By Chandrima Pal Aug. 21, 2019
For someone used to the frenetic pace of Mumbai and Delhi, Kolkata is a black-and-white film playing out in slow motion. In a world obsessed with youth, pace, and beauty, Kolkata, hobbling on her arthritic knees with all her fine lines, silver hair, and a patchwork jhola bag of stories, is an acquired taste.
It took me 15 years to return home, to Kolkata. I had left the city to join my partner in Delhi, to pursue a life of youthful opportunities. Both of us had left behind our families, our ancestral homes, and a lifetime of memories. We were the last ones in our group of friends to escape the city, and we left with no plans to return to the time capsule affectionately known as the City of Joy.
But as I was ostensibly leaving Kolkata behind, it tied strings to me that always tugged me back. In 2011, right before Mamata Banerjee decimated the Left Front in Bengal, I was with Trinamool’s Derek O’Brien at the party office for a story. Clad in a crisp kurta and slathered in cologne, he had told me, “Give us two years, and all of you who had left the city for better opportunities will come back.”
And return we did, to Banerjee’s Kolkata — one that was drenched in blue, growing vertically, and wore its love for all things garish with immense pride. Festivals had gotten louder, elections more violent, malls were more opulent, and the yellow Ambassador cabs were practically gone. There was a certain acquired sheen. Supercars on the roads, fancy restaurants, luxé foreign brands, and shiny condos had replaced the beautiful vintage bungalows of our childhood. The city, it seemed, was keen to catch up with the rest of the country.
But everywhere I looked, I saw old people.
Truth is, we returned when our ageing parents just could not hold their lives together anymore, not because Ms Banerjee had promised to turn Kolkata into London — and failed. The city was happily floating in its bubble of nostalgia, fuelled by remittance money courtesy two generations of talented and skilled Bengali professionals whose parents had urged them to take flight.
The city, it seemed, was keen to catch up with the rest of the country.
Over the last few years, economists have been charting how Kolkata is ageing faster than other metros, and how it has an alarmingly low number of workers in the 20-29 age group. These findings were being reported in national newspapers as far back as 2015. And the passage of time hasn’t improved things. An IndiaSpend report from April this year paints a picture of not only an ageing workforce in West Bengal, but also of a fertility rate that is among the nation’s lowest, at 1.6 children per woman, below the replacement rate of 2.2. There aren’t enough kids being born to keep the population stable, and many former residents are ending their self-imposed exiles to make their way back to Kolkata.
And so I found myself back in my hometown, after a decade of living in Mumbai’s toniest suburbs where one bumped into Priyanka Chopra at the gym around the corner or hung out with indie filmmakers at an Aram Nagar coffee shop. I found myself in a sea of grey, where there were no crashing waves but only gentle ripples. I quickly enrolled myself at a neighbourhood Talwalkars gym, where my best buddy was a 60-year-old woman who wanted to fight diabetes. I went to a CCD to work and realised I was the youngest person there, as all the other tables were occupied by sexagenarians. They chatted about a Bengali film they had just watched, an art exhibition they would visit after tea, about the clubs they were members of, their next foreign vacation, and their far-flung children in Australia, the UK, or the US.
Afternoons in this Kolkata are quiet, and the evenings quieter, save for the wispy melody of Rabindrasangeet from a two-storey house. Or the sounds of a TV playing a Bengali serial about Rani Rashmoni, Vidyasagar, Netaji, or Sourav Ganguly. Winters are an endless celebration of fairs and exhibitions, where clay dolls are as much in demand as wraparound skirts, and bauls and Bangla bands regaled you every evening.
I am in a pensioner’s paradise. A city of endless leisure.
It is not as if there are no senior citizens in other cities. It is just that in Kolkata, they outnumber the young. Predominantly Bengali neighbourhoods resemble large communes for the elderly. In Salt Lake, a picturesque locality that is also one of the country’s first model townships, parks and service lanes are teeming with silver-haired residents. Walk past a hip cafe and you will find a “Dial-A Dialysis Centre”. Senior citizens gather in the mornings to buy fish and in the evenings to catch up on politics and gossip about sports. A community library unfailingly opens its doors in the morning and in the evening to diligent readers, many of whom are older than some of the titles in circulation.
Afternoons in this Kolkata are quiet, and the evenings quieter, save for the wispy melody of Rabindrasangeet from a two-storey house.
For someone used to the frenetic pace of Mumbai and Delhi, Kolkata is a black-and-white film playing out in slow motion. By the time an average resident buys a pack of bread and goes back home, you would have sold your script to a streaming platform in Mumbai. Conversations are long and take you nowhere, seemingly tailored for the elderly who are in no particular rush. Step into a neighbourhood adda, and you will be drawn into a random conversation with a stranger about why your daughter needs to go to an elite school or why Ravi Shashtri should have been replaced by Dada, all while dipping biscuits in sweet milky tea that costs just five rupees.
Yes, Kolkata remains one of the cheapest cities in the country, where five rupees can get you a filling snack or a ride in public transport. Where swimming pools and parks are sometimes free or ridiculously affordable. And it is also the kind of city where you don’t need to kill yourself to pay rent and eat good food. Which is why, despite the rising crime against elederly living alone in standalone homes, it remains a great place for someone to retire. Bazaars are abundant with fresh-caught fish and luscious fruits and vegetables. The informal economy is thriving and is tailor-made to meet the demands of an ageing population. Maids are easy to find and affordable. Food and grocery delivery apps have come as a boon for those who need assistance to move around. And NRIs have been shifting their parents and family to secure condos, ensuring that they are enjoying the creature comforts of modern lifestyle. Kolkata may not give you jobs and professional opportunities, but she will give you the gift of time.
Time to look up at the sky and count the clouds heralding the onset of Durga Puja. Time to revisit an old Tagore composition in your breezy window or pickle the season’s best mangoes on your very own terrace. Time to grow marigolds in spring and jasmine in summer at your sprawling verandah. Time to haggle with your fish-monger over the price of hilsa. And time to connect on Skype and wait for your daughter to come online.
In a world obsessed with youth, pace and beauty, Kolkata, hobbling on her arthritic knees with all her fine lines, silver hair, and a patchwork jhola bag of stories, is an acquired taste.
Chandrima Pal is a journalist, columnist, career insomniac and caffeine snob. Loves food. Does travel. Author of A Song for I (Amaryllis) and At Home in Mumbai (Harper Collins).