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Marooned and musty in Kolkata

For this Dilliwali, a few rainy days in Kolkata last year changed her experience of the monsoon

A man caught in a downpour. Photo: Reuters
A man caught in a downpour. Photo: Reuters

I opened my eyes
And looked up at the rain
And it dripped in my head
And flowed into my brain

—Shel Silverstein (Rain)

Last July, I spent four days in Kolkata. I usually visit the city in winter, when New Market smells of Christmas and Park Street, with all its lights, looks like a distant cousin of Oxford Street. Now the city had beckoned in a different season, a relative was getting engaged, and my first reaction was, why in this weather. In my mind, Kolkata in July would be hot, sweaty and energy-sapping.

I landed in the city on a Saturday evening. As I came out of the airport, I was greeted by a long line of black and yellow Ambassador taxis, falling apart but still not giving up, and rain—the sky hanging low and grey. It was a change of scene from Delhi, where the weather was behaving as it mostly does in Kolkata, oozing sweat from every pore.

The house I stay in while in Kolkata remains locked for most of the year. We let ourselves into mustiness, which would be the signature fragrance for the next few days, settling on our hair, clothes, pervading every nook. In what can only be called a Delhi state of mind, I expected the rain to stop soon: After all, rains there are like someone turning on the sprinklers on a particularly bad day, when there is no water supply. And before you can even reach for your umbrella, the sun is already out, mopping up every drop that might have touched the parched earth.

I was in for a surprise. I had no idea I would soon be filled with rain, and more rain, that I would get soaked and drenched, without stepping out of the house. It kept coming down over the next three days, picking up pace towards the evenings, full of fury at night, slowing down in the mornings and sometimes in the afternoon, a brief interlude in between. At night you could hear it drumming down on the terrace, on the tin shed of the neighbour’s garage, in the whoosh of the occasional car passing by. No usual sounds of dogs barking, cats brawling, someone reversing their car to loud music, or voices carrying over from the house behind. Just the sound of water, filling up the bedroom through open windows.

And all that I hear as I lie in my bed
Is the slishity-slosh of the rain in my head

Morning did not arrive with the chirping of birds, the whistle of the garbage collector or someone in the neighbourhood blowing their conch during prayers. The rain had muted everything.

Now, the thing about Kolkata is that it moves at its own pace, or lack of it; you cannot rush it. The rain was following the same pattern. Now that it was here, it was in no hurry to leave. By the second day, I had settled to its rhythm.

A tram makes its way on a rain-soaked day. Photo: iStock

Like the city, I could take it slow, get into a time-stands-still mode. I was on a break: no office to attend, no newspapers to read, no TV to watch, no errands to run, no traffic jam to negotiate, no puddles to navigate. There I was, sitting in a chair, looking out of the window, watching the umbrellas and raincoats hurry past; lying in bed, listening to that now familiar sound and wondering how the birds handle this lack of freedom, of not being airborne.

Since it had not crossed my mind to carry an umbrella, there was no question of doing the things I usually do when in the city: walking down to the shop-with-no-name on the main street, which fires up its wok at 4pm to make shingaras (smaller and tastier versions of samosas), and popping them into the mouth scalding hot, at 6 a piece; stopping at VIP Sweets on the way back to buy mishti doi; turning left from there to reach the park with its huge tree, where you can hear a million birds returning home in the evening. Next to that tree is a gazebo where neighbourhood men hold adda, in the mornings and evenings, over cups of tea, while young boys play football. There were also no morning walks along the spruced-up canal that separates Salt Lake from Lake Town (and also unites the two through footbridges), and no sitting on a bench, glancing at the Big Ben wannabe on the other side.

I was hemmed in by the rain, physically and mentally, with the old house for company, on this quiet road which has seen little change in the last decade and more. The inside of the house looked strangely like the outside, with washed laundry hanging everywhere: on the banister, on ropes strung wherever possible, and draped on dining-table chairs. Mustiness is a season in itself.

Finally it was time to get out of the house, for the engagement party. The drive was surprisingly smooth, no waterlogging, no dug-up roads, no traffic snarls. What the hosts hadn’t anticipated though was how much guests, with their dripping umbrellas and wet shoes, would be looking forward to a cup of tea. The menu, finalized for sticky weather, had cooling, refreshing aam panna and the usual cold drinks and juices. But even after several helpings of prawn malai curry, mango ice cream, and the delectable parijat sondesh from Subodh Chandra Mullick, people were still craving that piping hot cup of tea. Maybe they should have kept a cauldron of khichuri, that monsoon comfort food, with baygun bhaja (fried brinjal) on the side, just in case.

The couple decided not to risk it at their wedding in December: There were hot and cold beverages aplenty. But you could still hear “shae din cha holay bhalo hoto (tea would have just lifted that day)." Never deny a Bengali her Darjeeling.

...pardon the wild crazy thing I just said
I’m just not the same since there’s rain in
my head

When I left the city, it was drizzling, though the forecast was that the sky would clear up. In Delhi, I was embraced by the familiar, stifling heat; it seemed I had moved from a deep-soak to a dry-spin cycle. At home, I unpacked the suitcase to let the mustiness linger for a while.

Recently, there was a downpour in Delhi and someone commented, “It’s almost like Kolkata rains." Yes, almost—for those 10-15 minutes.

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