I have a fascination for Kolkata. I have been enticed to travel its by-lanes after many a virtual experiences of its physical and mental landscapes through the hungryalists and other Bengali authors whom I have admired since childhood days. In spite of that, Kolkata is the only big city of India that I am yet to make a proper visit. Coincidentally, the book I have taken for review has the title – ‘KOLKATA CHRONICLE: An A to Z Guide for the Uninitiated.’ Thus I took up reading this book about Kolkata with the fascination of an unmet lover. Oh boy, was I disappointed?
In the second chapter which is about book festivals in Kolkata, the author has quoted Vir Sanghvi who wrote, “You want your cities clean and green; stick to Delhi. You want your cities rich and impersonal; go to Bombay. You want them high-tech and full of draught beer; Bangalore’s your place. But if you want a city with a soul; come to Calcutta.”
I wish Sreeparna Sen had made it the opening quote of her book. If the title of the book gives an indication about the contents of the book, this quote sets out the tone for the things to be expected from the book and the author has succeeded in doing what she set out to do. All the articles explore the soul of Kolkata behind the facade of its events and landmarks.
The first chapter itself highlights the quintessential of Kolkata life – the adda. In big cities you have clubs and many other types of social gatherings where formality, etiquette and show off of social status are the orders of the day. But the Kolkata adda is a gathering where it is possible to let down all barriers and have a heart to heart talk. I feel that it might be the adda life that must have given rise to poetic movements like the hungryalists. The author makes it clear that “The adda of Kolkata is not to be confused with the Hindi word adda, which typically refers to a nest of shady people”.
I have had many Bengali friends and neighbors during my stay in various places of India as part of my nomadic life in military service. But it was a surprise for me to know the obsession of the Kolkatan with tea and coffee. The Japanese are well known for their excellence in formal tea ceremonies. Going by the article on tea, perhaps the Kolkatan would excel in the informal kind.
In the chapter on music she has mentioned the prominent poets Bengal is proud of; the poets who took Bengali literature to the international stage. However I missed the mention of ‘Baul Sangeet’ for which I have a personal soft corner and which was the inspiration for poets like Rabindranath Tagore.
Sreeparna Sen’s writing style has a smooth flow. All the articles bring out the elements that distinguish Kolkata from other cities. The exception perhaps being the chapter about X-mas. Of curse, we have to keep in mind that when each chapter has to correspond to an English alphabet somewhere you are a little constrained.
The life of a Bengali is incomplete without Durga pujo, machher jhol (ilish to be specific), sandesh and other sweets, literature and music. The author has brought her personal connections to all the events happening in Kolkata. I think her description of her first hand experiences will definitely provoke nostalgia among the Bengalis too.
Make no mistake. This book is not your usual layman’s travel guide to Kolkata. It is about how it feels to live in Kolkata and that too as a Bengali. It is about how it feels to be a part of the Kolkata vibes. If you have been in Kolkata but you are not a Bengali, there are chances you might have missed the depths and the ranges of the experiences that Kolkata has to offer. Hopefully, through this book you get a chance to compensate for that.
For the uninitiated, going through the book is a good way to have a virtual experience of the city and its vibes. Especially at time when you do not have the option to physically travel to the city.