‘What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.’ That was how the conversation went on a train heading out of Kolkata towards the railhead of New Jalpaiguri, in the far north of West Bengal. Having found our seats in the carriage, we discovered that by an administrational error, we were sat opposite Monojit & Sudip, a reporter & cameraman from an Asian TV news network.
They had been tasked with interviewing some Bollywood stars and were en route. As everyone settled down in the carriage, old & young struggling by with impossible amounts of baggage, we chatted about some of the more notable figures in Kolkata’s cultural landscape. Artistic luminaries, such as Rabindranath Tagore, the film director Satyajit Ray and the world famous Ravi Shankar were all hot topics for our discussion.
It was during our relaxed & entertaining banter that I began to grasp the kernel of truth they had imparted to me. Tagore & Ray hailed from Kolkata, and Shankar having Bengali parentage, had helped make this city a centre of artistic & intellectual enlightenment. This was far removed from the clichéd black hole that many mistakenly talk about!
In between our scholarly exchange, food vendors and chai wallahs with their vociferous cries shuffled past plying their wares. Hot sweet tea and tasty, spicy snacks served to sustain us for a further long night’s chat where east was most definitely meeting west.
Our new friends’ extravagant and of course, locally biased statement of cultural life in West Bengal, drove us inexorably to one inescapable conclusion: compared to the sprawling masses of the rest of India, the good peoples of Kolkata were most definitely ahead of the game.
Early next morning I sat by the open door of the carriage enjoying the ever changing landscape, fresh morning air and warmth of the sun. I reflected on my ‘local’ encounter and realised that you can make friends just about anywhere you may find yourself. Well they do call Kolkata the ‘City of Joy.’ Now I see why.