"A profound unmitigated loneliness is the only truth of life"
- R.K. Narayan

Call it the erstwhile capital of the British empire, Call it a bustling and bristling metro, Call it a foodie's paradise, Call it a grand megalopolis - nothing summarizes it better than simply calling it 'Calcutta'! The very place that we decided 'on-the-spur' to visit on behalf of our third anniversary on the independence day weekend. It is no tourist hot-spot; before this trip it was just another city where my wife had  incidentally lived a figment of her childhood! But I was to discover how those days shaped the rest of her life.. her personality.. and how much more Calcutta has been a part of her life than she has been a part of it.

We had already had a satisfying trip of Konark-Puri the previous day, and setting foot into the bustle of Howrah Junction wouldn't even hint at what lay beyond its walls. Calcutta, even with Durga Puja still a long way off, amazed us with its pulsating vibrancy blended inextricably with its charming antiquity. Though  famous for its Howrah bridge, Calcutta showed us another significant bridge... one that  incorrigibly stretched from an antediluvian past to an inescapable present.

First impression on the ground : the city is saturated! I read that one-fifth of the world's population lives on the bank of river Ganga - the city's streets were already proving this. It didn't look like there was any bandwidth for growth. The streets are packed to capacity. The city has all means of transport that can be conceived of - buses, autos, cabs, cycle-rickshaws, underground metro, local trains and the 'endangered' trams -  and all are conveniently crowded. The dilapidated British-era buildings present a forlorn facade of the city's bygone glory but even in those broken glass windows you could see faces peeping out. Even in the torn-down meshes of forgotten nooks there are dirty urchins reliving a Calcutta of their own. Even on the narrow pavements that need oodles of repair, there are delicately balanced push-carts selling fried noodles.

The city (like the other metros) seems constipated with its denizens but it still doesn't throw you up. There's something that gives a feel the city is still growing somehow.. maybe in the hearts of its people.

We didn't want  to devour the city with one hired taxi ride and wanted to explore it street by street... footstep by footstep. This, we realized later, was the best way to taste what Calcutta had to offer. Ably assisted by a slight drizzle (which never let the humidity get to us) we tread around breathing in not only the city's air but also its smells, its noises, its chaos, its poises. They say the means are sometimes as important as the ends - the foot journey proved it. The smiling faces that gave us directions, the stopping at every street corner for a quick jalebi or chowmein or samosa, the tea served in cute looking earthern pots or matkas, the haunting presence of victorian architecture and the general sweetness of the Bengali language was so satisfying that it quelched any frustration of missing key targets - even when we missed Thakurbari (Tagore House) reaching there barely 5 minutes after its closing, even when Marble House turned out to be just a ghetto, even when the glorious India Museum turned out to be closed on Mondays.

The food needs a special mention. The variety of cuisines the city had to offer is nothing short of a celebration. We treated ourselves to such delightful melange of dishes that I wonder if my stomach felt like we traveled the entire world in one day! And its not just food... even the explosion of colors in their garb is second to none. But what makes a mark is the balance of life and maturity in exhibition that Bengalis seems to have cultured themselves into. They are pompous yet bourgeoisie. Their capacity for intellectual debate, their disinclination towards insane adoption of technology, their appreciation of an unhurried lifestyle all go on to show that Bengalis savor every passing moment to the fullest and thus gives us outsiders an insight to how our fast paced lives can be so demeaning to the native spirit of the innate soul. Calcutta is neither old nor shining new.. its just ageless!

As if this was not enough, there was a notable icing on the cake in the last few hours of our trip.

We managed to get in touch with Mr.Vinayak Lohani, the convener of Parivaar, and he graciously arranged for us a trip of his abode for the destitute children. Several campuses on small patches of land throughout 24-Paraganas is where Mr.Lohani and his team of zealous social workers tend to the children that are on the 'downside of advantage'. The children are housed, fed and schooled in their in-house facility. The spark in the eyes of the children when they greeted us was proof enough of the divine journey that the Parivaar is set upon.

This was just yet another endearing aspect of a city which would leave a strong and indelible imprint in our hearts forever. We may go on to visit other great cities but there would be none with the poise and steadfastness matching Calcutta.

On a flip note, we could say that...
(from an ad displayed behind one of the municipal buses)

01-Sep-2012 : Revised after proof-reading with Nivedita (Diventa).