A cruel month, this, February. So cruel that it should be banned.
It is not Mumbai’s fault that it does not have a February in the same way that it is not her fault she is not Kolkata, for no city is Kolkata.
Kolkata is not a nice city. She has her highs, but it is a city generally full of lows. There was a time we Kolkatans used to boast of our culture. We still do. The problem is, our pride is based more on a glorious history than on the present; worse, it is not based on the future at all.
If you doubt me, switch to any Bangla channel in the evenings. Check the serials they air. Check their TRPs. That is Kolkata 2016.
If you doubt me, go to a book-stall, roadside or otherwise, and check the number of books written by Bengali authors being sold. Text books do not count. That is Kolkata 2016.
If you doubt me, drop in for a play. Check the number of connoisseurs for the stage. That is Kolkata 2016.
If you doubt me, check the billboards and television channel tickers and Facebook memes in Bangla. Check the spellings. That is Kolkata 2016.
But Kolkata is home. Even the 2016 edition.
And it is memories that make a place home.
And Kolkata has memories, plenty of them, for me. I cannot vouch for others, but the airfare spike in autumn is a decent indicator.
Kolkata whispers back to me. Even when I am in exile, she whispers back to me in the long nights if I keep the windows open, if I listen to the last train pass by, to a rare gust of wind in the only time of the day when Mumbai air is devoid of pollution.
Somewhere in the distance, you feel her almost inaudible sigh. You could almost sense her bosom heaving, her eyes stare at her own feet, her eyes trying their level best to ward the inevitability of tears.
Does she shed a tear for everyone who has deserted her? Probably. Or maybe she has simply let us go, for she knows that missing us is an exercise in futility.
But she does shed a tear for me. Especially in February, when she is at her exotic best, for I have seen her blush when our eyes had met in February.
There is a dash of February in Mumbai as well. There is a dash of February in the teenage girl who tries out hats from a hawker as she waits for her boyfriend. Once he arrives, they walk away, arms linked, her head bare. The hat-seller knew she was not going to buy, but he did not mind. He was not even annoyed, for he knew she was impatient, and how could she not have been? It is spring…
This was in front of Regal, Colaba, which could easily have been Metro, Esplanade. I was reminded of Metro the first time I had stood in front of Regal. Located in a corner in one of the most ‘happening’ parts of the city; next to a lane; and at the end of a long chain of hawkers, selling everything from magnetic compasses to sand-clocks to lyrics of Kishore Kumar songs: how could it have not been Metro?
Where was I? Yes, February in Mumbai. Yes, Mumbai has a month that coincides with February, but is not February, for it does not whisper to me. It does not whisper back to me. Februaries are supposed to whisper, the way they do in Kolkata.
I miss February.
I miss walking in sad February afternoons, minuscule, almost invisible beads of sweat all over me.
This is not the sweat that causes discomfort or makes you cringe.
This is the sweat that makes you fall in love and lust all over again, the kind that brings back memories of a clock ticking in the afternoon and a calendar flapping on the wall, desperate to escape the shackles of time.
This is the sweat that makes her glisten.
And that happens only in February.
And February happens only in Kolkata.
It is there, in the prettiest of all cities, that schoolgirls dress in yellow-and-red sarees once a year, in February. They go out in groups, giggling and exchanging furtive glances with boys, boys not old enough for their minds to be corrupted by ways of the world…
All that seems a distant memory, even that girl I once saw in Manohar Pukur Road; I never dared to ask for her name, but she looked different from the others in the group. Her eyelashes were long — long enough to linger with me for a quarter of a century.
But all that is a memory of a February from another era; or probably from the present, for my daughter will step out in yellow and red.
But even if she does not, others will, and it will still be February; and it will forever be February, for you cannot escape the red of the polash, the geeky glory of the Book Fair, now reduced to a mind-numbing, gimmicky ten-day period of pride for Kolkata.
For it is in February in Kolkata that you wake up to freshness. One month, every year.
One month, every year, the world will bow to Kolkata, despite the soulless hybrid monstrosity she aspires to become in a couple of decades.
Even if it is the shortest month of the year.