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French author Jean-Baptiste Karr had opined (circa 1850) that: 'The more things change the more they remain the same'.
I was in my home city Kolkata last week.
That venerable, timeless and proud little poor cousin to its opulent, bustling rivals.
The erstwhile jewel of the raj.
The last bastion of a giant sized colonial hangover that endures.
The city where memories of past grandeur is etched on the grimy unpainted walls of the resplendent homes of the past, dotting time. Proud and unplastered, decked with graffiti and empty election promises.
Bear testimony to years of glory and years of neglect, all together.

Yes my city where I go back to every time I feel breathless.
The grime, the smoke, the clutter and the lassitude of the city envelops me.
With grandmothers warm hands and grandpas doting eyes.
I suck in the smell and the squalor and breathe again.
I envy the betters parts of my mother city because they scarily remind me that even Kolkata will change one day, for the better.
A perverse mind of mine tells me it's not fair.
Why can't Kolkata remain as it is, languish its misery and thrive in its spirit and continue to nourish my craving for things that are still simple and loving.
Why does it have to change and follow?
Is change mandatory?
Why can't it lead as it always has, albeit in its languorous and displeasing way.
Displeasing to the outsider but panacea to all my worries.

Where I can be myself?
It was this search that took me walking, all full 10 hours of it, in one single day.
Small enough to do and long enough to imbibe.
From Rashbehari crossing to Chetla and down the ancient rickety smelly bridge into the P- block of New Alipore, next to the erstwhile Rasoi juice factory, where a gleaming, modern apartment stands today.
The juice had been sucked dry and had found nectar in the developers hands instead.
From Majerhat bridge to Judges court road and onto the Alipore area, past the courts and the red jail building skirting around the Kalighat temple and its red light areas; where religion and vice all lived together, in merry contentment.
From Deshapriya park to Mahanirban math to the lakes down southern avenue, where the same puchkawallah (or was it his son) with perhaps the same old slimy cloth to wipe his hands on and sneeze at the same time stands still today.

From Golpark to Gariahat over the bridge down to the Birla Temple and onwards to the ice skating rink past the CCFC club which still marks its time with cricket in winter and soccer in summer and a whole lot of sports in between, as a silent reminder of its glorious past and the sahibs that came with it.
The sahibs still exist, all naturally tanned of course and a little flabbier than their pre freedom counterparts; but every inch with the same affectations, while of course gorging on samosas, watching cricket instead of thin cucumber sandwiches.

From Ballygunge Circular road, with a short glance at the old Tivoli court apartments to lower circular road (what's it called now ?) making my way through Minto Park and Hungerford street down to my alma mater St Xavier's College and ending up at Russell street to have some tea at the old Dhaba, a trifle shinier than in the past.

The Bengal club ramparts beckoned and the thirsty body craved for a cold beer or possibly a pink gin.
But I shook it off because I was looking for status quo, not status, that particular afternoon.
From the corner of Peter Cat restaurant, looked hurriedly inside at Flurys where liveried 'bearers' (how graphic can a job title be) pouring tea from bone china tea cups while everyone around were busy, taking cakes while eating them too, I suppose.
Going onward to the maidan along Red Road.
The only road I remember I could push my little motor bike to do its paces and 'impress' my pillion rider on one of those misspent college days of the distant past.

I was relieved to see cars still 'raced ' on that road.
I saw the gardens around Victoria memorial still resplendent with its many young couples who needed those tight corners to become liberated.
I walked past the All India Radio station and of course the shaggy looking Eden Gardens to end up at Dalhousie (sorry. Must learn to say BBD Bagh) in front of GPO next to the 'red' faced seat of power, Writers Building.

Strange name?
Till I remembered it was the building where the 'writers' of the East india company sat and wrote India's future some 200 years back.
Nothing was written now but writs from that building continues to play havoc with the common man's rights.

Went down to the old bus station in esplanade and onto the iconic Grand hotel, place of many a memory for all fortunate Calcuttans and the down the free school area into the not so 'new' anymore New Market.
Stifling yet freedom in its sheer nostalgia.
Cars and people, 'thousands of them, walking' side by side, with neither side yielding or expecting.
Where else?
And then ended up at Birla Planetarium still selling shooting stars and new horizons to youngsters in the murky Kolkata firmament.
A boulevard of dreams.
Yes I did it all.
All in a day's work and tired legs but a happy mind to boot.
A virtual kaleidoscope of images engulfed me.
Some pavements, depending on the where the elites lived, were clean,
Some were dirty and full of piss and shit. Dog and human alike.
Some were shopping malls, well almost. Selling and hustling.

Had to relearn the old forgotten art of weaving and ducking between people and shops, slowing down to oncoming (human) traffic and darting past slow moving fat ladies more keen to dawdle than to move.
Had to be careful as the blowing of nose and sneezing and spitting that was all around had to avoided, at all costs.
The little daughter of a pavement dweller (a term I had learnt so long back as a perfectly legitimate description of those unfortunate homeless ones) was lying on a straw mattress while her hard pressed mother was fanning the ancient "UNON' (read chula) with a large leaf.

My curiosity took me closer.
Yes, the same old cheap coal and the 'ghutey' (bio fuel today) Those mud crusted Cattle droppings that light up so many cooking fires (even today) inside the clay oven being lit.
The pot on top had all kinds of stuff in it, a gruel of sorts being cooked up for lunch.
And the kid sleeping, tired and oblivious to smoke and pollution, grime and dust.

The Hijras (transvestites) were singing in one corner and smiled at me. I had been told long back that their curse was Lethal and years of training and education still did not allow me to ignore them. Paid them 100 and felt blessed or possibly just relieved.
A smell assaulted me and I realized I was standing, waiting to cross, in front of a paid toilet, something that is mercifully more abundant than it was in my time.

But I also saw how many little piss marks still adorned those walls.
I also noticed the human faeces on the side of the Durgapur Bridge.
A stark reminder of how shame and privacy had to be sacrificed just to save a few small paisa’s. Survival meant making choices.

Take a piss without a paisa runs on the face of a swach Bharat campaign but why worry if it brings food on the table (sorry pavement).
Treated like shit and spread shit. Fair mantra.

Many a thing has been dropped on or by kolkata. What’s a little unpaid drop of excretion.
At least it's bio degradable.

The Jhalmuriwallahs and the bhelpuriwallahs were all around.

Looked and acted the same. All of them.
Standing next to each other but not looking at each other but chirping away.
Not worried about themselves as rivals.
Knew there was enough demand to be able empty their wares by day end.
No need to differentiate, or compete.
Co-conspirators joined at the hip, knowing fully well that united they stood and divided they would fall.
So why fret and fight over market share?
The tea shops were a giveaway.
Some clearly served the affluent, so they had clean tables and a choice between the 'khuris'(clay cups) or porcelain cups.
Some had no pretensions and served in miniscule plastic cups, one Gulp full of steaming tea or something that resembled tea, boiled a million times and sugary.

And the food joints.
Lunch time saw so many varieties, all on the street.
Some sit downs, some standing, some squatting.
And the pavement was the dustbin and the bucket with the dirty water is what you used to wash your hands with and gargle from.
Dosas, idles, Rotis, laccha parathas, puris, Alu Dum, fish curry, egg do piaza, mutton chaps.
A veritable delight and a heady mixture of aromas and tastes.
Made me hungry and I tasted the Puri aloo. Not as good as home but spicy and oily to fill one up quickly.

I saw the Porsche show room and the Audi garage.
I noticed a few ragamuffins by the entrance.
Sitting and looking at these cars and their people, with no regret, anger or envy.
Content in their tarpaulin covered mattress next to the street dogs that lay next which passed as home for both man and his best friend.
The Gucci shop next to Michael Kors overlooks the Shacks where full families live, love and procreate.
They don't seem to worry about sparkle and glamour but are engrossed in their own real life movie of life and death every day.
And they also live life to the hilt where excitement abounds and tempers fray.

As much as it does in that home with humming air conditioners and Persian rugs they can see through the window of when the curtains are not drawn.
The banks of the Hooghly river beckoned me.
I walked past outram ghat.
I could have been looking at a picture from 1000 years old.

People praying, haircuts and shaving by the grieving of the recent departed all over, old ladies dipping into the dirty water for piety and priests collecting the 'holy' water in old Sprite bottles for the rituals to follow, bacteria or germs or viruses notwithstanding.

Wet, slippery, flowers and sal leaves all over, a dirty grey water offering a big and bright hope and little boys diving in to retrieve the offerings, to be repackaged and resold no doubt.

Kolkata used to be spelt Calcutta.
Perhaps the C had some meaning after all.
What I saw was all the Cs.

Collaboration. Cooperation. Cohesion. Cooperation. Competition . Contentment.
And all in a civil way by honest Citizens.
No Contempt, no Corruption and no added Color to anything either.

Yet in all hues possible and a rainbow of hopes in everyone's eyes.

I saw mayhem all over.
I recoiled at the mess.
I shrank from the noise.
Each part of each street and each pavement so irritatingly dirty and busy.
But the big picture was like a giant mosaic of peace and tranquility.
An engine that had its moving parts all over but together moving towards salvation.
So much structure lacking yet so much structure to it.
Let me city be.
Let progress find its own definition here.
Let my memories remain in sync with its realities.
After all where else can I call home if not here.
Where my past finds a home embedded in the present and the future is ensconced in the same present that refuses to have a past?
My friend said it’s a city which embodies Darwin's 'survival of the fittest '.

I disagree.
Jesus was right.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the Earth (Mathew 5.5)
Amen