Saturday, March 7, 2015

Calcutta Time

It's 4.30 in the morning in Calcutta, and I can't sleep.

I can't sleep for a good reason, which is that my few days here are invariably tinged with some jetlag, accentuated by the need to get work done in New York when the Americans are up and about. But this strange late-night early-morning transition has always been part of my life in Calcutta. As a college student, such transitional experiences --- followed by bunking the morning classes --- were an invariable part of my routine. Often it was nerdy: I still associate Lagrangean multipliers with a faint whiff of candle or kerosene. Sometimes friends stayed over, so I associate those nights with the tail-end of intense conversations. Sometimes there was a book. (Recently I found my battered screenplay --- with photos! --- of La Dolce Vita and understood why Anita Ekberg is also associated with humid Calcutta nights.) But it was always half-magical, and if you've done the same (or perhaps even if you haven't), you will understand what I mean.

Now, almost 40 years later, does it feel the same? Not really. For one thing, I can't light a cigarette automatically at 4 am. Or I can, but shouldn't. I can't walk out into the little balcony I was lucky to have, in an isolated part of the house, to smell the night. I don't have any beautiful Scandinavian women, or screenplays with them inside. I do have email and Google and that irritating Facebook, and I'm not a Luddite. But something's missing; no, not missing: mixed-up.

At these times, if I have nothing else to do, I think about what Calcutta means to me now. I'm usually here on work, and to see Ma. I see friends. We go drinking in The Other Room or Olipub. If it's winter, I go to Presidency or Jadavpur or the ISI and participate in a conference or two. I wander around bookstores where you can still get a particular mix of Wodehouse, Christie, Robbins, MacLean or Blyton that you will find nowhere in the world. (I don't read any of this stuff anymore, but I did and it's all part of that same vanishing feeling.) I like to eat chicken-anda rolls at the Triangular Park, and I like to see my cousins and assorted mashis and pishis. And most of all, I love being at home and listening to sounds coming from the kitchen, to a medley of familiar voices that come and go, and the eternal roar of the cricket commentary in another room. Or if it's night, listening to the occasional truck rumble by (God, this building actually shakes) and something rustling in the leaves outside in a faintly sinister way.

It's 5 am. I'm making editorial decisions at the American Economic Review. I'm sending an email about student admissions at NYU. I'm writing a letter for someone's tenure decision. I posted something on Facebook. I'm preparing a talk. I text the kids. I'm staring at the screen of this laptop. Yet part of me is suspended way, way back in time. There's my sepia Chaplin poster staring at me, there's the little metal ashtray with a million crooked cigarette butts in it. There's A4 sheets with my scrawly class notes and --- wonder of wonders! --- carbon paper. There's a setting moon, the banana tree, the musty smells and muffled sounds, and the faintest glow of early dawn.  And it's all braided together by the koel starting up, as she always does at this time of year.