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  Opinion   Columnists  15 Apr 2023  Ranjona Banerji | When we are ‘exceptional’ but our nostalgia is trivial

Ranjona Banerji | When we are ‘exceptional’ but our nostalgia is trivial

The writer is a senior journalist who writes on media affairs, politics and social trends.
Published : Apr 16, 2023, 12:15 am IST
Updated : Apr 16, 2023, 12:15 am IST

If you bombard me with Bombay/Mumbai nostalgia, I’d be over the moon. I’m lying. I’m not fond of Internet forwards

A view of the Howrah Bridge from the vessel P S Bhopal. (Photo by arrangement)
 A view of the Howrah Bridge from the vessel P S Bhopal. (Photo by arrangement)

Where are you from?

Depending on context, this can be an extremely racist and painful remark. If you are not white and you live in a predominantly white country, the question implies that you have no right to live there because of your skin colour. Discrimination is disguised as geography.

Of course, white majoritarian racism makes no sense because all humans originated out of Africa.

But even if it is harmless in intent, it is annoying to the listener. It attempts to bound you by place of “origin”. Regardless of the reality or even the feelings of the person being boxed in.

And sometimes, people assume where you’re from.

For me, it’s my name that pins me down. Don’t get me wrong. I love my name. I even insist that it’s pronounced the way Bengalis do. But because it places me somewhere, assumptions that made that Bengal is the only place where I belong. This pigeon-holing means that I get both the best and the worst of stereotyping.

The sweet kind is one that assumes that I am an expert on Mamata Banerjee — I’m telling you now, I’m not related — the current chief minister of Bengal. Because I’m a Bengali. That I know everything about Calcutta. And horrors, that I want to know every last bit of pointless information available on the Internet and WhatsApp forwards about Calcutta.

I am thus subject to a constant stream of “information”, some fake some real. Some are supposed matters of pride like how Calcutta was electrified in the 19th century, just after New York or something. I want to categorically state that there was very little evidence of any electricity in the years that I lived in Calcutta in the 20th century. I can sing songs of rage about studying for exams using candles, gas lamps and lanterns if you like?

Then I get any number of Bengali songs, of various genres, because what are the odds that I know any of these myself or can search for them if I want to?

Then there’s the nostalgia. This is a tricky one. I can get nostalgic. But it is for a very specific time period. So if you send me some long dirge about an eaterie that opened in 2000 and shut in 2010, it makes no sense to me. Sing to me about Phyliss the Firpos Flapper all you want. That was before my time but I had heard of it. But some little place in Salt Lake that’s now gone? Girls and boys, grandpas and grandmas, Salt Lake did not even exist when I lived in Calcutta. How nostalgic can I be about it?

I know, I know, I’m being unfair.

If you bombard me with Bombay/Mumbai nostalgia, I’d be over the moon. I’m lying. I’m not fond of Internet forwards, whether via phone or email. But I would be less annoyed. At least the endless goo-goo-ga-gas about Peter Cat would be replaced by Wayside Inn. Where the food was better than Peter Cat – that liver with onions, OMG! Plus, they say that Dr Ambedkar wrote some of the Constitution there. Take that all of you!

The problem is that the people of Bombay/Mumbai are not as prolific on the Internet, wasting hours of time putting together corny nostalgia. Or that’s what I believe because no one sends me anything. My dumb luck.

The worst of it is that unless you’re part of a group that experienced something together, nostalgia can be a terrible bore. Like if I told you that aware Bombay once went to Carolyn’s in Colaba to get smuggled foreign jeans, you would ask me why only that shop and not a branded showroom. How to explain that in those days, foreign brands were scarcely available and all that? It’s so long ago!

Here in Dehradun where I live now, fast development has meant that within half a generation, the small town is almost a city. Plus, it has gleefully destroyed vital bits of its heritage, not just trees. And apart from George Harrison’s painful dirge “Dehradun” – forgive me, I love the Beatles, but that song is terrible – no one shares anything much about Dehradun. Even my Father who went to school here, would point to forests and mountains as integral parts of his childhood. Never the Dehradun equivalent of Nahoum’s or Peter Cat or Salt Lake.

Spent an afternoon with people who grew up in Vizag, the town where I was born and spent annual holidays. Now that was a fun walk down memory lane. The Waltair of old, what Vishakhapatnam has become, weekends at Araku and how famous the coffee had become, the joy of the gorgeous beach of Bimlipatam. Once a long picnic excursion, now part of the city they say. We saw a film shooting there, which was so much more exciting than the many shootings we saw in Bombay. Turned out it was a seminal film too – Kamal Hassan’s Maro Charitra, remade in Hindi as Ek Duje Ke Liye.

No one sends me any WhatsApp nostalgia on Vizag either.

The Delhi people I see on Twitter do discuss some good stuff of the past. The cultured ones talk about historic monuments. The others appear to be obsessed with gujiyas and gol gappas. I was really old when I discovered this gujiya obsession.

I might be forced to jump to the conclusion that this is a Bengali and Calcutta trait – this endless walk into the past and the enormous effort spent churning out “Do you know” trivia which gets tedious after a while. And the videos. How does anyone have the time to do that?

But maybe, just maybe, there are equivalents all over India. Reams of forwards about big cities and small towns. The ethos and the eateries. The schools and parks. Long treatises on when electricity was introduced. How it snowed in Dehradun every winter. How leopards strolled down Rajpur Road in the broad daylight. Please, anything, anyone! Just save me from nostalgia that emanates from my name.

Where am I from then?


Tags: nostalgia, delhi, kolkata, bengali, bombay