Once again it's February all over again. The unusually chilly January of this year is wearing off bit by bit; if you take a walk in the sun for fifteen minutes or so, you feel that itchy, prickly feeling that usually defines the cut-off between dry skin and the first droplet of sweat. And yet, the temperature drops at night - drops sufficiently to keep the quilts from being packed away in suitcases with strategically placed mothballs: the occasional sweater is still there; and so is the boutupi (can be roughly translated to 'bridal cap'; it is an incredible invention to ward off cold while sleeping).
No, boutupis are not the reason that I love February (even though I simply love boutupis, and think they are the greatest invention since sliced bread). They rule. But that is not the point. This post is about February. Boutupis will be covered in another post.
As I have mentioned before, February is the best month to be in Kolkata; and Kolkata is the best place to be in February. The mild sweat - the kind that does not tire you or stink, but has that certain feel-good aspect about it - is here now. The early mornings and the late afternoons give you the precise amount of sunshine your otherwise starved system craves for all year: it's so immaculately measured that you almost think that it cannot be a natural phenomenon.
The city smells of heaven. It may be flowers. It may not be. It simply smells of a Kolkata February. Of something soft; something fresh; something invigorating; something comforting; something primal; something relaxing; I have no idea what, but it is a feeling that my limited vocabulary cannot portray.
No longer is Park Street crowded with noisy banters of teenagers in colourful woollens, no. The seamless laughter has given way to solemn faces, back to their mundane lives at the end of the rather short-lived Kolkata winter. They look forward to another long year ahead: but they look forward to it with a smile; and the reason that they smile is the Kolkata February.
The rustle of the leaves; the full bloom of the polash; the sheer bliss of standing on Bijon Setu, watching trains go by as the lukewarm breeze caresses your face; shorts; the first proper bath after two months of bathroom horror; the effortless waking up every morning; the urge to read more without having to climb inside the smug safety of a blanket and feel drowsy after fifteen minutes. February has it all.
And then, there is the Book Fair. Yes, I know that Flipkart and Indiaplaza (and even College Street) have better offers, and they have free home delivery as well. The Book Fair has been shifted to the most obscure corner of the city (albeit for valid reasons), and it gets virtually impossible to find a transport back. And yet, as the mid-day sun melts into the mellow afternoon, the Book Fair pulls you with a grappling hook attached to your belly. Or it feels like that, at least.
It's also season-change time, of course. It's when the mothers all over West Bengal - from Darjeeling to the Sundarbans - warn their children (irrespective of their ages) to wrap themselves well; as the afternoons melt into evenings, worried mothers appear on the balconies: What if my son catches a cold? His head won't be covered when he will return home - this is why I always ask him to carry a scarf! But is there a single soul who bothers to listen to me...? Kiro'm him porchhe (roughly translates to 'the dew is forming', but it hardly captures the essence: you need to reach out into the heart of the Bengali mother to know what she means)...
With its inefficient and inadequate efforts to become an international city, Kolkata has managed to reach nowhere: it has lost its pomp and grandeur, its tag as the cultural capital of the country, and yet it isn't even close to where had intended to reach.
Despite all its ridiculous attempts to change, it has managed to keep its February intact. The quilt on the bed baked in the dry mid-day sun smells the same as it used to a quarter of a century back. The innocent morning sun still welcomes you to get up from bed early and bask in the freshness; long walks in the melancholy evening still allow you the luxury of what-would-have-been thoughts about old flames; the trains look just the same from above; the air kisses your face the same way it has always done - like the whiff of perfume that is left with you, almost as an afterthought, when that girl walks past you to get off the bus.
The Book Fair has not changed either. The traffic situation is hideous. The entire thing reeks of gimmicks and a terrible lack of management, and the free entry has really not made up for them. The entire thing looks ugly and artificial, but then - once you step inside, the same magic that has always made you peek inside each and every stall, eye one book after another, ask the seller about the quality of the book (and get an honest answer) still works. The feet still ache the same way; the crowd swarming around Benfish could well have been from 1990s; and the mothers - the quintessential mothers - still cover their helpless, too-young-to-protest sons with monkey-caps (an ugly boutupi).
These things, unlike a lot of others, have not changed. Girls in yellow sarees still look pretty when they blush to match the polash as they team up with other girls to meet their own boyfriends. They have not been able to take away the innocence of a February love; the dreams that come with it; the aroma and flavour that make the memories of the relationships so memorable; the way the eyes of the young boys light up when they see their see their feelings reflected in the affectionate eyes of their girls.
I now know what it smells of. I possibly do. The Kolkata February smells of my childhood. Of the days without responsibilities. Of the days when every day was a special one. Of the days when boys had to muster courage to talk up girls. Of the days when Pheluda was the world. Of the days when we were served coffee only on special occasions. Of the days when a small packet of miniature plastic animals made us ecstatic. Of the days of buying sweets for the guests who had arrived, and look at the plates with hope - what if he suddenly looked at me and decided to be generous?
The little, innocent bits of joy that have always been there but have eluded my senses throughout the year all turn up to hold me captive in February. And leave me hanging, craving for more.
To hell with your cherry trees, Neruda. I want to do to her what February does to Kolkata.