Sunday, February 22, 2015

Madras, Calcutta

In school I was famous for two things: my voice, and my love for Madras and Calcutta. 

To be honest I don't think I sang any better than an average person, but since I could not draw or paint, or dance or run, the only thing I could come up when asked about my "hobby" was singing. That I knew some old Hindi songs strengthened my case. Soon I was one of the voices representing the school in every inter-school competition. It would be pertinent to add that even though I was considered -- or considered myself -- one of the leading voices of our school, I hardly ever sang solo. My biggest nightmare was -- and still is -- to stand alone on a stage with hundreds of eyes fixed at me. Once or twice when I was forced to sing solo I messed up badly. They never sent me to another stage alone.

The other part, about my Bong and Tamilian love, is slightly more interesting and elaborate. It so happened that every guy I ever had a crush on -- and I had quite a few -- was somehow always a Bengali or a Madrasi (although the non-resident variety), the others, even the best looking ones, just never made the cut (I guess they lacked the intelligent gene). Unfortunately the crushes remained only that -- crushes, but they did help me earn a reputation.

I expected to grow out of my love for the Madrasi and the Bengali when I got to college: it was an all-girls college and there was no scope for fancying anyone, let alone have preferences. But neither Bengal nor Madras was to leave me anytime soon -- every introduction during the three years of college began with a question about my non-existent Bengali roots. On getting a negative response the next question would inevitably be, "then you must be a Madrasi, your name is Anubhuti Krishna, no?"

And so for three years I explained to people that I was neither a Bengali (even if I looked like one), nor a Madrasi (even if my name sounded so). I heaved a deep sigh of relief when college got over: no more explanations to give.

Meanwhile something else had happened: I had spent about two months in Calcutta and was supposed to stay there for further studies, fortunately or unfortunately I disliked the place so much that I promptly returned promising never to set foot in the city again.

But as they say, you often meet your destiny on the road you take to avoid it. 

To avoid being in Calcutta when I took the road -- rather the train -- to Delhi, I had no idea that I would end up with a Bengali, that too for life (not before an endearing encounter with a charming Madrasi though). I was now convinced about my deeper connect with the two cities -- and its inhabitants -- and had given up the idea of avoiding them. 

Calcutta soon became a significant part of my life. However much I detested the city and its chaos, I could not avoid it. I continued visiting Calcutta year after year after year. And one fine day I found myself looking forward to the trips. I felt at home among the same chaos, clutter and crowd that once had me wincing, I had developed sense of belonging with the city I had once promised never to set foot in. It was strange, but it was true.

Madras, on the other hand, was only getting farther. I had not been there since I was ten, neither did I know anyone from the city anymore. To top it all whatever I had heard was uncomplimentary: it is too hot, it is too crowded, it is too hostile. My connect with Madras, I suspected, was over along with my infatuation with the Madrasi. Until four years ago, when I finally went to the city that is.

It was a transit trip and I barely had the time to experience anything. In the short span of a day and a half however, I could not help but notice the beauty of Madras. It was nothing I had thought it to be, and everything I had not. I found in it what I had not found anywhere else. It smelt of history. It was wrapped in tradition. It was drenched in culture. And, it felt strangely familiar. While boarding the train back, I secretly promised myself to go back.

It was on my next trip, about two years later that I got to experience Madras a little more. I was alone and had all the time to walk the quiet lanes, rub shoulders with shoppers in the crowded marketplaces, indulge in the local food, and do all the things I have not done even in my own city. I spent the two days soaking in its sights, sounds, and smell. I have not had a chance to go back since, my connect with Madras has nonetheless only gotten stronger: I wake up each day thinking of it, and go to bed dreaming about it. While it is Chennai, or Madras, that I live with each day (by virtue of writing for a paper there), Calcutta remains as close to my heart if not more (especially after working extensively with a friend on his book on the city).

Twenty years after I first became famous for my love for Madras and Calcutta, the wheel, it seems, has turned a full circle. With a Bengali already by my side, all I need now is a Madrasi to complete the picture.

No comments:

Post a Comment