CUTTACK, THEY SAY, is a thousand years old. Jayanta Mahapatra has spent nearly a century in the city. At first, it was birth, but life conspired to keep him there, and he wrestles with this idea time and again in his writing. In November last year, while I was shuffling through the day’s Odia newspaper, a short piece caught my attention. A few weeks after his ninety-second birthday, Mahapatra had decided to take his readers on a walk to chronicle the journey from his home to school that he undertook daily eighty years ago.
“There are so many tales in Cuttack, the ones which have eluded me even when I thought I saw them and believed I understood them, and that is why I will return to those days and a few streets which hold so much for me,” he wrote. He recalled a clear, silent day in 1940. The Second World War had been on for a year, and he and his brother were school-bound. There was nothing unusual about this: he boarded the rickshaw as he did every day, sitting comfortably on it.
But this quotidian experience does not refer to a sense of the mundane. Traversing through the narrow by-lanes of the old colonial city (which he calls a “village-like city”), he glided by trees, a pond and his friends’ homes. Many things came back to him—the Parsi candy store run by Bilimoria’s that sold his favourite candy, or Khan Hotel’s delicious fish biriyani, which he could never get enough of—only to remind him that they can never be found again, much like his friends and acquaintances. There were stories he shared about each tree and street around him, attributing a life to them with his recollection, which was shrouded in sorrow. It is only the city’s perpetual liveliness that drove him to retrieve those memories. Far from a simple nostalgia for Cuttack, it was an intimate portrait of a city by a devoted resident. He wrote, too, that “Cuttack seemed like New York” to him back in the day.