Our eight-year-old daughter spent rather more time than expected going through the news and photographs of the fire on Kolkata’s Park Street that killed 33 people.
Oishi wasn't to know it — my wife and I did — but the fire was much in the news because it broke out in the upper floors of the century-old building which houses the tearoom/cafe/confectionery/institution called Flury’s. (Iconic is the crude shorthand for places like this.)
When I realised that Flury’s was why the media gave the fire the importance they did, it encouraged me no end.
I was glad to see that I wasn’t the only shameless, capitalist, bourgeois pig working in the media. (No, no, I know that many of the others who actually are shameless, capitalist, etc will be mortified to think of themselves in those terms. They would rather call themselves something else. ‘Ultra-secular champagne socialist’ might fit, who knows?)
Flury’s, unscathed, was back in business within forty-eight hours. But I was intrigued to see our girl's interest in it.
For those of us who knew what Flury’s was, and what the street (again, ‘iconic’) on which it stands exemplified, our interest in the matter was very personal. In the personal mythologies and histories of those of us who grew up — or spent any of our growing-up years in Kolkata — the symbolism of Park Street is potent.
For the Kolkata bhadralok (the educated, upper-middle-class, who shamelessly and seamlessly turn into capitalist, bourgeois, etc once they have jobs) Park Street is the repository of images, memories, and aspirations. It is like a street that is a unique metaphor for childhood, and of coming of age. My wife and I share some of these memories, although what we share is merely a subset of the memories each of us has.
For Oishi, it is not like that at all. I now realise, having suddenly thought of it, that she has spent nearly twice as many years of her life in Mumbai as she has in Kolkata. She has been to more countries than has had birthdays. She considers London (the galleries, the parks, the nature of the light, the river and the bridges, the food) to be a sort of spiritual home she returns to for a little while nearly every summer.
Till not so long ago, home, for her, was where her parents lived. It still is, although I sense she is looking for a notion of ‘home’ or ‘hometown’ that can be defined by a physical space, by a set of external things that doesn’t have to do with the people she loves. For a number of reasons, she can’t seem to reconcile herself to the notion of making Mumbai fit that bill. London, to her, is only a brief encounter.
And so she returns to the puzzle of Kolkata, a city with which she has none of the associations that I do, a city, which, to her, is defined by the existence of the grandparents she is so attached to.
I can see her grappling. I wonder whether it is hard for her. And I wonder if this is what deracination is.