My memories of Kolkata go as far as 1977 when my father, who was a truck driver, took me along in one of his trips. Calcutta, as it was known then, was big and frightening. The traffic was bad, the noise was deafening and streams of people were rushing in every direction. But soon I got used to. Manoj Kumar’s Dus Numberi was still playing houseful and I even made my dad buy a tee shirt with No. 10 in case anybody back home had any doubts that I had seen the film. We slept in the truck, or under the truck, parked in the lawns of Bhutan House. And except for the mosquitoes that bothered me every now and then, I felt like in a wonderland. We ate in the dhabas and roadside restaurants. But my favorites were the chaiwalas whose ability to stretch the tea from one jug to another just amazed me and I would ask them to do it again and again for me.
So it was with some nostalgic anticipation that I looked forward to this last visit to Kolkata. But things obviously have changed in my life. From a poor boy whose father couldn’t afford a room, I was putting up in Hotel Taj Bengal. The 36-hour drive is replaced by less-than-an-hour flight on Druk Air. Chauffer driven cars with police escorts drove us all over the city. Fresh salmons, salames and sashimi came in place of coal-burnt chapattis and chicken curry.
Many official engagements and receptions later, including a dinner at the Raj Bhavan where I was seated next to the beautiful actress Debashree Roy (my childhood hero Mithun Chakraborty was also there), I felt I was still missing something - my Calcutta I had known as a child. So the moment I had a chance (I got to slip out for a meeting at the Telegraph) I grabbed the opportunity. Suddenly I realized the traffic has gone worse, noise level has gone up and many dhabas have disappeared and in their places lots of fancy malls have come up. Some things are same, of course. Streams of people were still rushing in every direction.
When I was done at the Telegraph, my host was rather embarrassed, “Sorry our canteen is closed.” “Take me to a chaiwala in the street,” I suggested instantly. “Are you sure?” He got back, scanning my Italian suit and a matching tie, to imply that the chaiwala place was not proper for someone of my stature.
In front of the Telegraph headquarters and among the typical chaos and commotions of Kolkata, there was a chaiwala still pulling a tea from one jug to another. As I seeped a masala tea from an earthen cup and watched him do that with a nostalgic delight, I also felt the familiar smell of coal, heat, dust and the damp all around us. For all the changes that we go through in life, there are things that you cherish forever. For me it is these chaiwalas. For a moment I am who I was and so was my Calcutta.