I have yet to come across a Bengali who does not sing paeans to Kolkata. The city of joy, aptly named, is their Janambhumi, their matrubhumi and their karmbhumi. It is also the one place which all Bengalis, by default, claim a part of. Every Bengali has a connection to the city even though they may belong to another part of West Bengal. For the Bangla speaking Diaspora, Kolkata is the one place that unites them annually – during Durga Puja!! That’s when, like homing pigeons, they flock home to the city from all corners of the earth (The author writes about the Pujo in page no 9).
I have never visited Kolkata but, I have long harboured a wish to visit because I have a multitude of Bengali friends. These friends over the years have been my initiation into Bengali culture, literature, food, traditions and heritage. Reading Sreeparna’s ‘Tilottama at a glance’ (Tilottama is the old name for Kolkata, older than Calcutta) was a sensory submersion into all things Bengali.
The book is a mesmeric account of the ‘City of Joy’ and reading it is an immersive experience. As you flip through the pages, you feel the breath of the city through the stories that Sreeparna tells. The simple tales, anecdotes and accounts of mundane, day-to-day life of Bengalis; evokes a familiarity to the city that you would feel even if you have never visited. You taste the food through her words and are left salivating at the tantalizing aromas that she describes. This book like dipping ones toes into a tepid pool of still water to test the temperature, and then jumping in to be splashed with an infusion of the warmth with which the author writes about her beautiful city. As you turn the pages, you feel the warmth spread through you and coat you in this delicious feeling of sweet joy that is unmatched by even the iconic Bengali Rasogulla.
The 68 pages long book has 26 chapters, each starting with an alphabet of the English language. Sreeparna takes the readers on a kaleidoscopic tour of her world and forces them to partake in the pride that she feels for it. What I liked best about the book is the fact that the stories are not fictional. Reading the book is unlike reading a novel and imagining oneself to be a part of a world that we can never inhabit. Sreeparna’s stories are true-life depictions of situations, locations, habits and customs that she brings to us in a straightforward manner. Since the chapters are anecdotal and replete with incidents from the author’s life and the lives of those around her, it’s not just easy to visualize the text but also feel the realism of them because within the pages of the book are snippets about the husband, father, mother, uncle, Nani’s house, and a host of other such heart warming things that give you a sneak peek into the author’s life. Sreeparna lays her soul bare in this one, not asking for accolades or laudatory applause but only asking that you find the sublime joy that she so finds in her city.
And, the book does have everything that makes up the comportment of a Bengali – The junoon called cricket and football; the fitoor for sea food; the emotion Bengalis harbour for music, books and magic (yes, P C Sarkar makes an entry too); the reverential celebrations of Durga Puja; and, also the sweets that make Bengal a hub of gastronomic delight. And, how can I forget any mention of the Howrah bridge, the heritage structure that inspired songs and movies or the trams or the Victoria terminal. They are all such quintessential parts of Kolkata’s iconic status. For me, more appealing than the locations or traditions that were discussed in the book, were the teeny tales woven into the fabric of the anecdotes. They gave me a glimpse into the author’s life and also shed some light on the history of the monuments or cultural practices that are followed in the city.
All in all, I recommend this book heartily. If you are a Bengali, you must read this even if it is to only reminisce over parts of the city that hold joy for you. But, if you are a Non-Bengali then you should definitely read it because it will be an eye-opening journey into the emotion called Tilottama.
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