Shades of belonging
Amreeta Sen

Memory’s Gold — Writings on Calcutta
Ed. Amit Chaudhuri.
Pages 532. Rs 699.

IT is an "overpowering tale" (Hey Man, Calm Down by Ulrike Draesner); "memories preserved in the minds of old people", (A Place Called Calcutta by Shaheen Akhtar); "elephants coming down B.K. Pal Avenue at one in the morning", (Coming Home by Sandipan Chattopadhyay); "my dreamscape, my nightmare, my birthplace", (Durga-Daughter, Durga-Ma by Anita Roy) `85 yes, Calcutta has a unique place among the cities of the world.

And yet, this anthology, which brings together essays, stories, and memories of what this city was, is and what the authors have wanted it to be, has not quite captured the essence. It cannot, maybe. A facet here, a memory there is caught and polished and handed to the reader. We glean what we can from it. Sometimes we turn away in disgust, but it is fascinated disgust. We return to this place, grubbed out from the dirt of the world and crowned with the diamond-dust of mirth. Calcutta laughs from pock-marked faces, from deep-set eyes. It laughs at itself. And we, reader and authors, are caught in this frenzy.

From Henry Meredith in the early 19th-century "Instead of fountains, scummy tanks, emitting smells unsavoury", to Tagore’s tales of his childhood home, " `85 I would stand watching, entranced, clutching the rails of the southern balcony`85" to late 20th-century writers, both Indian and foreign, Memory’s Gold brings to us a city at once magical and forbidding.

A city of "dreadful streets", where the terrible Goddess Kali strolls, tongue lolling out, madness and mischief in her fiery eyes. Where palaces exist side-by-side cremation ghats and where refugees are accorded the same status as citizens. Where throats can be slit over a game and fortunes lost over a memory. A city which glows alive during five days of fervent worship of the Goddess Durga and her children, and then draws back into lethargy.

A city which celebrates with fervour the dawning of the New Year `85 "The English celebrate New Year in great style. They ring in the new with paan and nuts like the ritual welcoming of the new bride, and ring out the old with drunken revelry `85" Hootum Pyanchar Naksha, Kaliprasanna Singha. What was true in the 19th century stands true even today.

Calcutta celebrates with gusto but is indifferent to the filth in which it grovels. A city which does not care, but again cares too much. A city which belongs to demented poets, which aches with the various shades of belonging. Where do I belong? And if I leave, can I go back? And to what form of Calcutta will I go back too? The sparkling laughter dewed enchantment? Or the dull gnawing lethargy of misery and indifference? There are two pains here. One is that of wanting to escape and the other, the terror of the exile, wandering forever, torn out from his roots.

As Buddhadeva Bose, one of the foremost poets of modern Bengal, burst out poignantly from distant Mysore: "My sorrow in being away from you will be calmed, if someday/in a distant land, before my death I hear at least this much—/that you did not play deceptive tricks on the hungry, did not mock beauty,/did not force your talented ones into exile."

Summer heat which tears flesh from the bones, so that the season is reduced to a cruel walk of gasping skeletons; the intoxicating monsoon described so vividly by Sunetra Gupta (Disappearances), the sky blue gentleness of azure autumn skies ushering in Calcutta’s annual exuberant Mother-Daughter worship — all make up this book. The feel of a city, a celebration of life underlines the writings. Pain, despair, betrayal, anger, yearning, belonging and renewal — all that comes to the fore. Calcutta, garnished with sores and poetry is in every page. An inspirational read. An ode to a city not fully grasped, not yet understood, not always forgiven ...