I am visiting my parents in Calcutta, the city in which I grew up. Once again, like every time I come back here, I am filled with a sense of loss, a sense of longing for what can never be had.
I have chosen the city of New York. It has embraced me. It has its flaws, but so do I. We have accepted each other for better or worse, and I would rather live there than anywhere else in the world.
I harbor a hundred resentments against Calcutta. I have hashed and re-hashed its million faults. But it is the city that knew me in my youth. It heard peals of my childish laughter, and watched the rivulets of my girlish tears. It was there when my hopes and dreams were untarnished by practicality, when I believed in knights on white horses and rainbows at the end of the road, when I sang romantic songs from old Hindi films in public. I have scraped my knees and scraped my heart on its streets. It accompanied me on so many adventures and misadventures as I took my first unsteady steps on the road to adulthood. It stood witness to my first kiss, and my first broken promise. And I have known it. The sights, the scents, the sounds — I never think of them when I am away, but every time I’m here again, they rush back like the familiar words to a forgotten song. The footpaths, the theaters, the bus stops, the parks — every corner is awash in the chatter of my school friends. The city holds a magic for me that I cannot shake off even if I try.
When I lived in Calcutta, I had scant appreciation for all this. I lived life with zest, but I always longed for more. I would never have admitted it to myself at the time, but I was not ready to grow up and settle down. I needed to spread my wings and fly out into the world. It indisputedly loved me, and I rejected it without a second thought. I didn’t know enough to value that love. I didn’t know enough to recognize how rare and precious true love is. My choices would not have changed, but I should have known what I was trading in.
The bitch of it is that even if I go back, I can never go back. That time and place is lost forever, and longing can do nothing more than twist my heart. I can visit, but I know, and the city knows, that I am a mere visitor.
Rabindranath Tagore — Bengal’s pre-eminent author, dramatist, poet and song-writer — wrote a song that translates roughly as this:
Who have you left behind, my heart?
You found no peace, a lifetime passed.
My heart, who have you left behind?
You long forgot the path you took,
How can you ever even look
Down the path you left behind?
(You can listen to a beautiful rendition of this song here. )
We know we can’t go back. So why do we indulge in looking back with that mixture of sadness and pleasure called nostalgia? Psychological authorities tell us that living in the present is best for mental health. But in reality, how does one divide one’s mind into day-tight compartments? Practice, they say, practice. Easier said than done. Perhaps there should be AA-like support groups for those trying to cure themselves of nostalgia. Perhaps “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was not such a bad idea after all. I don’t actually advocate forgetting. I do advocate detachment from memories. And yet, and yet…