Recently, Anupam Roy was asked: what are three things you like about Calcutta.
Anupam quickly responded, ‘do I have to say only three?’
Something similar happened in a Mrinal Sen interview. The eyes of the old man twinkled with joy as he described the ‘great city’. He explained how it shaped his journey into the world of cinema.
There are uncountable songs, films, and literature celebrating Calcutta. From Satyajit Ray’s Calcutta Trilogy to Anjan Dutta, Kabir Suman’s Ode to the Amar Shahar (my city); there is something in this place that inspired generations of creative geniuses.
So what is in Calcutta after all? Non-Calcuttans ask me this question all the time. Sometimes, even Calcuttans do.
Here is a leaf out of my Calendar in ‘Mahanagar’. It is a piece of the city; bit of peace of my heart.
Use it wisely.
February – Books!
Calcutta International book fair; a festival that lasts for more than 5 days (and that is saying something. Even Durga Puja is for 5 days).
I used to, literally, ‘live’ in the fair from noon to night, for the better part of the week. It is a meeting place of creative people, from all across the globe.
Little Magazine conclave is exhilarating in its own right. Apart from experimental literature, it is the hub for anti-establishment undercurrents of the city. Young (and not-so-young) men and women plot tirelessly to topple the all-powerful state.
Then there is Momart, the artist’s hub. There are book vendors who read! You will meet ‘real people’ who have unchartered continents expression and words in their heart.
Pro-tip: The resounding success of the Book Fair speaks volumes about the city. But, as I said, one must ‘live’ in the book fair to feel its pulse. That should be your first stop.
March – Saraswati
Saraswati Puja marks the ‘end’ of an incessant Puja cycle that begins with Durga Puja. Some say it is the Bengali Valentines Day.
But there is another aspect to it.
Organizing Puja is like a management internship. Durga Puja is too big for kids to handle. It is organized by the seasoned players of the community (Kaka, Jyatha, Mashi, Mama).
Kali Puja is reserved for the more energetic youth.
However, Saraswati Puja sets the ground for young talent. It is a festival organized by kids. The preparation usually begins early. This is the ‘cutest’ phase of the process and lasts for about a fortnight. Young school and college students run around the block with their demands for donation, advise and helping hand. Elders usually comply with a warm smile.
Singers, dancers and theatre people would begin their rehearsals for a little homely ‘cultural program’. Colors from Holi would only add more flavors to the season.
Pro tip: Join the Saraswati Puja preparation in Kolkata a week early. Experience the imperfect process in which the community comes together. Religion has a very little role in it.
April – Poila Boisakh
Poila Boisakh (the first day of Bengali New Year), is usually celebrated with some cultural activity.
Many Puja Committees begin preparing for Durga Puja at this time. Kumartoli (the idol makers) start their work on Poila Boisakh as well. The traders arrange for Haalkhata. Many publishers release new volumes on this occasion.
Pro-tip: Take a walk in Bagbazar ghat with your photographer friend, or drive at night to Rupnarayan with your music-loaded, hookah infested gang.
April is also a launching season for new theatres all across the city. Go to Minerva or Madhusudan Mancha for some new production. Also, try the Third Theatre wave that is making some noise again.
May – Pochishe Boisakh
Did you ever speak to a Bengali? Then you may have (with pain) come across the idea of ‘Tagore’!
‘Who is this guy’, you must have wondered?! He seems to be as popular as Honey Singh or Dhinchyak Pooja. The only difference is, Tagore died about 77 years ago! His popularity only seems to grow among the Bengalis.
Most annoyingly (for many non-Bengalis), Rabindranath Tagore comes up in a conversation within the first 10 minutes, if there are more than one Bengali in the room.
May marks the birthday of Tagore. All around the city, and in small local communities, people celebrate his music, plays, and poetries.
Pro-tip: Put a few Bongs in the cauldron, throw in some alcohol and simmer it with Tagore songs. Weird stuff will happen
Pro-tip 2: You may not know Tagore.
The barbaric tribes of Germania did not care about Plato or Euclid either. Though they lived at the same time, within a stone’s throw from ancient Greece.
Ignorance is bliss.
June – Darjeeling
It is very hot! Just take a break.
Darjeeling is the queen of the hills. I have experiences with American or Scottish hills. Those are nothing compared to the Himalayas.
Pro-tip: Experience a Victorian cup of tea at Keventers, while browsing through a Bibhutibhushan novel. Let some Anjan Dutta music (or Nepali music) fill in the morning breeze.
July – Hilsa, Monsoon
It is not an accident that most Bengali songs are based on monsoon. It is a statistically unverified fact that you may or may not believe.
But it is true.
Rain and rivers trigger some unimaginable emotion in a Bengali heart. Only Tagore knew this secret.
Perhaps the only thing that is more poetic than monsoon, is its crop: Hilsa. No kidding!
Pro-tip: Take a short drive to Bolpur. Visit the banks of Kopai river. Do nothing (for God’s sake).
August – Hok Kolorob
If you have never challenged the government, never fought with the police, never put up posters of revolution, then you are missing out my friend.
Every ounce of freedom comes with a constantly vigilant citizenry.
In Calcutta, the ‘powerful’ is challenged at every step. Unlike many other places, you simply cannot bulldoze people like filth, in this city. This is a rebel-infested country, my dear.
We took to the streets, sang songs, put up posters and made the life of the government miserable. Sometimes ‘we the people’ are defeated. At other times we win.
This had a revolutionary effect on Indian History. For example, the ‘made-in-Britain’, land acquisition act of 1894 was toppled by a recent movement. The made-in-College Street Naxalites (of the 1970s) are still giving the Ambanis a hard time.
Pro-tip: Visit Jadavpur University. Pause at World View or Jhilpaar. Interact with the students. And just for the heck of it, shout ‘Jay sree ram’ out loud. Trust me, interesting things will happen
September – October – Ma Ashchhe!
Para is NOT community just as religion is not DHARMA (or puri is not LUCHI).
Durga Puja is more than a religious festival. It is a cultural expression. The legendary Para-culture of Calcutta becomes alive again at this time. For days and months, kids, young people and elders of the Para prepare for this one occasion.
There are sleepless nights and countless days of togetherness and angry mothers yelling…’aniiiiii’ (translates to: ‘come back to home at once for food, sleep, and other useless stuff’).
Artsy folks rehearse for months. The Puja is usually followed up by a cultural event consisting of music, dance, theatre. This is the launch pad for many new talents.
Pro-tip: Visit a housing complex puja. Let the committee know that you wish to volunteer. Try the Dhunuchi dance on Navami night. It’s literally dancing with fire.
November – world cinema is here
Calcutta International Film Festival is perhaps as big as Book Fair these days.
I remember literally living in Nandan and Academy ‘chottor’ (area) in that November week. My mother used to take me to the festival. Gorky Sadan hosted an Adventure Film Festival as well.
The film festival is immediately followed up by Theatre fests all across the town. Hundreds of groups come up with fresh productions.
I remember watching several movies, back to back, every day. There are movies from Iran, Argentina, Japan, France, and other places in India. They would enchant you, make you think and even enrage your inner-self against all that is wrong.
Pro-tip: Get immersed in the stream of movie buffs intoxicated by marijuana and dimer chop at Academy. Go to the canteen, at the backend, for some truly out-of-world conversations.
December – January
It is time to go for a trek! Or visit Rajasthan for a Sonar Kella ride.
If you are in Kolkata, celebrate Christmas in Bow Barack and Park Street, buy cakes from Nahoum, take a day trip to Monchasa near Kanthi or keep on having great, mind-numbing conversations in Coffee House and Favorite Cabin.
Pro-tip: Winter is a perfect time for some more revolution as well. Join some student activists for a postering campaign. You will find them in the College Street area for free.
The three key ingredients of Calcutta are CONVERSATIONS, CREATIVITY, and DEFIANCE.
At any given time you will find tons of Nerudas, Derridas, and Feludas lurking around narrow alleyways of College Street, Academy, and Jadavpur. They will enchant you with poetries, invigorate you with dreams of revolution and insist that you read Tagore.
Then they will defy and criticize Tagore as well and quickly switch over to Suman.
Come to Calcutta. Escape the stupidity of passionless, shallow conversations. Defy the mindless commodity fetishism and selfish individualism.
If nothing else works, read Tagore and fall in love with a Bong. It is extremely dangerous but outright worth rooting for