Chitra Divakaruni Reflects on Kolkata

Kolkata is a city of jarring changes and enduring traditions. Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP-Getty Images

I was born in the city of Kolkata, as was my mother, and her mother before her. One of my earliest memories of the city (known at that time by its colonial name, Calcutta) is standing on the terrace of the old house that had been in my maternal grandparents’ family for generations, looking out on the swaying tops of the coconut trees that gave their name to that area of Kolkata: Narkeldanga. At that time, Narkeldanga was at the northern edge of Kolkata. Now the city, the capital of West Bengal, has expanded well beyond it, and most of the trees are gone, replaced by glass factories, saw mills, and a Maruti Car Service Center. My grandparents’ house is gone too, with its crumbling yellow stucco and its floor-to-ceiling green shuttered windows; several boxy concrete apartment buildings have mushroomed up where it once stood, a common trend in this metropolis where space is increasingly at a premium. If my grandmother looked out of the window of one of the flats, she would have thought she had been transported to a whole other city.

Each time I travel to Kolkata, the changes hit me hard: the brontosaurian concrete flyovers that slash the city skyline; the sparkling new malls and multiplexes, shrines of consumerist modernity to which people flock to pay daily obeisance; the upscale “discs” (as discos are called, in slang) and bars that stay open almost all night, where you can almost believe you are (as the name of one popular venue claims) Someplace Else; the popular television shows disturbingly reminiscent of American Idol and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Most Kolkatans view these changes as proud signs of progress, a way for the city, which had fallen from its colonial glory into dowdy genteelness, to take its deserved place in the 21st century. Even my cousins have little sympathy for the heartache I feel for the vanished spaces and customs of my youth. Nostalgia, they scoff, is an immigrant’s disease.

A little nostalgia might help Kolkatans preserve some of the beautiful historical buildings that are falling to pieces, I retort, and soon we are engaged in hot debate, laced with jokes and taunts—a favorite pastime of Bengalis, for which there’s a special, untranslatable term: adda.

I know this, though: in spite of the globalization (or perhaps Bollywoodization, for popular Hindi movies wield enormous influence upon the young) of Kolkata, the city holds on to the traditions it loves with tenacity. One sees it in the beautiful, cool, starched, cotton handloom saris, each with its special name—Dhonekhali, Tangail, Dhakai—based on its unique patterning, worn by the women. One sees it in the robust theater tradition that goes back to pre-independence, when Kolkata played a pivotal role in mobilizing the swadeshi (or freedom) movement against the British. Theater in Kolkata has evolved in exciting, experimental ways and currently moves with ease between staging translations of famous plays culled from world literature (Ionesco and Sophocles remain favorites) and performing the work of young Kolkata playwrights. One sees it in the growing popularity of restaurants such as Oh! Calcutta and Bhojohori Manna that specialize in traditional Bengali dishes like golda chingri (giant prawns simmered in a creamy coconut sauce) and nolen gurer sandesh (jaggery-flavored balls made from cottage cheese), dishes my grandmother might have cooked. One sees it in the all-night music concerts in Rabindra Sadan, featuring classical music or the songs of Rabindranath Tagore, Kolkata’s most renowned son and the first Asian to receive the Nobel Prize, after whom the venue is named. One sees it in the resurgence of Bengali Parallel Cinema (originally made famous by stalwarts like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen in the 1950s and ’60s) with award-winning films by directors such as Aparna Sen and Rituparno Ghosh.

On the last day of my visit, I stand on the veranda of my uncle’s flat in South Kolkata, in the heart of the city. I can smell my aunt’s cooking. She’s frying potol for me, a tiny Bengali gourd difficult to find in the United States. An adda is in robust progress in the living room: my uncle and his friends discussing politics and football, two perennially favorite topics of Kolkatans. Ahead of me lies a segment of the city—a couple of high-rises that I think are bank buildings, an always-crowded Spencers supermarket store—and a small dilapidated mansion, perhaps 80 years old, with a tiny, age-blackened temple on its roof. As I watch, a priest rings a bell and waves a flame, and members of the household gather for arati, part of the prayer ritual. It is a scene my grandmother might have seen, looking out of her window—and a perfect example, on the eve of my departure, of the grace with which the city of my birth straddles the centuries.

Chitra Divakaruni’s novels include The Palace of Illusions, One Amazing Thing, and the upcoming Oleander Girl.