Buffalo boy's Calcutta crush!

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By Clinton S. (Tad) Brown pens a passionate piece on the place that made him feel at home for three years
  • Published 19.05.13
Tad Brown (in blue) at a Wetlands run in February

My family and I board a plane this morning to take us back to America. For the last three years, I have been proud to say I live in Calcutta, and it will take me many months to get used to the fact that we don’t live here anymore.

No matter how much time passes, Calcutta will always have a special place in our hearts. It was here that we made our first real home as a family, here that my children learned to swim, here that they fell in love with song and dance — first the Bengali folk songs they learned in school and then classic movie tunes they picked up on the radio. These memories will stay with us forever but, just by leaving, something is lost.

When we arrive in the US, my son and daughter will almost certainly be the only children in their class to pine for misthi doi and to sing from heart all the verses of Kishore Kumar’s Mere saamne waali khidki mein...

When people ask me what I will miss most about Calcutta, I have a hard time explaining the loss I already feel when I think of leaving. I will miss the dosas at Jyoti Vihar and the pan-fried momos at Blue Poppy. I will miss the slow, seemingly prehistoric rumble of the trams and the incongruous orderliness of the Metro, even at rush hour. I will miss the Hooghly, swirling chai brown in the wake of a Howrah-bound ferry boat, with the view framed by two iconic bridges and the Calcutta skyline. I will miss the orange and gold radiance of the krishnachura trees in bloom and the other-worldly colours that take over the Calcutta sky when a storm approaches. I will miss the vibrancy of Calcutta’s art, from heart-wrenching photojournalism to age-old tales retold on patachitra scrolls from the Jungle Mahal. The roaring drums and frenetic flips of chhau dancers and the saccharine tones of a sangeet recital.

I will miss the tree-shaded tranquillity of the Rabindra Sarobar lakes and the openness of the East Calcutta Wetlands, where the horizon somehow stretches further, and the city’s cacophony of taxi horns gives way to the rhythmic splashes of fishermen rounding up their catch. The roar of the crowd in Salt Lake stadium, and the frisson with each crack of the bat in Eden. I will miss the excitement of a new launch at the Priya, with the heroes and heroines looking as cool and as beautiful as any movie stars on earth.

I think that’s the thing about Calcutta for me. I won’t miss pieces of it so much as I will miss all of it together. Having travelled the world, I know that each city is different, but Calcutta is somehow a place apart, different in its own way. In trying to capture what makes Calcutta special, “City of Joy” never sat right with me. Having searched for a suitable alternative, I’ve decided maybe Calcutta is too much for any one moniker. Leave Mumbai to its maximum, Paris to its lights, and leave Calcutta unbound by the limitations of a nickname.

Calcutta shows its uniqueness in the way it affects those who come here from elsewhere. You don’t become an ‘honorary’ Calcuttan — you’re either in or you’re out. And though the traditions of Bengal and particular characteristics of Bengalis have shaped the city, being a Calcuttan has nothing to do with being Bengali. Like Usha Uthup, a quintessential Calcuttan, some of the Calcuttans whom I associate most personally with this city are not Bengalis: Iftekhar Ahsan at Calcutta Walks and Derek O’Brien, the inexhaustible quiz master, are two of Calcutta’s most passionate, devoted ambassadors. But if it is not your ethnicity or your birthplace that makes you a “true” Calcuttan, what is the rite of passage, and how is it that I can feel so “of” a place I have called home for only three years?

I believe that, more than birthright or bloodline, the essence of being a Calcuttan is to accept and embrace the city in all of its glory and madness. Not to like it so much as to love it. “Liking” is easy, too easy.

And Calcutta is, quite frankly, not very likeable. White sand beaches and quaint ski villages are likeable, nice places to visit.

But they are not lovable because they are practically devoid of life, real life. Calcutta, by contrast, is teeming with life, throbbing with life. It is a living expression of the human experience in all its rich contradictions, the energy and inertia, the creativity and the chaos that somehow coalesces into a semblance of order before spiralling again into seeming chaos, the vibrancy, the ambition and despair, the rot and decay.

To walk the streets of Calcutta, even to sit stuck in traffic, is to, at the same time, marvel at the endurance of human accomplishment and to muse on its futility. Stately buildings and imperial monuments stand testimony to feats of greatness accomplished in centuries past while the crumbling bricks and disintegrating mortar remind us that dust goes only to dust. The frailty and finality of the human condition are never far from view in Calcutta, and you cannot live here, as you can in so many other places, and not think from time to time of your own mortality.

The Jane’s Walks gang in a Sovabazar lane

Calcutta does not try to sweep these realities behind a curtain — it couldn’t if it tried. Rather, the city has somehow found a certain peace or, if not peace, perhaps understanding. This is why Calcutta is not likeable and can only be loved, or hated. I fell in love more than a decade ago, when I first arrived as a tourist from neighbouring Dhaka. I’ve fallen in love, again and again, over the last three years. In my affection for Calcutta, I can’t help but see a reflection of my attachment to my hometown, Buffalo, New York. Both cities have spent decades down on their luck after prolonged periods of greatness. Both have become the butt of national jokes and are fiercely defended by proud diasporas that have moved away in search of employment but otherwise remain tethered by loyalty to their native place. Both have inspired and continue to nurture world-class artists and thinkers.

I leave Mumbai and L.A. and Chennai and Manhattan for those who are drawn to gleaming glass and tall towers. Me, I’m looking for a city to live in, not in comfort or at ease. A city that will remind me I am alive even when I’d rather forget, a city that celebrates life.

This side of Calcutta is expressed to its fullest during Durga Puja, which is certainly one of the greatest and most under-appreciated cultural festivals in the world. Families and communities join together to create celebrations that are quite literally epic in scale and scope. From the massive, crowd-pleasing favourites to the modest family-sized murals, Durga Puja unites the city in a prolonged spasm of celebration, hailing life and the triumph of justice even while acknowledging the inevitability of evil and death. Durga Puja is the apotheosis of this spirit, but it animates Calcutta throughout the year.

That spirit, more than mishti doi or ilish mach, is what made me a Calcutta.

A few of my favourite things

Kidderpore tram: My son and I love riding each of the tramway lines, but Kidderpore is my favourite because it takes in the bustle of Esplanade, the expanse of the Maidan and Race Course, and then the personality of the Kidderpore neighbourhoods.

Sunday Brunch at the ITC: The Asian brunch is tough to beat (sushi and ice cream!), but my favourite spot is taking my kids to feed the teeming koi fish. That pond is one of the more bucolic spots in Calcutta.

Running in the Wetlands: The East Calcutta Wetlands is a world-class treasure accessible to everyone in the city. I cherished my Sunday runs through the bheris as a chance for much-needed exercise and the opportunity to be outdoors. With otters, snakes and abundant birdlife, the loudest noise was the fisherman, beating the lake surface to round up their fish.

Any ferry on the Hooghly river: One man’s morning commute is another man’s retreat, and I loved the chance to get out on the Hooghly. The ferries offer excellent views of the skyline and a moment’s peace from the bustle of the streets. Especially at sunset, the ferries are by far the most pleasant way to move around the city.

Any alley in Sovabazar: I’ve also loved wandering Calcutta’s neighbourhoods early in the morning, but the series of Jane’s Walks put on by Calcutta Walks and The Telegraph got me hooked to Sovabazar. I could wander in those storied alleyways for days, soaking in the legends and myths, as well as their vibrant life today.

New Light, Kalighat: Most people are drawn to the Kali Temple, but for me the divine is most present at New Light, where Urmi Basu and her team provide a safe space for children from the red-light district.

Listening to a baul concert at Baitanik: Nestled among the new buildings on Elgin Road, this heritage building has been transformed into a beautiful venue for intimate concerts showcasing traditional arts. My favourites are the baul concerts, which give the setting a timeless air.

Freedom Factories in Sonagachhi: In this area infamous for its red-light districts, I love visiting the workshops run by Freeset and Sari Bari, two organisations that provide fulfilling employment for women who want out. They make high-quality products for export, including to the Whole Foods markets in Washington DC.

The Russell Street dhaba

Russell Street dhaba: I have a few favourite chai stops, but this one is a family favourite. It’s a great place to hang out and “people watch” because it attracts everyone from families all together in their car to cool young dudes on new bikes or classic Enfields.

Anywhere that serves Bengali sweets: I know most Calcuttans are connoisseurs when it comes to sweets, but I’ll admit my sweet tooth isn’t so finicky. My son and daughter consider mishti doi to be the ultimate sweet treat, but I am partial to cool indrani or notun gur sandesh when the season is right.

@ Clinton S. “Tad” Brown was, until today, the chief of the political section of the US Consulate in Calcutta