The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Calcutta is still a place to call one's own

Tucked away in one of the inside pages of the Metro section of The Telegraph on Saturday was a report about a British couple, which may have been missed by all but the most attentive readers of the paper. The report was a straightforward story of a British couple who had come back to Calcutta to celebrate their golden marriage anniversary.

Sir Anthony Hayward and his wife, Jennifer, were married in St Paul's Cathedral on January 3, 1955 and they have come back to the city with their entire family to celebrate their anniversary. They remembered their marriage with a small service at the Cathedral.

There are still a few people around in Calcutta and across India from Cunnoor to Dehra Dun who still remember Tony and Jennifer Hayward ' their graciousness, their generous hospitality, their loyalty to their friends and their enduring love for Calcutta.

Their love for Calcutta is as important as it is poignant since it is that fondness that has brought them back here for their golden marriage anniversary. The Haywards are fortunate to belong to that section of society whose members can go anywhere in the world for a holiday. Yet they come back to Calcutta almost every year. For their marriage anniversary they could have, if they had so wanted, gone to Paris or Venice or any other magical city of Europe. Their choice of Calcutta is, of course, an expression of their loyalty to and fondness for the city where Tony grew up, married and spent his working life. But the choice also says something for our benighted city, much abused but never failing to evoke the strongest bonds of association and attachment.

One aspect of the Haywards' love for Calcutta was pointed out to me with great perspicacity by their daughter, Charlotte. She made me remember the fact that when Tony first came out to India from the Royal Navy in 1948, he left behind him a Britain still recovering from the devastation of the Second World War. Britain was under severe rationing ' from foodstuff to heating, everything was doled out in rations. It was still a society under siege: London was very slowly recovering from the blitz. Most Britons, with their stiff-upper-lip patriotism, did not dream of luxuries although, as readers of John le Carr's A Perfect Spy and viewers of the TV serial Darling Buds of May will recall, there was a flourishing black market for all commodities. But the average Briton actually remained untouched by this illegal trade. That unforgettable book, 84 Charing Cross Road ' which is nothing more than a real-life exchange of letters between a struggling New York writer and a second-hand bookshop in Charing Cross Road ' records how delighted and grateful the staff was when they received from the author a hamper of ham, cheese, chocolates and other goodies before Christmas in 1948.

But life was different for those who could come out to Calcutta to work in one of the British-owned managing agencies. They enjoyed a life which for them would have been unimaginable back home. The Haywards and others like them ' and not all of them rose to become burrasabs ' cannot forget that slice of good fortune, and in their mind Calcutta is forever linked to that good life.

Calcutta was a different city those days even though signs of its deterioration were already there for those who cared to read them. It was a very cosmopolitan city. For those who could afford it, there was Firpo's to bring them the best food in the world, there was dancing till dawn at 300 Club, there were parties galore. Life was like an unending gala. During the season, in winter, the elite from all over India, minor royalty to real maharajas, descended on the city. Calcutta was the country's centre for horse racing, polo and cricket over New Year. More than that, no other Indian city ' perhaps no other city in the world ' celebrated burradin (as Christmas is known here) quite in the same way as Calcutta did. There are vestiges of that ambience still left in a few homes in Calcutta but most of it has vanished. We try and relive it in a vicarious way in our nostalgia, our conversations and Nahoum's Christmas cakes.

The Haywards were part of the 'set' that made for that ambience. But this ambience of unalloyed enjoyment and unending laughter was not all that there was to the Calcutta the Haywards knew and loved. As people who knew the city well, they could not have been unaware of how the city was changing before their eyes. From 1948 began the influx of refugees. Coming as it did on the heels of the great famine of 1943, when starving people from rural Bengal came in to die on the city's pavements, the influx from East Pakistan made Calcutta an overcrowded and a poverty-stricken city.

As the head of Shaw Wallace, Tony Hayward must have noted the flight of capital from Calcutta under the impact of mindless communist trade unionism and Maoist violence, which left a trail of blood even in his beloved Tolly Club.

These are also a part of the Haywards' memories of Calcutta just as they are part of our memories. Despite all this, not every one fled. There are people who even after a dazzling first in Oxford chose to come back to teach in the dingy classrooms of Presidency College. There are people who reside in some continent thousands of miles away but their hearts have never left Calcutta. They come back like migratory birds. There are people like the Haywards for whom Calcutta is a second home. It is a place that is familiar, it is a place where they have friends, it is a place that evokes memories: a place to which they can claim to belong. A place which in turn gives them a sense of belonging.

In the large canvas of the history of Calcutta, the return of the Haywards for their fiftieth marriage anniversary will mean nothing. Yet history is made up of such small moments. On a winter morning, as the sparrows chattered in the high vaulted ceiling of the cathedral, the Haywards made time stand still and made all of us who love Calcutta wonder why we love it so.

Yes, it was a moment of sheer nostalgia. Nostalgia for a vanished era, for a vanished lifestyle. Will there be honey still for tea'

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