Sitting in a Kolkata cab on VIP Road, I stared into the night.
The first thing to hit was the haze. Moody, atmospheric. Polluting my lungs.
An eclectic fortress surrounded me. Neon signs. High rises. Shanty towns. All manner of motorized transport: cars, motorbikes, tuk tuks. Electric blue xmas lights wrapped permanently around each lamp post from the airport to Bidhannagar (Salt Lake) district. The Chief Minister's face plastered over it all, a reminder of who was responsible for such "progress".
This was not the Kolkata of my childhood. Nor the one I remember from 2011. Or 2013. Had my grandmother stolen those versions on her passing in 2014?
This was my first visit since, after all.
Construction on my grandparents' Salt Lake house started in the 1980s.
In 1988, the family uprooted from Sabah, Malaysia to the finished home. In most ways, it was a standard middle class Indian dwelling - concrete, pastel colored walls, window grills, roof terrace. No plushness, all hard edges. But my grandmother, influenced by American floor plans, chanced on an open layout with vaulted ceilings.
An omen, perhaps.
In succession, my family members departed, leaving only my great aunt Maya. Focused on them, I overlooked Salt Lake changing in parallel.
Until I arrived at a house of artifacts, and it hit me altogether.
Buildings replaced grassy plots. The once new local market "EC Market" was outdone by a flashy American style mall "City Centre". A mall with chain stores on the periphery and local shops relegated to the airless interior. Less visits from peddlers balancing baskets of young coconut on their heads while nasally announcing Daaaaab!!!. The street dog pack to which my brother and I fed biscuits had moved to an outlying area.
The urbanisation of Bidhannagar expanded and merged with that of greater Kolkata. My observations followed the merger. I no longer see proof of the marshland Kolkata once was and I recall. Though my memory here is vaguer, the impression of something lost remains strong.
Iconic Ambassador taxis number fewer. People number more. One day the cycle rickshaws will go. The clay roadside tea cups. Also, remaining betel nut and palm trees. Who knows what else.
But the fortress will stand.
Until there's no past left to fend off.