Gora’. My friend came to me only at 4 pm and took me to the Howrah Bridge. As the 3rd-longest cantilever bridge in the world, it serves as the gateway to Kolkata, connecting it to the Howrah Station carrying the near entirety of the traffic to and from the station, taking its average daily traffic close to nearly 150,000 pedestrians and 100,000 vehicles. Then he took me to the head quarters of Sri Ramakrishna Math at Belur. I was thrilled to walk on the land on which two great modern Indian saints walked a few decades back. The majestic prayer halls and the temples dedicated to Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda in which their relics are enshrined, and the main monastery of the Ramakrishna Order on banks of the river Hooghly (Ganges) reflected the ancestry of the Indian spirituality and the throng of people who sat there singing and chanting reminded me of the unbroken extension of it.
Then we went to Dakshineswar Kali temple situated on the eastern bank of the Hooghly river. The presiding deity of the temple is Bhavatarini, an aspect of Kali, meaning, 'She who liberates Her devotees from the ocean of existence i.e. Samsāra'. It is always fascinating to observe the strength people derive from their faith in God and it was wonderful to find out the same spirit in all the devotees congregated there.
By the time we reached Jorosanko, it was closed and I could only get a peep at it from a distance. When we were returning to Institute of Culture I heard people singing and chanting Bhajans in many places though I couldn’t locate the places where they assembled. I requested my friend to take me to a sweet shop called Madhuri from which Jagan the protagonist in the stories of I J Rao used to buy rosagullas for his wife Sujatha. He looked perplexedly for some time and then took me to a street-side sweet shop. Besides the rosagullas, I also tasted Sandesh . When I was heading towards my boarding, I began to search for the padadhuli (Specter of dust of the feet) of Sarath and the nest which Rabindranath Tagore conceived as the home for the entire world.
(The writer is a bilingual short story writer, novelist and poet, who writes in Telugu and English)
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