Saturday, March 8, 2014

Kolkata Vignettes

"With reference to the letter dated march 4, it is unfortunate that a notice has been slapped. No oportunity was given to discuss and sort out the issue..."   I could not help looking at what the bespectacled old gentleman seated next to me was writing.

I had walked in to the Indian coffee house located off college street in the first floor of a decrepit looking building. The scene before me was straight out of an old novel, small tables laid out in no particular order  and occupied by young men and women, most of them, presumably college students. Spacious, high ceilings, waiters dressed in white and wearing turbans, an old wizened man sitting on a tall chair below a large plaque on the wall that displayed the menu - it took me a while to take in the charm of the setting before I made my way to the lone unoccupied table located almost at the centre of the large hall.  

This particular gentleman walked in a few minutes later with a resoluteness that seemed at odds with his years. Seeing that I was perhaps the only person not in a group, he headed toward me and with a gentle nod that said "you wouldn't mind" and seated himself next to me. He proceeded to open his file slowly, went through the sheaf of documents carefully, rearranged it's contents, took out a A4 size sheet and a fountain pen. His manner was graceful and his every movement, so precise that one can't help wonder if he isn't the sort who regularly walks in at that hour to write important letters.  

I imagined my friend sitting with her classmates at the next table, chatting away about Anton Chekhov and DH Lawrence. It was her suggestion that had made me take a taxi to college street...

 Lined with book shops on either side of the road, college street in Kolkata is perhaps the only avenue in the country where books of every imaginable genre could be found. "Dada, dada", at every step, men called out to me seeing opportunity in the curiosity of a passerby. I could find organic chemistry sitting next to philosophy and Tolstoy. Many college students and quite a few middle aged men and women were asking for specific titles and authors...  

On one side of the street, people lined up in rows of 5 with placards. The man at the head of the gathering started shouting a slogan that was quickly taken up. Taxis, autos, a lone tonga, cars and bikes came to a stop and policemen sprung out of nowhere to regulate the group's march and the traffic.  

The previous evening, we had been to Someplace Else, a happening pub at the Park hotel in Park street. At the smoking area, another unique facet of this city was in evidence. Dense clouds of smoke and through them, animated faces were discussing Chelsea and the latest stars of the India under 19 cricket team. A band just began tuning instruments as we left the pub known for it's live music every night.

Surely, this is one city where the simple lies juxtaposed with the sophisticated, the poor rub shoulders with the nouveau riche, the wise old seat themselves next to the vivacious young, tongas and trams wait at signals, intellectuals sip coffee whilst talking to the men next door, Chetan Bhagat occupies space behind Rabindranath Tagore at book shops, men in suits come to pubs and listen to rock music played by young guys wearing simple fashionable kurtas...I can go on, suffuce it to say that it is well and truly, a city of Joy!

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