The Telegraph
Sunday , January 12 , 2014
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- Rejuvenating culture and revelry in Calcutta

After fifty-odd years of stoic toleration, I’m finally beginning to appreciate things about Calcutta. For instance, we’re not boring like New Delhi. If you live in the capital, or Ennsiyaar, as all the locals now call it, there is no longer a ‘season’; it all happens all the time. From the first day of the year to the last, there is an endless procession, a calendar-carpet of art openings, literature festivals, modern dance weeks, theatre-utsavs and what have you. It never stops. In 45-degree weather, people tog up to go sip watery Cosmopolitan cocktails at some photography show or piano performance. In freezing winter rain, they put on their fake furs or five layers of Fabindia to attend some literature award ceremony or flamenco ‘recital’. Not in Calcutta. In Calcutta we are lucky. If, culturally, Delhi can be compared to a serious alcoholic who starts boozing at 9am every day, then Calcutta is that uptight, buttoned-up, abstemious bloke who goes on a massive drinking binge once a year.

Come late-November or December, the scene starts to, er, warm up over here. Suddenly, there is a flurry of cards announcing arty events. As if responding to a Pavlovian bell, all the consulates and arts councils of forencountries remember we are a city, with citizens who have some small inclination towards the arts. The jazz groups storm the airport with their equipment; the visiting artists all start sending emails with cute European grammar, two days before they, too, arrive; Indian friends who haven’t thought the kaw of Kolkata all year, suddenly start calling and mis-pronouncing our precious name, “Hey, man, listen, I’m coming to your beautiful Golgotta for three days, are you around?” Yes, we are around, yes, you can even stay with us, for as long as you like, just…please…just call it Calcutta and leave the Kolkata-ing to us locals, just like you do for the rest of the year. Coal-cutter indeed.

No, it’s great and, no, there is no under-drone of complaint or resentment in my tone whatsoever, you’re just imagining it. I’m so very happy to be inundated by this seismic wave of antlamo and kaal-churr, gurgling up to my gullet with art and film and theatre, trying to enjoy the taste of water like a drowning peasant who knows that a ten-month-long drought will shortly follow. To paraphrase that Christmas carol, on the first day of January, my true love brought me two film festivals, on the second, three literature meets, on the third, four dance performances and on the fourth, five visiting theatre troupes. And so on.

Seriously, it’s great. We are a lazy city and it’s really good to get all this stuff out of the way before end-February, after which we can all lie around sweating, and thinking and doing nothing. I mean, in the last few days I’ve met more writer friends, attended more parties and seen more book launches than I will in all of the year from March. The launchee authors have included celebrities like Amjad Ali Khan and Bina Ramani. There have been local boys like Vishwajyoti Ghosh and Somnath Batabyal visiting. Then well-known authors such as Romesh Gunesekera and Farrukh Dhondy have launched their latest books of fiction. This was followed by the release of Rana Dasgupta’s much-awaited portrait of Delhi, Capital, a book which first saw the light of day here, which is fitting if you consider that imperial Calcutta was the father that, together with old Dilli’s mother, produced New Delhi. Some of these authors will now leave and return after a few days for the next two literature events that are coming up in this month itself. Simultaneously, young entrepreneurs have been having themselves a conference where they’ve been addressed by Julian Assange via video-link and Vikram Seth in (his very personable) person.

Along with this melee of events, there is a mutated re-appearance of that nearly extinct creature, the Calcutta Party. Those of us who were around when Calcutta was Calcutta remember the old days when ‘winter’ was one long party, starting somewhere in the first week of November and ending just before Holi in March. These parties, linked like a sausage chain, cut across the upper-crust and the middle-class, evenings segueing into dawns into beer afternoons into sun-downers. That was the time when the men were handsome, the women the most beautiful in south Asia, when everybody read loads of books and made lots of unsuitable but exciting alliances and dalliances. All gone, alas. Nowadays we are boring, we go and actually work between parties, worrying how people in Delhi, Bombay and New York will perceive us. This is wrong, it’s not the Calcutta way, but what to do, we have become sheep sheathed in the thin, dirty woolly coats of a derivative ‘work ethic’. We drink a wider variety of liquor, but we drink far less of it. And the only dalliances we have are with our smartphones. Unless we do something about this pronto, history will judge us as a failed set of generations; it will be seen as part of a great decline that in our era we couldn’t properly nurture even this shrunken tradition of legendary Kolkataiya winter debauchery.

Nevertheless, as I said before, I’m beginning to appreciate Calcutta. We were actually dying when Rajiv Gandhi called us a ‘dying city’ in the 1980s. Soon after Rajiv’s wisecrack, we did die and stayed dead for a long time. Call me an optimist, but I’m now sensing a re-birth, a knocking from the inside of the coffin. It could just be the worms playing with the bones or it could be that the Mischief-Nosferatu of our spirit has re-awoken. And I would suggest we embark on certain dangerously pleasurable rituals to bring us back from the other world.

For one, we should insist on having big clusters of cultural events and parties when the weather is not nice, like in March, April and May. And in July, August and September. This will cut out the national competition (except from Delhi, the city that never sleeps but that also never visits the facilities) and encourage people to engage with us across the year. It will be difficult at first, and initially it may just be us, but we should not lose heart, the ‘us’ is bigger than we think and we should try and expand the cultural activities to include the majority of our city. Slowly, just as people visit Reykjavik and Strasbourg in mid-winter, people will start coming to Calcutta. “Hey, dude, do you fancy going to Golgo… I mean Calcutta for the Monsoon Masti fest? I believe they have some great bands. Let’s pack our swimming trunks and anti-malaria serum and go!” Or, “You know those open air alternative cinema screenings they have in the Maidan and Victoria Memorial in Calcutta? In March-April? They go on all night, yaar and you can sleep in the day, just like the rest of the town. It’s a must-do for this year!”

Okay, no, I can see your point that I’m veering away somewhat from steely-eyed realism, from the logically practicable. But the thing is, it’s from these deviations (into what some might cruelly label lunatically fantastical) that new ideas crystallize, that old, extinct traditions are revived. So, while we argue and dream, let’s ramp up the partying and see where it all leads us. And, a few days late, as is the Calcutta tradition, here’s wishing all of us a very happy 2014.