Walking down Mirza Ghalib Street, I chanced upon an electrical junction box, on which was painted a verse by Ghalib
Whether we buy something in a place we visit or not, we always come back with something—a phrase, a recipe, a moment of connection, or alienation. On my last trip to Kolkata, I came back with an odd item: junction box envy.
Walking down Mirza Ghalib Street, I chanced upon an electrical junction box, on which was painted a verse by Ghalib. True to my "excitable visitor" nature, I immediately took and shared a picture of myself with it, and learned there are a few dozen of them in the city that commemorate its thinkers, merchants and artistes with little paintings and quotes. A wine glass denotes India's most influential male romantic role model for gents, Devdas, and by extension his creator, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. There are junction boxes dedicated to the cinema of Satyajit Ray near his home, as well as RD Burman, Mahashweta Devi, Subhash Chandra Bose, Usha Uthup, among others. We can call them capsules of the city's history, but they really are the inner life of a city—the eclectic, electrifying life-worlds of culture, the lives and stories of a city that shape the imagination of its dwellers, permanent or temporary. A poetic history of a place.
The project has been created and financed by Mudar Patherya. This doubled my envy. Mumbai has an equally rich cultural history, evoked in streets and crossing named for Shahir Amar Shaikh in Parel, Kishore Kumar in Juhu or Ena Pereira (Mummy) in Pali market. But how marvellous it would be to tell us something more about these people, and others who haven't got streets named after them, but have lived and loved here, perhaps next door to where we reside. And, how they made and contributed to this city, as much as politicians and planners and builders, who might now more accurately be described as those responsible for un-making cities. But our rich citizens are quicker to brand grand things after themselves than celebrate the city's heterogenous spirit in more quotidian ways that might make the city a more mystical and magical place to walk in.
Sadly, on my short trip, I found only one more box. I had half a day free and did consider going to search for one or two of the people whose streets were mentioned in articles online, but didn't have enough information to manage this. At first I was annoyed that there is no map or app that tells me where to find the junction boxes, not even clues for a treasure hunt. But later, I thought, this is the poetic way, is it not? The anti-Tinder method of getting to know someone, not in one download (yaniki, "tell me about you"), but through repeated visits and the luxury of time spent and intimacy built. Surely, if I roamed around the city enough on varied purposes—work, holiday, visits with friends, the city would yield its junction boxes to me suddenly, unexpectedly. Some would delight, some disappoint and some make no difference. Like a person, a place too, must be slowly learned. In the words of the poet Carol Ann Duffy, it is, "an onion/a moon wrapped in brown paper/it promises light/like the slow undressing of love." I think I'll be going back soon.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at email@example.com
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