Conversations 24: Why I am Kolkata

In Annie Hall (1977), Annie tells Alvy, "You don't know how to enjoy life. You are New York!" 

I came back home last Friday, but, as always, I remain really confused where home is. Pico Iyer doubts that home is really any place at all, but rather where you take your guards down. My home in London ticks that box, as I have not lived in Kolkata for more than a decade and feel besieged when I am there. 

But, then, I think all too often when I shall be doing practical stuff. I live an emotional, engaged, life, dreaming away most of the time. I carry this change-the-world optimism with me alongside the repulsion for narrowness of people I have to do business with. I feel almost good when people say I have unfulfilled potential. I start all too often - make new beginnings as if past never existed. I feel proud of my dilapidated being because it indicates a tradition, long forsaken, that I want to belong to. I eschew all the company that will have me for company, in a homage to Groucho Marx, and aspire to belong to some place nonexistent. Well, I am Kolkata then.

It is not home anymore but it lives in me. Migrants like me are known for as much the journey they made as the journey of return they never end up making. It is the promise of that journey, its unfulfilled, fragmented, dream, expressed in awkward and out of place celebrations of festivities, the assorted souvenirs that adorn our homes, stories of childhood that live with us and which we want to pass on to our children (only to be rebuffed), that makes a migrant's home. Even when I let my guard down only in Croydon, I do so in this little circle of nostalgia and make-believe place of little Kolkata, a place that doesn't really exist but is a matter of imagination.

Some say ambivalence isn't good, not knowing what to do: That is indeed so in a migrant's life when we can't take anything for granted and must continually try to establish a foothold. It is about striving all the time, working round the clock, imagining only for very practical considerations of imagination. But there is nothing practical to dream about Kolkata: It is a hot, humid, poor, dirty, sweaty, rude place, full of people who let the life drift and others too busy coning everyone else. For all the talk of unfulfilled potential, the practicality of never having realised it mustn't be considered a rude reminder. It is a place that is going down: One of the first cities in Asia to have reached a million population (the other one being Tokyo), it is the only metropolis in the world whose population decreased in the last ten years. For all our non-resident indulgence, people who live there obviously have chosen to vote with their feet.

And, yet, ambivalence is key to love; it is that feeling that overcome all the practical, as it must be, to touch one's soul. There is no practicality in the soul, no pharmaceutical company will ever endeavour to research it, and yet, our hopes of the future must come thence. Kolkata is that ambivalence, a practical rejection of practicality, a tough love of sorts, an acquired taste like the Jaljeera in Peter Cat, an imagination like a cold winter to make everyone run for jumpers when the temperature touches 20 degrees, Celcius! Even its drift, so tragic in its consequences, is so poignant in its rejection of the mouth-clasp of consumer civilisation. The coexistence of the kind and the rude, the splendid and the squalid, the snob and the revolutionary, the past and the future - with almost no hint of the present or the normal - that make Kolkata the place it is. 

So, I sign off with love, a love that can only belong to one place. I love, therefore, I am Kolkata. The day I lose the place, hopefully I never will, I shall lose the capacity to love, deeply, passionately, dreamingly, impractically. For all the grossness I overlook, for all the transgressions I brush aside, for all the rudeness I silently absorb and for all the dirt that I must cleanse with love - there is only one explanation: That one must belong to someplace, that cozy place called home, which must belong to one's heart, rather than the other way round.




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