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      Volume 10 Issue 01| January 07, 2011 |


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Those Kolkata Evenings...

Syed Badrul Ahsan

Park Street, Kolkata.

In their later fifties, they had all travelled back to their late teens. On Kolkata's Free School Street, these days known as Mirza Ghalib Street, Zakia (and she is the woman I married long ago, for good, it seems) and her friends were coming together again, with me thrown in for good measure, to chime in the New Year. The conversation was cheeringly loud, the laughter was earth shattering and the jokes, flowing stream-like, made one roll on one's stomach for minutes on end. Kiran Singh came forth with her mixture of English and Hindi; Jawed Hassan, beside the radiant Shireen, demonstrated yet once more the throbbing soul that is his; Jaya and Raaj, with whom my meeting was nearly a quarter century after the last one, were yet the suave Bengali couple they used to be; Romy Oberoi, once the most handsome man in the group, with the girls falling for him because of his Gregory Peck-like voice, asked me in low tones if I wanted a brandy. A pity I couldn't oblige him, for my wife kept glaring at both of us. A glass of coca cola was all that I had.

And then it struck midnight. The whole of Kolkata exploded in cheers and laughter and sometimes in the inanity of screams. In that room, it was suddenly hugs and kisses that took over. Everyone felt that life was to be lived. Thoughts of posterity were far from the mind, and very properly too. I watched them all. I saw in those evergreen teenagers the verve and energy that has consistently defined Kolkata. I observed, in happy surprise, the spontaneity which gave Zakia a new dimension, a zest for life that was hers in all the years she had spent growing up in Kolkata. And I wondered what huge compulsion was there for her to move to a new country, to leave behind an ambience that had always been hers and that she ought to have held on to. As Kolkata lighted up in the early minutes of a new year, it felt good to see her laugh and scream. In that vibrant countenance, it was a long-ago, perennial image of womanhood that was fast taking shape before me once more: she striding forth, books hugging her, from the classroom to the teachers' room, to tell me I reminded her of Woody Allen. Rewind to Dhaka 1981.

Around me, around us, Kolkata was in a state of delight, as London had been a year previously. In the pre-dawn hours I would be on my way back home to Bangladesh, reliving the intense few days in which I had soaked the city into my consciousness through my long walks along Park Street and Elgin Road. The end of December in Bengal (read here the free state of Bangladesh and the Indian portion of the old landscape) is always a time for self-discovery. In Kolkata this winter, it was again memories of my father that tiptoed back in. On Ripon Street, the imagination went back to a recreation of the quarters he had lived in. I passed by the old geological survey office, the workplace that had been his for five years before he bade farewell to Kolkata for good as he boarded a train for distant Quetta. At New Market and in Chowringhee, cosmopolitan crowds flowed silently, politely by. What then had gone wrong with civility back in the mad summer of 1946, to propel Muslims and Hindus into murderous assaults on one another? Nothing can be more wounding than a mauling of history, than a feeling that what should have been one, indivisible country is today a scarred, charred landscape of geography and soul. Things should not have been this way. Waiting to cross the road, for I meant to walk into Music World on the other side, I asked myself: couldn't 1947 have come and gone, without ravaging lives, without jeopardising the future of the generations to be?

At Oxford, the books place on Park Street, I leafed through the volumes I would be taking home. I sipped tea, wishing Shona were around, wishing the moments did not rush to a close. Bibliophiles talked in various states of excitement around me. The oyster in me craved the pearl in her. The earth wished, desperately, to find itself again in the warmth of the sky.


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