Since Dominique Lapierre wrote the novel and Roland Joffé made the film in 1992 based on that title, Calcuttans have taken pride in the moniker City of Joy. The pride is not misplaced: the media often tells inspiring stories of hope and joy from this city, where many known and unknown heroes have dedicated their lives to bringing compassion and comfort to the needy people.
Personally, Kolkata has been a home to me much before I got entangled in its love when I came here following Maitreyee from Delhi and we married. I had soulmates who made the city their home years before and shared the space and moments of their artistic and cultural lives with me on my occasional visits. I enjoyed with them the addas (informal, freestyle conversations), discussing art, culture, politics and films — all of which are integral parts of a Bengali’s life. When we were not drowsy from night-long addas, we enjoyed visiting the iconic cultural centres in the city.
My visits to the city became more regular after our marriage, not the least for the practical aspects of life, like when our family expanded, but also because our familial love expanded. I have the privilege of being a son-in-law of a traditional Bengali household, which means a royal welcome waits for me every time I visit, be it for 2 days or 2 weeks. The joy of being a Bengali son-in-law has continued with the boon of tasty food, care and festivities.
Book, me, any time
One integral part of our journeys to Kolkata all these years has been the pleasure of bringing bagfuls of books home (which in this context could be Bonn, Copenhagen, Delhi or Geneva), regularly filled at the International Kolkata Book Fair, the world’s largest book fair. Our library got fatter on the foundation of extra baggage charges we paid the airlines on every visit, but the world of Bengali literature is like an ocean from which we have drawn only a few drops. And imagine the challenge when we include English books — India has the second largest English book publishing industry in the world. So we remain bookworms, hungry to chomp on any book in our sight.
Although it was a brief stopover this time and shop hours were limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we didn’t miss to visit a couple of bookstores in the city. The first was the 100-year-old, historical Oxford Bookstore on Park Street. If this bookstore had a voice, it’d narrate volumes of stories of the historical personalities and events that have been part of its life. And it would tell you the stories over cups of hot tea and snacks in its charming Cha Bar.
The second was a more modern and lively bookshop in a sprawling mall. It cannot compete with Oxford in experience or history but the variety of its collections is equally expansive. You shouldn’t be surprised we spent more hours there than in the Cha Bar and were smiling behind our masks despite the jetlag.
Many faces of joy
The surprise is on me, in fact. Home to millions of people on a wide scale of wealth and poverty, Kolkata has been badly affected by the pandemic, with loss of livelihoods and lives: nearly 18,000 people have died so far in the state of West Bengal. Many shops, restaurants and hotels have shuttered during the national and local lockdowns. Migrant labourers, workers and small-time vendors and hawkers, who make a big part of the city’s business life, have fled their work for home, or been stranded without work. Death and illness has touched almost everyone, sometimes six degrees apart but often directly. As a friend said, people have survived the pandemic but families have not. The story is no different than in other parts of the country, irrespective of political grandstanding.
So I am surprised to see the city’s spirit doesn’t look diminished from pre-pandemic times, even though its streets and footpaths are not even half as crowded as they would be in the evenings or weekends. People are going about their business as if nothing has happened. Is it still the same City of Joy, I wonder. The best way to find out is to walk the streets.
Treading Kolkata’s footpaths is no joyride, as crowded as they usually are with people, hawkers’ wares, garbage, construction materials and homes of the homeless people. If you are not mindful, you can step on someone’s dinner or a pile of garbage. So I step on and off the footpath, carefully avoiding the careless and maskless people. Even in this disorder, I hear popular Bengali and Bollywood music from hawkers’ stalls, enticing to enjoy life carefree. Face masks with hundreds of traditional and western designs hang in rows, promising to turn anyone into fashionistas. People rush home from work with bags of sweets and evening snacks, some in masks and many without. Queues form for auto-rickshaws and outside sweetmeat shops. A group of men plays cards under a street lamp and the watchful eyes of more men, all faces joyful and without masks. It seems to me everyone is trying to show how happy, carefree and joyful they are, the pandemic be damned, to prove it is still the City of Joy. Maybe it is this fatalistic resignation that gives the citizens of this city the edge over destitution and death.
At the corner of a footpath, I see a group of 3 young girls enjoying a TV series on a mobile phone. They are squatting and hunching on the footpath, under a street lamp, their faces intent with attention. A pushcart stands nearby with their unsold wares, a pile of juicy corns. While passing by, I glance at the phone screen: a popular drama series with lots of conflicts is playing. It looks incongruous, but can I begrudge them their moment of joy?