Listen, I’m Bengali. So, understandably, I’m biased. But I do have a bit more of a balanced perspective, because I grew up in Chennai, and have lived in the U.S. ever since I was 17 years old. I spent my summers in Kolkata, that’s about it. But still, something about that city charms me and draws me in like no other.
I remember sitting on my suitcase at the railway station or at the airport when my final exams were over, listening to my Walkman, immersed in a book, but brimming with the excitement of seeing my cousins, my aunts, and my uncles. Every moment I spent in transit in that city was on the way to a memorable experience. And for one reason or another, since I moved to the U.S., I’ve only been able to visit a couple of times. And yet, that visceral yearning I feel is very tangible and as strong as it ever was.
Then a few weeks ago, I came across this brilliant video posted by the Government of West Bengal, Department of Tourism.
More than 34,000 people have shared it on Facebook and more than a million have watched it, Bengalis and otherwise. And if you watch it too, you’ll know why. If you haven’t, don’t waste another second.
[Read Related: The Struggle of Deciding Between Being Bengali or American]
What you see in that video, that is everyone’s Kolkata, but in this poem, she is mine alone.
She’s Mine, Alone
Those bleary-eyed mornings
Turning over on a firm bed
Face rubbing against fragrant pillows.
Waking up to milky coffee and screaming crows.
Time moved slower, the air
Smelled of livestock and smoke.
Flapping birds painted the sky
With a sense of fleeting freedom.
The hustle and bustle is beginning
People talking louder than they need to,
The sound of a bicycle and its bell
Coming up the street
Accompanied by a loud, nasal cry:
A vendor pitching his wares,
Either hand towels or brooms.
His finger flicks constantly at the ringer
His dark hair and blue lungi flutter
As he races down the steamy dusty road.
A cow ambles down, mooing calmly,
As the Istiri wala sets up shop
Fills his iron with coals, lays out fabrics to press.
A woman hangs against the railings of the balcony
Yelling for him to send his son to collect her clothes.
Warm, spicy smells of breakfast float
From and to every house in the neighborhood.
Children in blue and green school uniforms
Wave as they crawl into autorickshaws and cars.
Just a little way down, a group of young upstarts
Smoke their cigarettes, sip on bottles of Coke,
Eyes following girls who walk by.
A plump naked toddler is seen on the terrace next door
Giggling and running from his harried mother
Who is pursuing him, sari tucked out of the way,
Carrying a bottle of body oil.
Cars and buses whiz by on that main road.
An old torn up plastic bag is carried along
With the whooshing of air.
Brown thatched huts stand, slightly defiant
Brown, bouncing children enjoy splashing
At a rusty water pump.
Bubbling sticky rice is being cooked
On crackling fire pits
By weary looking women.
Every couple of block corners
Host the neighborhood snack man.
Spicy onion fritters, egg rolls, jhaal muri and phuchka.
Sliced and spiked raw mango slices topped with chilli powder.
Carts loaded with massive cool watermelons.
Olive green young coconuts, with a straw.
Spicy peanuts in a newspaper cone.
Sweet shops smelling of jaggery, cream and ghee.
The concrete practically hisses and sizzles,
Crackling, releasing heat back towards
The unforgiving sun.
It smells like Kochuri and Alur Dum.
Old trees provide welcome relief.
That long street with little book stalls
Smelling of old paper.
Full of life.
Bright yellow lumpy bumpy taxis whizz by
Each carrying a different story.
Maybe, afternoons are better spent
On a cool tile floor under a fan on high
Curled up with a pillow and a book
Dozing off after a heavy lunch.
Soon, the sun is ready to set
In all its orange-rose glory.
Cups of tea and cream biscuits
Shared with the family.
As the neighborhood children play,
Setting up a cricket pitch on the street.
Cooler breezes flow in
People on balconies and terraces
Wind down, winding through
The red, green, blue multicolored
Bandhni, Batik and Baluchari.
Saris and Salwars, among jeans and shirts
Hanging on lines, trying to dry
Despite the humidity.
Dusky air, diffused light
Deepening sky, dramatic dark clouds
A whirlwind of a rainstorm.
Welcome winds, fat rain drops,
Over almost as soon as it began.
Night has arrived.
She shakes out her long dark perfumed hair
Twinkling with ancient adornments.
Smiles as she greets the horizon
Spreads her aanchol over the earth
Singing a lullaby that filters through
The howling of stray dogs.
Sleep is deeper, dreams are sweeter.
A day spent in Kolkata
Is tantamount to a lifetime.