Evening will fall gently and turn on a garland of city lights through a blue-pink sunset. Homes will hum with sounds of living until it’s time for bed.
I was born and brought up in a city that was accused of being laid-back. By implication, its residents were equally laid-back or lazy; they were certainly never thought of as go-getters. It was, in that time past, known as Calcutta and we, who were in love with it, shortened the name to ‘Cal’.
Charm is slow to build. It gleams quietly under the surface of things. That was the Calcutta of my childhood. It was a city of people. That was its charm.
The creators of modern urban environments have been known to state that cities are meant for cars and other vehicles. In keeping with that belief, all over the world, cities have changed. They have made visible their streets, flyovers, and highways. They have narrowed sidewalks to almost nothing. They have made invisible their people.
Calcutta too has changed. It is now Kolkata and it sprawls with flyovers, shopping malls, high-rise buildings and fancy hotels. Its people, however, have not been dampened. They refuse to disappear! Their spirit however has changed with changing times. Kolkata is now in a hurry to catch up with the rest of the spinning world.
Imagine, if you can, growing up in a neighbourhood. Wake up to a languorous sun washing your street with gold. Watch the trees that line your wide footpath throwing dapples everywhere. You open the door to collect two bottles of milk that have been deposited on your doorstep at the crack of dawn. You wave to your neighbour who is out walking the dog. He asks how Mum is doing this morning; is the fever gone now? The day has begun and sounds of life are stirring in the homes that line the street. A while later, the street will become busy with children going to school and, then, it will become quiet again. A few cars will whizz by on and off. Men and women will go off to work and the street will wait for them to return. Evening will fall gently and turn on a garland of city lights through a blue-pink sunset. Homes will hum with sounds of living until it’s time for bed.
Our neighbourhood was a mixed up one. Calcutta was that sort of a city. It invited people in and accommodated them without question. Our neighbourhood was a microcosm of the larger city. There was, on our street, every community one can think of. We lived harmoniously together, had our squabbles, made up with each other, looked out for one another, and celebrated our festivals together. There was no chance of becoming insular, bigoted and parochial in the face of that!
It was the children who kept the neighbourhood visibly alive. We were footpath kids! We had nothing fancy with which to occupy ourselves. We came out onto the footpath every afternoon at 4 o’clock. We played together until we heard the church bell ring at 6 o’clock. No adults ever interfered with us in that time. We were trusted to behave ourselves and we were trusted to keep each other safe. We invented our own games. We learnt how to get along. We savoured each of those moments every single day.
Of course, time has flown and I have no doubt that it has made so many of us the go-getters we never were in our childhood. But this much is true, when we meet now, it all comes back in a surge of affection and laughter for our footpath days! It is more than just nostalgia. It is a gentle reminder of how easy, how beautiful it was to live free.
I too have yielded, in some measure, to the demands of being an adult. But, not completely. I am ever grateful that I grew up in a Calcutta neighbourhood that was charming, open-minded, open-hearted, and laid-back. Whatever the characteristics of my external life, my soul is slow.
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