Kolkata Soundscapes


Rabindranath Tagore, Chelebela (My Boyhood Days) [Selections]


I was born in the olden days of Kolkata. In those days horse-drawn carriages used to tread the city roads causing a dusty environment and often surprising the pedestrians with the rumbling voice of the ostler.

The salaried goldsmith, Dinu used to get out of breath while carrying out the household orders in the room next to the lane. He is coming to the accounts department to claim his dues from Kailash Mukherjee who had a feather-pen fixed to his ears. The carder is carding the cotton of the old quilt in the lawn with a tinkling sound. The security guard Mukundolal is sprawling outside with the blind wrestler and is trying to entrap him with his skills. They were slapping their thighs with a patting sound and frequently practicing twenty to twenty five push-ups. A group of beggars are waiting in expectation of some alms.

The path has been created in my imagination. The palanquin is going to faraway countries through this imaginary road. I have named those imaginary countries with the names that have been registered in my mind from the books that I have read. Sometimes the imaginary road moves through the dense jungle. The tiger’s eyes are shining, an eerie feeling encroaches the body. The hunter, Biswanath, accompanying me, fires from his gun with a booming sound and then there was complete silence. The palanquin after sometimes changes its figure/shape into a ship sailing in the sea. No land can be seen anywhere. The oars were pulled creating small waves. The oarsmen called out “Caution! Caution!” as the storm arrived.

Till then, the scary evenings of memorizing the spellings of the English words haven’t yet started haunting me. Every evening we used to hear the seven cantos of the Ramayana written by Krittibas from Brajeshwara. In the meantime, Kishori Chattujje used to arrive. He could memorize and recite the entire Ramayana/all the hymns of Ramayana in a definite tune. He, suddenly, used to capture a seat and started reciting his hymns with haste, overshadowing Krittibas. “Oh Lakshmana! What an evil sign it is, some misfortune must have taken place. He has a smile on his face, his baldness shining, reciting the melodious and rhythmic lines; the rhyming words could be heard at intervals, sounding like the crackling of the pebbles on the river-bed.

In those days, when the day got over, the excess portion of work used to wrap itself in a black blanket under the darkness of the city. Both inside and outside the house the evening sky posed certain calmness. The call of the horse-keepers could be heard from the road while they drove the fanciful from Eden Gardens near the Ganga ghat back after enjoying the breeze. In the months of Chaitra and Baishakh (in Bengali), the peddlers loudly called “Barfi!”.  These were called Kulfi; kept in small tin-cases in a pot with ice. Nowadays, these are called ice- or ice-creams. What kind of feeling went through my mind while standing in the balcony facing the road is only known to my heart. Another loud call of the ‘bel phool’ could be heard as well.

Sunday, the holiday. It was the story about Raghu, the dacoit we were listening to last evening while the crickets could be heard from the bushes in the southern garden. In the deemed light of the room the heart started beating faster. The next day, I moved out in a palanquin for unknown destination treading the fearsome, imaginary world. The encompassing silent night introduced an eerie feeling. The barren field filled with a windy sunshine, the glistening water of the Kaaldighi and the shining sand formed a scene of the imaginary horror seems to be accumulated under the dense jungle formed by the cane trees. As I moved, the heart beat increased. One or two bamboo sticks are visible in the dense bushes. The palanquin-bearers would change the load from one shoulder to other. They would drink water and put wet towels on their heads. And after that?

“Re Re Re Re Re Re Re!”

The bell struck at ten’ O clock. From the wide roads we could hear the gloomy voice of the mango-seller. The utensil seller is creating a tinkling sound, moving away further. Women used to sit there with ‘Kalaibata” (paste of leguminous seed of pulse) filled in a brass tub. Women used to make globules of these pasted pulses while drying their hair.

I used to return home late in the evening. Some of the days the bear-dancer used to come to our house. The snake charmers used to come. Occasionally, magicians would be coming, adding to the variety. Now, after so many days, they do not come anymore.

It’s one or two in the night. Somebody is carrying a dead body away.

“Bolo Hari, Hari Bol.”

I felt sad when I could hear the voice of an entrapped cuckoo.