‘कलकत्ते का जो ज़िक्र किया तू ने हमनशीं
इक तीर मेरे सीने में मारा कि हाए हाए’
My father, a Ghalib fan, introduced him to me at a young age. Ghalib was too complicated for me to be able to appreciate him. I got to like the above light-hearted verse as I grew up and found myself thinking more and more of the colourful city of Calcutta. I dreamed of Calcutta and desired to visit the city and experience its magic.
A day came when my wishes were answered. My sister and her family were relocating to Ichapore near Calcutta. It was a god sent opportunity. Convincing my sister and her husband was not difficult. The three small children would be a handful, I told my sister. I said I will help her in setting the house. Convinced or not, she agreed to let me travel with them. Taking a break from my apprenticeship with a lawyer in Lucknow, I joined the party and one fine day we landed in Ichapore. A few days later we travelled to the big city for sightseeing.
I found Calcutta vastly different from any of the cities I had been to. The visit to crowded Chawringhee and Park Street and Bow Bazar, the beautiful Victoria Memorial, the huge open ground known only as ‘Maidan’, the zoo and the Great Banyan Tree, and Birla Planetarium was fascinating. I found the bhadraloks (Bengali gentlemen) conversing in soft Bengali (said to be the sweetest language), a language I could not understand, rather amusing. We crossed the broad width of Hoogly for a visit to the famous Belur Math. The Math did not interest me. What intrigued me was that on the return trip after dark, our boatmen were afraid of being raided by river pirates. Pirates! Nearly twenty years after independence! Beyond comprehension.
With Naxal movement and anti-Hindi agitation at peak, travelling in Calcutta in 1960s, even in broad daylight, was not considered safe. I was refused permission to go and meet my friend Vijay who was studying for his diploma at Indian Institute of Management. He had to come all the way to Ichapore and escort me. I spent a couple of nights in his and two of his friends’ company and saw a little of night life in Calcutta. Our visits to places like ‘Princes’ and ‘Firpo’s’ were eye-widening.
By now I had started to commute by suburban trains and had purchased a time table. It was my last evening with Vijay. We bid each other bye-bye outside Sealdah station. The last train to Ichapore was due and I rushed to the platform indicated in the time table. I saw a short man in white trousers and back coat – obviously a railway officer – and, to assure myself of boarding the correct train asked him in Hindi, ‘’ईशापुर की गाड़ी इसी प्लैटफॉर्म से जाएगी (will the train for Ichapore leave from this platform)?’
He saw the time table in my hand and replied – in Hindi only, ‘हाथ में टाइम टेबल तो है (you have a time table in your hand).’
‘हाँ, है तो मगर….. (yes, I do. But…..)’ I started to answer but was interrupted.
‘इंग्लिश में है. समझ नहीं आता?’ (unable to understand because it is in English?)’ He taunted.
Stung, I snapped, ‘What the bloody hell do you mean ”इंग्लिश में है. समझ नहीं आता?” I can teach you English.”
He shouted at me and I shouted back. I am not tall, even by Indian standards. But as stated before, like most Bengalis, he was a short man – a good 10 to 12 inches shorter than me. I had to look down to make eye contact with him. Possibly about a minute or so into this shouting match I happened to raise my head. What I saw filled me with panic. We were surrounded by a crowd of, what appeared to me at the time, thousands of Bengalis. (They probably actually numbered about 500). The thought that one blow from each of the men present would certainly hurry me to meet my Maker. There was nothing I could do except to shout louder and hope someone would come and rescue me. I did and I was. Rescued I mean. An angel in the guise of a senior officer hastened through the crowd and demanded to know what was going on. After hearing both warring parties, he took charge of me, escorted to and deposited me in the train and stayed with me till the train started. I heaved a sigh of relief.
With anti-Hindi agitation on, like all Hindi signboards, station names in Hindi too were blacked out. I am ashamed to confess it, but it gave me a perverse pleasure to see ‘TITAGARH’ written in Bangala blackened.
I had learnt that the Bengali is happiest if you converse in Bengali, albeit broken, with him. He will embrace you. He will tolerate you if you speak to him in English. Put you trust in God and hope for the best if you speak in Hindi. Therefore, for the remainder of my stay I followed a policy of being deaf and dumb.
Has Calcutta, or Kolkata as it is now called, changed?