Book review- Longing, Belonging An Outsider at Home in Calcutta by Bishwanath Ghosh
Calcutta, the city of joy, is associated with each and every Bengali living on this planet even though he or she might not have the least possible connection with it. Despite being a Bengali, I am probably the only person (as far as I know) who doesn't like Calcutta as much as a quintessential Bengali would. Having born and brought up in Delhi, I detested going to Calcutta be it for anything. Often being rebuked by my mother for the same, I have heard countless stories of how she and her siblings would be excited about the summer holidays because they would get to visit Calcutta for almost the entire summer vacation. The very thought of spending two whole months in Calcutta gave me jitters. I don't know why I hated going there so much despite it being loved by everyone for its charm, life, food, people, trains, tram etc etc.
My last visit to Calcutta was in 2010, when my friend PC from my Journalism college decided to head home while we the students were being taken for yet another study tour. PC just needed a reason to go home. She found this good enough. I, having visited the study tour place already once earlier decided to travel to Calcutta as a matter of factly. I simply suggested PC if I could accompany her, and she was ready with open arms. A very dear uncle of mine lives in Calcutta. I told him I would be coming for four days and would like to meet him once. He was surprised beyond comparison. He couldn't believe that of all the places I had decided to come down to Calcutta. He literally wanted to thank PC for igniting in me the urge to visit the city after years. What were meant to be just four days, seemed like a long vacation I had taken to visit Calcutta.
I did not know that 2010 would probably be my last visit to Calcutta. I have not had a reason to visit the city again. As I said, it shall always remain in the end of my list of "to visit" places. Yet, I wanted to read this book, Longing Belonging, ever since I saw the author post about its book launch. Unfortunately I couldn't attend the launch at Chennai; I somehow managed a copy from a family friend. I do not know what really drove me to pick up the book. Was it Calcutta? or the fact that I had loved the author's first book, "Chai, Chai- Travels in Places You Stop But Never Get off" ? Or was it the Bong Connection? I guess it was the last two points that 'instigated' me.
"There is always a Bengali who knows better. " These are concluding lines of the book. Quite apt too. As a Bengali, I am sure many would know Calcutta way better than what I have seen and read from the book. I assume they would even be better off to criticise or praise the book. However, as a person reading it from the point of view of an "outsider" or "Probashi Bangali" (A Bengali living outside of Bengal) I think I connect with the author' thoughts in some ways.
The book is indeed an outsider's account of what he sees and feels about Calcutta. Connected to Calcutta at first in his childhood ( like my mother) through the routine vacation, the author is finally connected permanently to it as he marries a girl from the very city. However, he hasn't yet dared to move in to the city with his belongings. He is happy to have been living down south for the past ten years or so. Through the author's eyes, you SEE Calcutta. You visit the Happening and not so happening places of Calcutta. From Park Street to Kalighat, Kumartuli to Sutanuti, Durga Puja to Saraswati puja; Writer's building to the factory where was 'invented' KC Das brand of Roshogollas; From Sonnagachchi to Victoria Memorial; Howrah bridge, Vishwabharati, Vidyasagar Setu, Saltlake City, Mother Teresa' Home, Flurys, Coffee House, Floatel, Tollygunge Club, Etc etc; the book spans across four seasons- Spring, Summer, Winter and Spring Again.
The author takes you through a Calcutta that you may have heard about, read about and may be even seen but not really gone into the depths of it. He probes the lives of its inhabitants- some famous and some not so famous- throwing light into the various facades of lives living in the same city in different circumstances. They have all have a thing in common, they have tasted success only after going through trial times. Personally, I loved the accounts of the famous writer- Sunil Gongopadhyay; a tram driver- Uma Shankar Pandey; Asim Dasgupta-CPM leader; Tapan Barik- a local dada; Sanatan Dinda- an artist and Indrani Roy- a local journalist. Each account is unique in itself and they all talk about a Calcutta that existed a 'long time ago.'
The book is something that you would love to read on a lazy Sunday afternoon with a cup of tea in hand. You witness a Calcutta, where you would like to go in an instant and see how life still moves on in the same way as it did a long time ago. The only minor change being whatever little development that has taken place over the years. The thing that remains constant is- the people living there, their warmth and attitude towards life, the city and its essence, the food, and of course, Durga Puja.
I did have the urge to go and visit the city. I guess it is the Bong Connection with the city which makes me want to go there. Just that I do not know whether that day will arrive anytime soon. Till then, you guys read on. Happy Reading!