The first cybercaf' I hit in Calcutta wasn't one of those mass-produced surf ' pay warrens designed for anonymity, though you can see them all over the place in the city now.
This was a local product, as homemade as rossogollas, a mashima-and-mesho-run place that squeezed six computers into a corner grocery that now had ambitions in the beauty parlour direction. My first click of the mouse in the City of Joy was accompanied by a cup of hot tea and the stentorian directions of an amply padded lady who wanted her upper lip bleached just so. Outside, a cricket match had taken over the street; but instead of hollering, Delhi-style, at the players, car drivers were heckling good-naturedly ' 'paarar Souravda, ektu jetey deen na!'
Where do you look for Calcutta online; how do you locate a city that sometimes seems permanently caught between a time warp and the 21st century' For a while, it seemed as though the blogging revolution that started in Bangalore and took Mumbai and Delhi by storm would leave Calcutta out in the cold. As weblogs mutated from awkward personal journals to slickly focused affairs, a complex blend of memoir, journalism, activism, coffeehouse conversation and photoblogging, the voice of Calcutta seemed muted.
Read this official definition of a weblog: 'A weblog (usually shortened to blog, but occasionally spelled web log) is a web-based publication consisting primarily of periodic articles (normally in reverse chronological order)....Blogs range in scope from individual diaries to arms of political campaigns, media programs, and corporations. They range in scale from the writings of one occasional author, to the collaboration of a large community of writers.'
In other words, a weblog is an online adda. It shouldn't have surprised me that one way to rediscover Calcutta was through the city's bloggers: still a small number, compared to other metros, but growing rapidly.
Among the earliest bloggers to focus on Calcutta was the IIT Kharagpur-IIM Joka fraternity, with native Calcuttans and transient visitors getting online faster than other groups due to the availability of net connections on both campuses.
Some, like Aravind (http://blogavind.rediffblogs.com) used their blogs as an ongoing journal of college life as well as a way to discover Calcutta. 'Kolkata to me is a mixture of a big city and the typical Indian small town in some weird way,' he posted during his stint as a student. 'There are lakes almost everywhere you turn, and for me, this is a welcome break from the arid surroundings of Chennai. The people in Kolkata are also much more friendly and patient than the people I have seen at the other metros. These people have a different concept of time, and you generally cannot force a Kolkatan to be hurried in whatever he does. Except of course for the Taxi Drivers ' misplaced from the Formula 1 tracks, they are a breed apart.' When college ended, this group moved on ' some, like Aravind, marked the shift by starting a new blog. (He's blogging about Chennai and the working world now at http://movinghorizons.blogdrive.com/.
Others, like Abhinav, (http://mydayzwithmyself.blogspot.com/) discover compensations for the humidity: 'By the ways, the good part about Calcutta is that the girls here a lot more decent and pleasant than those at Delhi.' Or there's Acroyali, the handle of an IIT Kharagpur student, who blogs at http://fitfulimagination.blogspot.com: 'Came down frm Kgp in a bus to Cal. All 32 of us. Aquatica and then BAR-B-Q on Park Street, followed by chocolate sundaes at One-Step-Up, tonga rides by Victoria and an evening walk on the Maidan. It was the perfect day. By evening I got philosophical and sentu and Vishal and I begun indulging in antellectual talk.... Bangalis you will see suffer amazing transformations. They are very capable at morphing from a political genius to a poet, and from a hopeless romantic to an ardent football fan. All it takes is that cha at the para'r cha-er dokan or a glimpse of ppl playing ball on the Maidan or it may take an open starlit sky or cool breeze on a summer evening. '
It's when you start sifting through personal blogs (indibloggers.blogspot.com has a useful list of Calcutta bloggers; follow the links in each blogger's sidebar to discover a wider range) that the city begins to come alive.
Just the name J Alfred Prufrock, the handle of a blogger whose homestead is http://sadoldbong.blogspot. com/, will induce nostalgia in a certain generation of Calcuttans, who knew all of T S Eliot by heart and revered him alongside Neruda and Feluda. Here's Prufrock, who also blogs at http://prufrock.rediffblogs. com/, on Cal-versus-Kol: 'If you can't pronounce my city's name ' it's Kole-kah-thah, the last 'th' as in 'thought' ' say 'Calcutta'. For my generation, it's still Cal, not Kol.'
And, even though he wrote this post a while ago, it carries a resonance for anyone who remembers the sheer exuberance of the Calcutta monsoons: 'But the weather, the weather. Weather to seduce me from the air-conditioned sterility of my room, weather to yearn in as the lights come on and glisten on the walls roads cars rickshaws drainpipes lovers ... Weather to exult in, to shout aloud to the streaming skies, weather to make one throw one's arms wide and breathe the just-remembered scents of childhood. Weather in which to make long languid love on cotton sheets and lie in the half-dark afterwards. To stand on a high balcony amid the rain-fat breezes and look for miles across the washed-clean city.'
From a different generation, Pompy (http://pompy.rediffblogs. com) sums up the pujas in the kind of post that could only have come off a blog, mixing SMS-speak with brisk personal detail: 'Am wearing a sari to work today. First time in this organisation. Our department celebrates Vishwakarma pooja with a lot of jhingbang! Vishwakarma ' the maker of the World (for the uninitiated *grin*). the festive spirit actually kick-starts with this one. Durga puja being such a big deal (trust me it is for us Bengalis) the whole of Cal seems to be in a frenzy! Shopping frenzy to be more precise (*grins grins and more grins*) though am done with it :)' Or there's 'Souravda's' list of favourite books (http:/souravda.blogspot.com), guaranteed to induce instant nostalgia; it's a list that could have come out of no other city in the world: Tagore poems, Pather Panchali, Garcia Marquez, Kundera, Camus, Binoy Majumdar. Souravda, who writes in the third person, adds, tongue-in-cheek, 'He looks back and discovers that not one of these books was originally written in English.'
Many bloggers, like many former Calcuttans, have a complex relationship with a city that was once home, is perhaps temporarily home, or is one of the many places a migratory generation might call home. At http://disorganised.blogspot.com/, Loud Thinking, who can discuss Rabindrasangeet and fusiform gyri in the same paragraph, offers you the weather in Cambridge, Jamshedpur, Delhi and Calcutta. Buchu, who's been online since 2003 at http://baghaescup.blogspot. com/, and hates 'begoon, payesh and Delhi', moves smoothly between Boston, Europe and Calcutta, blogging seamlessly on everything from South-and-North Calcutta divides to sports and quizzing and politics.
Bridal Beer (http://bridalbeer.blogspot. com) is reluctantly in Calcutta: 'Single, 20s,was briefly in love. I was in New York for long enough to miss it. Now I am in India, training to be a wife-for-life to a relative stranger (not a stranger who is a relative, we don't do those).' It's part of the nature of blogs that we don't know how Bridal Beer's story ends: with an arranged marriage, with a kind of freedom' She stopped posting in January; we wait with bated breath.
Like Bridal Beer and other bloggers for whom the city is the backdrop, not the main story, Rohan Guha (http://rohanguha.blogspot.com/) is sharing a life, not the history of a city. But when Guha does do a 'Bong post', it's wickedly funny: 'The whole hullabaloo about Durga pujo, simply put... is this.... for most Bongs it's a one-week window to fix your social/love/sex life. The friendly neighborhood pujor pandal, is nothing but an exotic singles bar.' Status Quo (http://basu715.blogspot.com/), like Rohan Guha, rarely blogs about Calcutta per se, but this schoolgirl should unsettle some stereotypes all the same. She's a hardcore geek ' 'By the way, I was among the first 200,000 to get the Firefox 1.0 PR version' ' and her blog is the place to hit if you want to know where to find techie articles or Linux user groups in Cal.
Some of the best blogs coming out of Calcutta, though, are highly focused ones that have little in common with the personal diarists. Over at Blockhole (http://blockhole.blogspot.com/), three software engineers and sports fanatics who call themselves the Gameboys run a pretty decent sports blog. It's regularly updated, covering sports news from India and elsewhere.
But one of the best illustrations of what a blog can do is to be found at Daniel Brett's place (www.danielbrett.com). He started up Shabuj Neer (http://shabuj.danielbrett. com), a no-frills site that links to news stories about Calcutta's environmental problems a while back, and it's now going strong. As Brett writes, 'Prompted by my disgust with Kolkata's hideous levels of air pollution and poor waste management, I launched Shabuj Neer to archive news on the city's environment. Despite its bland appearance, Shabuj Neer is the most popular blog I have run, with dozens of subscribers from the oil and petrochemicals industry.' It's a one-stop resource for information on car emissions, city beautification campaigns and new laws.
More than the newspapers, more than the many films shot every year in Calcutta, it's the blogs that bring me the real news, of a city that is shifting shape in strange and interesting ways, home to expatriates from Cambridge and diehard Mohun Bagan fans, activists and passionate poets, sad old Bongs with a flair for the language and brash new Tolkien-obsessed gamesters. The adda never died; it just moved online.
Illustrations by Suman Choudhury