For a city bursting at its seams, the streets of Lake Market, Calcutta, are unusually quiet. The brilliant yellow taxis, ubiquitous in other parts of the city, make only sporadic appearances on the tree-lined roads. Green and yellow autorickshaws splutter past arrays of bouquets, funeral wreaths and dyed flowers (where else on earth could you find a parrot-green bunch of petals?). Tinny-looking buses- which seem to be gingerly held together by a handful of bolts- rumble by indolently, window-panes missing, variously-clothed elbows shoved out through the bars; the names of the origins and destinations are painted on the sides of the blue and maroon bodies in loud, curly-edged fonts.
In these quiet streets, time has come to a standstill. It is a Sunday afternoon towards the end of November, but it feels more like spring than winter- the end of March, perhaps, when the cold season departs reluctantly, lingering longingly in its favourite patches while the firm, lengthening arms of the sun nudge it away. Old-fashioned, stately bungalows cast their sleepy eye upon the loitering rickshaw-pullers who rest in the meagre shade of the slim trees that bend their supple bodies to the song of the wind. Who built these houses, and when? The slatted windows speak of a different era altogether, and the old man in a dhoti and vest, thick glasses perched on his nose, might well be a surviving relic of the days that live on only in the mottled yellow pages of old books (and on the screen of a Kindle, perhaps). An elderly lady, wearing a discoloured white saree in the traditional Bengali style, shuffles down the pavement. This street is vintage Tagore, and as I stand by a dripping hand-pump on which some homeless crows take refuge, I cannot think of a more effective way of time travel.
Calcutta, in many ways, has withstood the ravages of time. The grime of decades lies so thick on some of its buildings it can probably never be washed away. Broken balconies bend under the weight of decades of footsteps. There is a timeless grace to this city that endows it with a character of its own, unlike others that succumb to the lure of snazzy modernity, often bereft of any identity or uniqueness. I haven’t seen much of Calcutta, really- just seen a battered tram or two, caught a glimpse of the Victoria Memorial and been driven a short distance by a paan-chewing taxi driver from Bihar who spits out red squirts with clockwork-like regularity while talking politics. I’ve seen the soot-blackened facades of shops in the New Market and the relentless crush of people milling around in every inch of space available. Through the crowds and the sticky heat, though, you sense the throbbing that drives this city and puts things together in its own sometimes ramshackle way, keeping the wheels turning with the occasional glitches.
I might have stepped right into the midst of two rallies, one led by the Trinamool Congress and the other by the Communists, but we’ll leave politics to another day. At any given moment, I’m sure Calcutta will impress you as a city with a heart, amen to that.