Long distance relationships often turn passive-aggressive. Non-resident Calcuttans’ relationship with the city is no exception. Away from Calcutta, on a social networking site, they profess their unwavering love for the city in passionate words — even in verse, sometimes. Most feel “nostalgic” about Calcutta’s street food and rickshaws, Coffee House and other eateries, lanes and bylanes, fish and sweets, politics and poverty. They also feel “terrible”, “angry” and “down” for not being able to get enough holidays to visit the city.
Distance is a great catalyst for longing. And this longing, in turn, creates fantasies. A Calcutta very different from the real city, therefore, lives on in the imagination of the ever-growing population of out-of-city Calcuttans. It is sometimes made up of the traditional icons associated with the city — like phuchka or trams, for example. For some, the fantasies are created with images from a past life in the city.
When on short trips to the city, non-resident Calcuttans manage to keep this fantastical city alive in their minds by remaining comfortably detached. But, like every fantasy, this one too is shattered by prolonged encounters with reality. The long-distance lover of Calcutta begins to realize how difficult it is to get a taxi in the rush hours, how filthy the roadside eateries can be, how irritating the traffic jams can get, how treacherous the clerks are in public service departments, and how deplorable the condition of civic amenities in some parts of the city. He or she, in no time, starts bad-mouthing Calcutta — the very long-lost lover he or she had been yearning for on social networking sites. And if the stay is stretched long enough, one may even find the same person longing in quite the same way to get out of the city on the same social networking site.
There is also a parallel trend — that of ruing that the city’s ‘flavour’ isn’t the same anymore. There is always a lot of talk about how things aren’t quite as they ‘used to be’. Not only non-residents but residents, too, participate in this melancholy. This is no new trend either— it is at least as old as the song, “Coffee House-er shei adda ta aaj aar nei”. I went to Coffee House recently. As I sat sipping my Infusion, the adda going on all around made it quite apparent that the statement in the song mentioned above is only circumstantially true. The author of the song was referring to “shei adda” — a particular adda etched in memory. But Bengalis, across generations, use this song as a trademark to evoke a wistfulness for a Calcutta that always was and never is.
A city, just a like a person, is an ever-changing entity, always in flux, always made of moments that pass and become memories. As Italo Calvino said, cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears. And they are never constant, never even the same for two different people. A city, however, is also a geographical entity, a civic institution. In the case of Calcutta, the fantasizing often obscures this fact.