I have been touring a few spots of central Kolkata recently, and I have had the opportunity to note certain characteristics in some of them. I would like to take you through these. I am hopeful that you won’t get this information presented in just such a way anywhere else. The places that we shall be visiting today in this enlightening journey are Nandan, the Planetarium, the Victoria Memorial and the Maidan.
First off, Nandan. This place is officially the West Bengal Film Centre, where we have the Kolkata Film Festival once a year with good movies, and the Rest of the Year Festival, with not-so-good movies. But it’s always dirt cheap.
Slightly less officially, this place is the capital hangout for the intellectual flock of Kolkata. They have filthy beards, wear Panjabi and Pajama, carry around cloth sidebags, and always make their intellectual conversations loud.
Unofficially, but most popularly, this is yet another hangout spot for teens and tweens and couples who haven’t got much dough in their pockets but all the time in the world. Among couples, there is little caressing and no snogging as a rule, but a lot of sitting side-by-side on the bird-shitted seats and holding hands and talking to each other while staring straight ahead at the soft drinks outlet opposite.
The Film Centre has two theatres, Nandan-I, which is pretty small but has the cheap, comfortable feel (well, at least to people like me for whom cheap means comfortable), and Nandan-II, which is just a really tiny cafe with a crowd of people who have drawn up little uncomfortable cafe chairs and are all equally surprised at the smallness of the room. They stare at a flat cafe wall with moving pictures for two hours, amid draggings of chairs and people getting up and blocking other people’s view, and power-cuts and snide comments and all.
Nuzzling Nandan is a neighbour that deserves mention. It’s the Academy of Fine Arts where some art exhibition is almost always on display for free, and college students (usually girls) roam around the premises with notebooks, cornering people to ask them if a recent painting by a white-bearded artist sporting naked boobs (the painting, not the artist) is moral, or immoral. And you are supposed to become intellectual and stare, frowning deeply at the sky, and churn up all your knowledge of painting, and give them an answer that will stun the world. The answer, as a thumb rule, must not clearly state either moral, or immoral. Hazy, roundabout answers with a lot of flair and irrelevant facts are considered educated and informed answers in India.
Okay. Next, the Planetarium.
The Madhav Prasadji Birla Planetarium is one of the most well-maintained and hence most terrorizing places to be in Kolkata, as I have found out over several visits. The place is spotless for all practical purposes, but not so in the eyes of the planetarium authorities, who very openly regard their treasured tomb to be just crawling with kid-hauling, gaping, shouting, ticketted two-legged spots.
You are not allowed to sit on the stairs. If you are sitting on the stairs, the security guard who runs his private universe there looms upon you with a metal detector in his hand and tells you very politely to move your blessed ass from his Stairs a la Grande.
You are not allowed to lug a bag around, if you are male. You are supposed to deposit it with another security guard whose job it is to tie blue plastic tokens to your luggage and give you a twin token to keep, and at other times to incline himself on a chair at a close angle to the horizontal and snore at the sky.
However, if you are a female, you are allowed to lug around a Santa Claus sack with a Toyota Land Cruiser, a Nuke missile and three dead mammoth heads in it. The reason, as explained by an excellent acquaintance of mine, is that ‘girls may have stuff they need, like pads and stuff.’ Heck, what if I carry my pacemaker around in my bag? Although I can’t imagine that argument going down well with that security guard. It doesn’t even go down well with me. I haven’t heard of many people who need a pacemaker, and keep it in their bags. All right, but what if I always need to carry boxes of medicine with me that stop my large intestine flowing out of my rectum every time I breathe the slightest cough, or my brain expanding and leaking through my ears every time I ponder about picking my nose? Would you consider that excusable enough, Staircase-God?
Anyway, you are not allowed to hang around or sit on the benches without being questioned. If you have got a ticket for the show, you can sit. Otherwise, you are told very politely and with well-practised efficiency to please fuck off.
Inside, there’s, usually, a very old woman who narrates the show. Her attitude towards her audience would miraculously represent the look on your wife’s face if you peed down the diagonal of her well-polished living room floor. She condemns use of the cell phone while the show is on, and talking, and babies crying and shouting and giggling and… well… being babies, generally. If she catches someone talking or with their phone light on in the darkness of the tomb, she abruptly halts the show, flicks on the lights, threatens to throw them out of the dome, and commands one of the helpers in the room to bring that person to her, so that she may see for herself the extent of his or her insolence. This is all the God’s truth, and I am not making up any of this. I personally think she is so sore because she bitterly awaits a grim afterlife after having dissected God’s heavens into equinoxes and perihelions in her dark dome all her life.
Not everyone is interested to know about Saturn’s rings during the show. Some people spot attractive females in the hall before the virtual sun goes down in the dome, and stare at them with their friends throughout the virtual night, in total darkness. They can see nothing. Yet they stare, with the knowledge that the chick is still there. And that is enough for them, even if in the middle of the show the chick’s position had to be swapped for some reason with that of a beaming, toothless old woman staring at the foot of the projector, expecting to see Jupiter’s moons appear there at any moment. In such a case, however, when the virtual sun rises again, one may well imagine the dismay of our voyeuristic heroes. But that is so very Kolkata.
Right across the road are the Victoria Memorial on the left, and the Maidan on the right. We shall go to the Memorial first.
The Victoria Memorial is a fine English monument built by the English when they were swinging their monkey-tail all over India, looking out from Kolkata, the then capital. The Memorial is for Queen Victoria. Self-explanatory. It’s a fine sample of British architecture. It’s white… ish, and made of marble, and of wood at places made to look like marble.
The building is set in a fine park sort of place, with benches and trees and an embanked lake. There are a few statues also in the grounds, with caged footlights looking up at them from the ground, the cages filled to the neck with gravel of the same species that is laid out on the pathways of the park – the doings of a hopeless public.
There are two kinds of tickets for going in: one for the grounds only, and one for inside the Memorial. It doesn’t mean that if you buy a ticket of the second kind you’ll be taken to an Olympic discus thrower waiting outside the park gates who will fling you from there neatly inside the Memorial, where after your recovery and upon completion of your visit, another there would fling you back outside, without your ever having to touch a blade of grass on the grounds. No, the second kind of ticket also covers the grounds. The second kind of tickets are around Rs. 10 for Indians and Rs. 150 for foreign nationals. I am sure someone somewhere would have something to say about this.
Inside the building there are loads of paintings and photographs and objects reminiscent of old Calcutta and India, and of historical value, including the Queen’s Proclamation, a bunch of old numbered lies, inscribed on the wall. Look it up on the web to see what I mean. The dome of the building is painted from the inside in bad taste. It’s painted with thin economic paint, in purple and yellow. I wish they had left it crumbling and dirty. That has a sort of beauty and romance that the authorities did not understand. Anyway, those, who like me have observed Time for quite some…, er… time, would agree that the processes of crumbling and degeneration and consequent automatic beautification of anything is wholly out of the hands of such frustrated authorities. Time shall always have the last word.
Strewn on the ground floor are marble statues of intimidating English lords and busty English ladies on pedestals, with a very obvious commanding look on all of them. Then there are a few cannons. And some more paintings.
There’s a first floor. On the landing to the first floor, at a dirty left corner, there’s a dark, ancient, once-ornamental urn set on a small dark stool. More than once I have gone close to it to inspect it, and it seemed to be packed with some sort of dark, dirty, reddish soil looking suspiciously like a hundred years of accumulated paan spit of the citizens of Kolkata. I guess when the British (or whoever) put it there, they were not thinking of the significance that corner urns such as this have in India.
On the first floor there’s a lookout point right on the front face of the building, from which you can, well, look out if you want to, at the gardens.
Now about the gardens themselves. There is only one capital and exclusive thing anyone can say about the gardens: they are THE place in Kolkata for engaging in that primal and prolonged affair of courtship. There are many places for keeping such appointments: the green benches strewn across the park, the embanked edges of the lake when the benches run out, the foot of a statue in the garden, on the grass in a lawn somewhere, inside a hedge, in the water of the lake, up in the trees, or wherever your fetishes lead you. In fact, the popularity of Victoria Memorial concerning this is so widespread that the word Victoria uttered in a conversation is meant to convey only that thing, unless otherwise stated. The guys who are paid to look after the cleaning of the gardens are normally the type who would love to drool at couples for long summer holidays, but a few months working in Victoria is enough to turn even them into nonchalant passers-by whom a piece of trash plastic interests more than a vigorously wrestling couple.
However, flocks of jobless, and jobful people making an astounding job of looking convincingly jobless, gather at the outside perimeter wall of Victoria to stand in a round line to watch for hours the frolics of the couples beneath the boughs and in the grassy lawns. This is one characteristic of our country that sets it apart from almost all other countries in the world: the urgent and almost religious need for sneak-peeking. It is an organized activity, and the ones doing it are not the least uncomfortable about what they are doing. It’s like they are watching a nun flipping through Victoria’s Secret (forgive the pun). Why should they be uncomfortable? They have the moral upper hand. They could be slicing pockets and squeezing innocent girls in crowded city buses in the day, and be drunk and happily beating their wives at night, but for these blessed few hours they are the good, they are the god, they are not fondling or kissing or hugging a girl. They are all happily male, and all happily standing there in that long round line outside the Victoria premises with monkey-like smiles on their faces, holding invisible banners of Indian morality, tradition and culture, as they slurp and burp on the free movie show. All but the most hardened couples quake in their gaze and journey to find other spots not so easily accessible to viewers from the street. The hardened couples, on the other hand, are another wonder. They sit in plain sight, and of course in full knowledge of their viewers, and they entertain.
This voyeurism has a feature. The crowd will focus on couples, and solitary girls. Single and multiple boys are of absolutely no interest. Even when they are watching a couple, they are actually watching the girl being handled by the boy. I am sure, on more intent research, I could produce something more on this subject, but my interests encourage me to dwell elsewhere.
The last, and my most favourite place of all, the Maidan.
The Maidan means in Hindi and Bangla a field. So, as the name says, the Maidan is a vast expanse of green, untended field right in the heart of Kolkata. It is strewn with a few clumps of thick, large trees, and the rest is just grass after grass after green grass. The grass is tall in some places and short in others. Among the grass there is in some considerable abundance another living species: horses. These horses are not wild. They are tamed and used for business. They either draw ornate carriages in front of Victoria Memorial for those who can spare the money and allow themselves to be in the limelight of so much public attention, or they can give you and your beau a little short ride on the back along a bit of the circumference of the Maidan. They are generally not well-fed, and are mostly seen to be feeding on the Maidan grass itself, processing it in their bellies, and you know what comes next. So, for that reason, you must beware of every step that you tread among the green grasses of Maidan, because your next one could land you in a pit of horse-dung.
When it rains, or even a day or two after it has rained, the Maidan is hell muddy. Even so, it wouldn’t have been so much of a problem if the Maidan were all muddy or all dry. But its muddiness varies with position. In some places, especially the ones with short grass, the land stays more or less dry and you can step there. But you walk along it and suddenly you have stepped on a spot of taller grass and your foot goes squelch! into the brown and watery mud. When you pull it out with a thick suck, your foot and footwear are bathing in the glorious earthy semi-liquid. You suddenly realize, and this is a surprisingly common occurrence even to others in the Maidan if you keep your eyes open, that you are staring hopelessly all around you, trying to navigate to the point where you wanted to be. It’s impossible to tell from your perch which parts are muddy. Everything is green. You try to circumnavigate, everyone tries to circumnavigate, but it only makes matters worse. That’s not all, folks. An added attraction is quicksand! Yes, there’s also something like that thrown in. It’s dark, and it’s near where the horses are stationed, and I have a strong suspicion that among its constituents a surprising proportion will be Equus-shit. It is at the very edge of the Maidan, so that you conveniently come to it when you are thinking that you have reached the end of your muddy tale. It looks beautifully dark and solid. You step on it, and you sink ankle-deep into it, and that is the prime moment when the thought dawns first on everyone’s mind that a surprising proportion of it might be horse-dung. You think that as you are still going down. But then you have no option but to walk on through it, then slink inconspicuously through civilization for the rest of the day. The only ones who emerge victorious from this fight with moistened earth are the ones who have already waved their white flags at the outset, and step on the Maidan with their footwear in their hands and their garments pulled to their knees. It is the same ancient tale of man v/s the fury of nature. You just have to surrender first if you are to salvage any dignity at the end of the day.
I was wondering till now about the connection between the height of grass and the muddiness of that region. I couldn’t find any answer all this time because I was thinking backwards: why do the places with tall grass become most muddy and watery? Now the answer suddenly dawned on me while I was writing the previous paragraph:
The muddiness depends only on the geography of the Maidan. The geography dictates where water would flow and accumulate and where it would stay dry. Where it stays dry the grass doesn’t grow much and remains stunted. Where there’s more water the grass grows to its heart’s content and gets taller.
Enough of my speculative science. I wanted to tell you a few things about the Maidan that I like very much.
The first is that you can see almost all of Kolkata’s famous landmarks (and half-landmarks like the Tata Steel Building) in various directions from the Maidan: from the south, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Birla Planetarium, the Victoria Memorial and the angel on its dome, the Howrah Bridge to the West (the Sun sets on it), and the lights of the Eden Gardens more north.
What is more, one can see so much of the sky. Plentiful, armfuls of the sky. All over your head, all around you. Not a flat small picture postcard any more, but engulfing your vision, stretching beyond it. Last time I saw the sky, overcast, with the sun looking like a light with white cloth on it, I thought ironically and pitiably, ’that’s so Bryce!’ (Bryce, by the way, is a very favourite 3D design and animation software of mine, which has a lot of beautiful but hopelessly artificial sky presets.)
I like to lie down on the Maidan grass (short ones. It’s a matter of personal taste.) and stare at the tiny specks flying in the sky, and thank the people who had the brilliant idea of an oddly large field smack in the middle of the city. I look at all these landmarks that people recognize as Kolkata, my city, and I feel my grudges against this city and my hopelessness at its hopeless state fading away. I forget, for some time, about other parts of the city not so beautiful and well-planned, streets far uglier, municipal, political, economic problems, strikes, traffic jams, a corrupt, lazy people leading forward a city into a future darker than what it could have been, and I just stare at the green and white around me, and get to love all these places I told you about, and just be glad I didn’t miss out on being here in my city.
There is also another most curious thing which I found out just on my last visit there. If you sit in the Maidan and pay attention for just a little bit, you will easily hear a roar. A soft but deep and continuous roar all around you, rushing towards the centre of the field from the city. You will think it is just the noise from the traffic around Maidan, but it’s something more. It’s smoothened and deepened and made into something like the sound of the sea. And it comes not only from the traffic all around, but from beyond as well, from the city itself, all around you. Ironically, again, it is the same sound which is present, maybe, all the time elsewhere in the city, but you cannot hear it because of the traffic noise all around you. The Maidan stifles some of the noise of the traffic, and mixes the rest with the hum of the city and gives you that roar.
If you now stand up, then you will notice that when you pass maybe the five foot mark from the ground, the sound changes suddenly and considerably. It is more open now, less deep, more like a lot of wind blowing in a vast open space, which, by the way, I suspect exactly what it is. But I am somehow sure you can hear it even on a very windless day, that change of sound, because I did. I guess this other sound is blocked by the trees all around Maidan when you sit down. But this sound, it’s really most beautiful, the roar and steady hum of Kolkata, my city. Whatever else it may lack, courtesy, cleanliness, discipline, a sense of respect for others’ privacy, respect for public property, it does not lack life. It is just this magnificent collage of thousands of little colourful postage-sized lives pasted together into a huge and beautiful tapestry. Each of those postage stamps is bursting with its own story. When you put it all together and spread that colossal canvas of tiny stamp bits all around you, you just expect it to roar and hum.