Kolkata Through the Eyes of a Romantic

[Photo via Photographer Sandip Bose]

By: Pooja Dhar

Listen, I’m Bengali. So, understandably, I’m biased. But I do have a bit more of a balanced perspective, because I grew up in Chennai, and have lived in the U.S. ever since I was 17 years old. I spent my summers in Kolkata, that’s about it. But still, something about that city charms me and draws me in like no other.

I remember sitting on my suitcase at the railway station or at the airport when my final exams were over, listening to my Walkman, immersed in a book, but brimming with the excitement of seeing my cousins, my aunts, and my uncles. Every moment I spent in transit in that city was on the way to a memorable experience. And for one reason or another, since I moved to the U.S., I’ve only been able to visit a couple of times. And yet, that visceral yearning I feel is very tangible and as strong as it ever was.

Then a few weeks ago, I came across this brilliant video posted by the Government of West Bengal, Department of Tourism.

More than 34,000 people have shared it on Facebook and more than a million have watched it, Bengalis and otherwise. And if you watch it too, you’ll know why. If you haven’t, don’t waste another second.

[Read Related: The Struggle of Deciding Between Being Bengali or American]


What you see in that video, that is everyone’s Kolkata, but in this poem, she is mine alone.

She’s Mine, Alone

Those bleary-eyed mornings

Turning over on a firm bed

Face rubbing against fragrant pillows.

Waking up to milky coffee and screaming crows.

Time moved slower, the air

Smelled of livestock and smoke.

Flapping birds painted the sky

With a sense of fleeting freedom.

The hustle and bustle is beginning

People talking louder than they need to,

The sound of a bicycle and its bell

Coming up the street

Accompanied by a loud, nasal cry:

A vendor pitching his wares,

Either hand towels or brooms.

His finger flicks constantly at the ringer

His dark hair and blue lungi flutter

As he races down the steamy dusty road.

A cow ambles down, mooing calmly,

As the Istiri wala sets up shop

Fills his iron with coals, lays out fabrics to press.

A woman hangs against the railings of the balcony

Yelling for him to send his son to collect her clothes.

Warm, spicy smells of breakfast float

From and to every house in the neighborhood.

Children in blue and green school uniforms

Wave as they crawl into autorickshaws and cars.

Just a little way down, a group of young upstarts

Smoke their cigarettes, sip on bottles of Coke,

Eyes following girls who walk by.

A plump naked toddler is seen on the terrace next door

Giggling and running from his harried mother

Who is pursuing him, sari tucked out of the way,

Carrying a bottle of body oil.

Cars and buses whiz by on that main road.

An old torn up plastic bag is carried along

With the whooshing of air.

Brown thatched huts stand, slightly defiant

Brown, bouncing children enjoy splashing

At a rusty water pump.

Bubbling sticky rice is being cooked

On crackling fire pits

By weary looking women.

Every couple of block corners

Host the neighborhood snack man.

Spicy onion fritters, egg rolls, jhaal muri and phuchka.

Sliced and spiked raw mango slices topped with chilli powder.

Carts loaded with massive cool watermelons.

Olive green young coconuts, with a straw.

Spicy peanuts in a newspaper cone.

Sweet shops smelling of jaggery, cream and ghee.

The concrete practically hisses and sizzles,

Crackling, releasing heat back towards

The unforgiving sun.

It smells like Kochuri and Alur Dum.

Old trees provide welcome relief.

That long street with little book stalls

Smelling of old paper.

Full of life.

Bright yellow lumpy bumpy taxis whizz by

Each carrying a different story.

Maybe, afternoons are better spent

On a cool tile floor under a fan on high

Curled up with a pillow and a book

Dozing off after a heavy lunch.

Soon, the sun is ready to set

In all its orange-rose glory.

Cups of tea and cream biscuits

Shared with the family.

As the neighborhood children play,

Setting up a cricket pitch on the street.

Cooler breezes flow in

People on balconies and terraces

Wind down, winding through

The red, green, blue multicolored

Bandhni, Batik and Baluchari.

Saris and Salwars, among jeans and shirts

Hanging on lines, trying to dry

Despite the humidity.

Dusky air, diffused light

Deepening sky, dramatic dark clouds

Gusty winds.

A whirlwind of a rainstorm.

Welcome winds, fat rain drops,

Over almost as soon as it began.

Night has arrived.

She shakes out her long dark perfumed hair

Twinkling with ancient adornments.

Smiles as she greets the horizon

Spreads her aanchol over the earth

Singing a lullaby that filters through

The howling of stray dogs.

Sleep is deeper, dreams are sweeter.

A day spent in Kolkata

Is tantamount to a lifetime.

The Poetry Film Breaking Genres and National Borders

“After so Long” is a poetry film created for Simha’s EP, which is streaming on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music. The poem was collaboratively written by Simha, a U.S. native, and Jae, who is based in India, during the 2020 lockdown. “After so Long” was recited by Simha and their parents. In 2022, I directed and produced the film through my studio, Star Hopper. “After so Long” premiered on Nowness Asia in March 2022.

This film is a worldwide collaboration among trans and queer south-Asian artists from the United States, India and Canada. It was recorded, shot and filmed during the lockdown of 2020 and 2021.

[Read Related: Poetry That Reflects the Fire Inside]

[Read Related: A Bengali Muslim Boy’s Poetic Journey Through Himself]

After So Long (English Translation)

Awake at 10 am but out of bed at noon,
I want to be here where I lose myself in these sheets
Glancing through half-shut eyes
At the gold pressing past my window
The glimmer remarks on the ledge of my bed
But the voices are so loud
Like dust collecting in the corner of my room
I am unaware to why I’m still here
With the chilling doubt of the breeze…
I’m swept into lucidity After so long

Mil rahi hoon mein aaj iske saang barso baad,
(Today, I’ll be meeting them after so long)
Koi paata nahi diya tune
(But with no destination sight,)
Kya karu?
(What should I do?)
Kaha jau?
(Where should I go?)
Shayad agar mein chalne lagoon,
(Perhaps, if I keep walking)
Inn yaadon ki safar mein
(Down this road of memories)
Mujhe samajh mein ayega,
(I will find out)
Yeh rasta kahaan jayega,
(Where this road leads)
Inn aari tedhi pakadandiyon pe baarte hi jaana hai,
(Through the twists and turns of this winding roads, I must keep going on)
Mujhe mil na hain aaj uske saath,
(I wish to meet them today)
Barso baad.
(After so long)

I feel like I’m retracing my footsteps
From these concrete stretches
To broken cement walls
Chips and cracks forge their way for new designs
I see the old abandoned buildings
That once held the warmth of bodies
Now just hold memories
Supporting the nature’s resilience
In vines and moss
After so long

Dhoondli shishe mein jaaga leli hai
(These isty mirrors have offered refuge)
Bikhri hui laatao ne,
(To these scattered vines)
Zameen pe uchi ghaas pe
(Amidst the tall grass stretching from the ground)
Lehrati kamsan kaliyaa
(The swaying little buds)
Bheeni bheeni khushboo bikhereti
(Spreading honeysuckle scent through the air)
Phir wahi mausam,
(I lose myself in reminiscing, the same season)
Wahi dil,
(The same heart)
Baarso baad.
(After so long)
Phir bhi mein chal rahi hoon aaj
(Still, I keep carrying on today)
Khudko khudse milane ke liye
(In the pursuit of my higher self)
Inn galiyo se guzarna hain aaj
(I must pass through these streets today)
Chaalte chaale jaana hai aaj
(I must keep going on today)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor paar
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
barso baad
(After so long)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor pe
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
barso baad
(After so long)

[Read Related: How to Follow Your Heart, Even When it’s Hard]


Poem by Simha & Jae
Produced by Star Hopper Studios
Directed by Varsha Panikar
Cinematography and grading by Tanmay Chowdhary
Editing by Asawari Jagushte
Featuring Vaishakh Sudhakaran
Music Production by Simha
Hindi editing by Rama Garimella
Recited by Simha, Rama Garimella, Annaji Garimella
English Translation by Nhylar

The opinions expressed by the guest writer/blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Brown Girl Magazine, Inc., or any employee thereof. Brown Girl Magazine is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the guest writer/bloggers. This work is the opinion of the blogger. It is not the intention of Brown Girl Magazine to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual. If you’d like to submit a guest post, please follow the guidelines we’ve set forth here.
By Varsha Panikar

Varsha Panikar (they/he) is a filmmaker, writer and multi-disciplinary artist from India. They are the co-founder of Star Hopper, a … Read more ›

Moving on After Breaking up With Your Cat

“Take what you want//Take everything” reflects on a time with my partner and our cat, Layla. It’s a retelling of the chaotic night I adopted her. I didn’t know why Layla hid from me. When I chased her around, it scared her more. “Take what you want//Take everything” juxtaposes our first night, filled with misunderstanding, with the rest of the time we spent together. My fond memories call back to the loving moments Layla and I shared.

Such memories defined us; they reverberated in my partnership. I wonder if my partner, like Layla, only remembers her fear of me, over our shared moments of love. The title, a Kanye West lyric, is an acknowledgment that their happiness together–without me–destroyed my sense of self. When I see their photos, I wonder if I can see myself reflected in their eyes. I wonder if they still keep kind moments of our time together.

[Read Related: Artivist Poem Essay-Studmavati]

Take what you want//Take everything

I remember when she would look at me from behind a laundry basket.

A small simple cat with green owl eyes. She was afraid of her new home and its owner. Shit, I remember the night I got her, she hid under my bed, in the middle just out of my reach for maybe 6 hours, watching me. She didn’t eat anything the entire day. When the night fell I was afraid she’d starve or come out and attack me. I was just scared. I didn’t have a childhood pet, I’m not white, I didn’t know what to do. I picked up the whole bed and yelled that she needed to move. I chased her into the closet with a vacuum cleaner. When she ran in, I called my lover and yelled to her that she wasn’t helping enough, she needed to be there to help me. That was our first day together, me and that cat. No one will ever have that memory but me and maybe her.

It was during Ramadan, my first year fasting.

Our problems had already begun by then. Enough so that I decided to fast and show retribution. I’d try to change into a more patient and understanding self. Like the Prophet (SAW) I guess. To become someone that my lover could feel safe around. Somehow, getting a cat felt like it fit into that picture. I’d be a cat dad, you know, gentle. We’d raise her. I’d fast and become New Again. Maybe I’d wrap an inked tasbih around myself and show I’m a man of God.

I don’t know how a cat remembers fear any more than I know how a lover does.

I know her body stored it. My cat’s must have stored it too. That first night, I wish I could tell her that I was afraid too. It doesn’t make sense that I was afraid really — I’m bigger, more threatening. We don’t speak the same language anyway, so how could I ever tell her? She learned to trust me though, in her own way. Her small bean paws would press on my chest in the mornings. She’d meow to berate me for locking her out some nights, or when I was away from home too long.

She lives with my lover now. They share photos with me, they’re happy together.

I saw my lover once, it was on 55th and 7th, Broadway shined blue performance lights over us. She wore a red sacral dress. She said her mental health has never been better. I think she was trying to tell me that she’s doing well, because she knows I care for her. I don’t think she was trying to say she’s happier without me. We don’t speak the same language. I actually think they are happier with just each other. And I loved them both, so it hurts. Sometimes, not all the time. And it doesn’t always hurt that bad. Other times it does get pretty bad, though. I probably owe it to myself to say that.

I look back at the photos, the ones of our life together, and the ones of their new life.

Two green owl eyes, and two brown moonlit eyes. I look for myself in them.

[Read Related: How Love Matures as you Grow]

By Umrao Shaan

Umrao Shaan is a short storyist, poet, and ghazals singer. You can find his songs on his Instagram. His other … Read more ›

Reflection Comes From Within, not From Others

“Confessions to a Moonless Sky” is a meditation on the new moon and guilt. I wrote it when I was living in Dallas and was driving back from a dusk prayer. The new moon terrified me on that drive. I was diseased by the knowledge that my partner, at the time, had seen the worst parts of me. There’s immense shame in this piece—it seized my self-image. If the moon could become brand new, then I could start over.

I often ponder on the moon’s reflective nature and pairs of eyes. I’m hyper-fixated on how I am seen by others. Unfortunately, the brilliance of seeing your reflection in another person leads to negativity. After all, those who are too keen on their own reflection are the same people who suffer from it. It is possible to use shame to fuel one’s retribution and personal growth, without becoming consumed by it.

We can look to Shah Rukh Khan succumbing to alcoholism in his own sorrow and then later imbibing his sadness in Chandramukhi. “Confessions to a Moonless Sky” is a lesson for us: Don’t be Shah Rukh Khan in Devdas, instead embody pre-incarnation Shah Rukh Khan in Om Shanti Om!

[Read Related: Uncovering the Brown Boy in Hiding Through Poetry]

Confessions to a Moonless Sky

Sometimes when the moon abandons the sky, I wonder if I drove her away.

If she comes back, will she be the same? How I wish she would come back new, truly new! That way she’d have no memory of the sin I’ve confessed to her. You noxious insect. Sin-loving, ego-imbibing pest. You are no monster, for at least a monster has ideology, it sins with purpose. You sin just to chase ignominy.

But the moon won’t say that, she never does. She’ll just leave the sky and return days later, slowly. And I’ll wonder if she’s new, perhaps she won’t remember my past confessions. What does it matter? Were the moon replaced with one from a different god, I’d drive her away, too.

[Read Related: ‘headspun’ — Bengali Muslim Boy’s Poetic Journey Through Himself]

By Umrao Shaan

Umrao Shaan is a short storyist, poet, and ghazals singer. You can find his songs on his Instagram. His other … Read more ›