Picture Credit – https://nextcity.org

For three short months the oppressive humidity of the Bengal plain lifts and Calcutta emerges
smiling and nodding in the mellow sunshine. The temperature doesn’t drop too much in this city of
temperate climate but it is enough for woollens to be pulled out. The legendary monkey cap makes
an appearance. The monkey cap is a unique Bengali institution that helps to identify Bengalis outside
Bengal. It also helps to protect the head from condensation. It is a beloved apparel. That and fish.
The Bengali love for travel is well-known as is their love for food, Bengali food, mainly fish and rice.
Across the nation, at tourist spots, there will be discreet sign boards in Bangla: Fish and rice is
available here. In the midst of Tamil, Punjabi, Gujarati, all Indian languages, the board in Bangla will
shimmer with promise of river fish cooked with tempering of nigella seeds and green chillies. I have
always found these tiny, shack like eating hotels to be filled to capacity with families wearing
monkey caps, eating with determined concentration, almost as though this is their last meal.
Back in Calcutta, in winter, flowers appear like the breath of angels. Shyly peeping from behind
grilled houses and roofs, on the few surviving roadside trees, they whisper a promise of beauty.
Ephemeral and short lived they turn this grim and crowded city into a thing of beauty, a city of joy,
THE city of joy.
The city that had not been very welcoming when I arrived here in August 2021 with my daughter, my
household and two cats.
I was grieving. I had lost my mother three months earlier to the Covid 2 nd wave under the most
horrific circumstances. I came to my mother’s city, to live in her house, for solace. I also had a new
job. But the city outside my home seemed to object to my very presence. The working class were
rude and, egged on by other employers, crossed boundaries of decency. They cheated and lied and
even threatened violence. I had had to call the cops 11 times. The cops were least sympathetic. They
advised me to return home. How can you, they said, a single woman and elderly, cope alone?
Only Calcutta can deem a 58 yr old as an elderly. My middle-class neighbours watched silently from
their balconies. Nobody intervened, nobody helped. My two sets of cousins, who live in the two
floors above me, kept their distance and only would complain to my brother in Delhi, that I was
aggressive and abusive.
Finally, I adopted a dog. And Star Sitara, though born with high anxiety, can bark. That is all I needed
to keep the hyenas at bay. She gave me the much-needed respite from the daily and continuous
The new job disappeared. I was asked by my boss to write an introduction for an exhibition. She also
gave an old catalogue to use. I used the style but brought in different elements. After disapproving
four draft she said she would have to write it herself. I thought that was a good idea. And at the end
of the day, I was without a job. This too is possible only in Calcutta. Employed for 12 days and sacked
by someone who can’t write a sentence in English.
If you are planning to settle in Calcutta, or even visit, make sure you have friends and family who will
support you. In my case I had no friends. The family I have were not pleased to have me. The house
lay empty most of the year, punctuated with visits by my mother. The empty house had uses for
them. And there was always a possibility of sale. A religious sect who lives behind me, in the
outhouse my grandfather built, advised me to donate the building to them, as I was single woman
with a daughter. Later I found they were behind a lot of the harassment I faced initially.
I remember a day when I lay like a wounded animal on my mother’s bed, grieving and at the end of
my tethers, wondering if I should return to Delhi. Looking out of the window I saw trees dazzling in
the winter sun light. Get up, the trees said to me. Look with what fortitude we accept all human
cruelty. Find your roots. They are here. All you have to do is look.
And I looked. As I looked, I began to gather myself. Slowly. One step at a time.
Trees of Calcutta saved me. And now another winter has come around and the trees shimmer like
gold. Sheltering, supporting, majestic beings of beauty. I wish I could show my friend, or the Uber
driver in Jaipur, these magnificent beings. You see if you look up at them, then you don’t see the filth
on the ground.

By Gargi Sen

Gargi Sen is a documentary film maker, curator, producer and distributor. She studied Visual Communication and specialised in Exhibition Design at the National Institute of Design. In 2000 she read for a MA in Mass Communication Theory at the University of Leicester, UK and was awarded a first with distinction in 2002. In 2011 Gargi was awarded the prestigious International Clore Fellowship for Arts Leadership, UK. In 2017 she was awarded the Fulbright Nehru Fellowship in the category of Academic and Professional Excellence in the Arts. She was a Fulbright scholar in residence at UC Davis, California, USA and taught and researched South Asian documentaries. Gargi has directed over 22 documentaries, mentored documentary productions around the world, and served on film festival juries nationally and globally. She co-founded two organitions, Magic Lantern Foundation (1989) and Magic Lantern Movies (2011) that work to distribute and exhibit documentaries and create conversations around documentary practice.

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