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    Calcutta Was Love At First Site

    This is an achingly beautiful book on the inner world pathos and outer world absurdity of growing up - both inner and outer, sometimes outrageously funny. It applies to all humans anywhere, since we all grow up, but is set in India in the late 1950s and 60s. What really makes this a work of genius for me is not only the way it recaptures growing up, but the pictures it paints of India on virtually every page. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but in this case I prefer the words. I feel like I have been to the Mangalore and visited the Calcutta of half a century ago, and experienced the world as Indians then experienced it. Though this is hardly the intentional theme of the book, I personally am enthralled by how transportation systems tie together community and larger society. So I'll let the author describe his experience as a tot entering Calcutta by train, and then living it by tram and bus. Crasta writes: Oh, that first vision of Calcutta, with ghostly, silver Howrah Bridge in the distance. The sights, the sounds, the million shouts that trooped into my senses as we came out of the ancient iron canopy of Howrah Station, trams gliding by almost within touching distance, hawkers and coolies and beggars by the million - it was 'mere anarchy being loosed upon the world'. But I was eight years old, on my first visit to Calcutta. To me, Calcutta was love at first sight. The trams mesmerized me. I would watch them cruise confidently through a web of tram tracks. They were large, benevolent animals, love-spoilt elephants, with their tinkling bells, their self-confident magnanimity, the ease with which they bore their human riders. Their antennae seemed to bring out the music of the sky, and all other kinds of traffic - animal, vegetable, and mineral - seemed to scurry at their stately approach. I would have given up all the roadside roasted Chana that my father bought me that summer for a chance to drift all day in these gondolas of Calcutta's concrete-paved canals. 'How far can trams go, Daddy? Can they go to London?' It was a silly question, I knew even as I asked it, but that was what fathers were for - to answer silly questions, the scores of silly questions I had hoarded up in the past two years, and didn't dare ask a nun or uncle: Can an aeroplane fly to the moon? Can an elephant defeat a lion? Can a Studebaker outrace an electric train? Could he indeed shoot two people at the same time with his double-barreled gun, or would the two bullets enter the same person? And oh, the river. The Calcutta of my boyhood fancy was a garden watered by an enormous, muddy-blue river, it's two sections buckled together by an enormous, silver bridge. I would spend hours sitting on the bank gazing at the other side, which to my imagination appeared to be a little topographical map, a miniature painting. In the river lazed numerous ships, mostly black, rusty and ancient, hooting at the city like dinosaurs with sore throats. It swirled majestically, this river, like a giant snake tickled by slithering ships, sweating port workers, hawkers selling roasted peanuts and channa, and the thousands of destitutes camping on the riverbank. Along the riverfront road, rattling buses sped madly to such magical destinations as the Strand, Esplanade, Dharamtolla, Chowringhee, Kidderpore, Shyam Bazaar, and Dum Dum. Gloriously speeding buses, fast as the biggest locomotives. We snuck into the crowded buses sometimes, extricating ourselves at Dharamtolla, where we craned our necks to see the top of the Octerlongy Monument, made a voyeuristic visit to New Market, and pestered Daddy for Kwality Ice Cream and Laughing Sweets and rossogollas and freshly squeezed sugarcane juice.
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