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Calcutta, oh Calcutta

When I was five, I thought the world extended as far as Kolkata. I couldn’t quite fathom anything beyond our narrow, little neighborhood. When I moved to America a year later, I still didn’t realize how far away I had traveled. In fact, once we landed, I called my aunt back in Kolkata to ask her if she could come pick me up.

It didn’t take long for an impressionable six-year-old to adapt, however. There was a lot of novelty to soak in. Between playing with the tiny roly polies, religiously watching Arthur, and dancing to Bollywood music with my brown friends at lunch, three years had passed, and my family was ready to move again — this time, for the long haul. But as saturated as the Bay Area was with diversity, Phoenix stood in stark contrast. Not only was my hometown devoid of Indian culture, but my daily exposure to diatonic suburbia made me forget that Arizona extended further than my narrow, little neighborhood.

So when I first found Mill Avenue, a crowded street in the college town of Tempe, I was delighted with the change of scenery. And then I found myself homesick, but not for the suburbs.

All photos taken by Payel Ray

The brick walkways, wrought-iron grills around the trees, and brownstone buildings are all visual reminders of Kolkata. Remnants of British colonialism, these aesthetic attributes are common throughout Kolkata. Like Mill Ave, the shops along the streets of Kolkata are smushed together. The stores are cluttered. Their signs and color schemes clash. And every few feet, there are narrow alleyways that lead to tucked away restaurants.

Had this been Kolkata, I would’ve stumbled upon a fuchkawala (pani puri seller), a guy selling sandals, and a man with an ice cream trolley, all coexisting in the same tiny portion of the street. Throngs of moms holding onto their squirming children’s hands would be walking from one shop to another. College students with their cloth handkerchiefs close to their mouths would be loitering nearby. And the taxi drivers would likely be snoozing in their cabs. All the stores cushioned together would open and close their doors, letting the cool A/C air escape in spurts.

Unlike the crowded, bustling streets, Kolkata’s Hooghly river is muted. Likewise, at the end of Mill Ave, the underrated Tempe Town Lake sits silently. The Tempe dust rivals the Kolkata fog and both contribute to understated pink skies. Boat riders enjoy the sunset, and a medley of cars and trams ride over the bridges, sporadically disrupting the quiet.

Now, to be fair, Mill Ave is more commonly associated as being a college district. It’s an ASU staple spot for slovenly nights, a breeding ground for drunken memories. The street largely attracts university students after 10pm. But Mill Ave’s demographic shifts dynamically in the morning. It gets inundated with people of all profession. And the more diverse it grows, the more accessible it becomes.

In the morning, Mill Ave collectively belongs to all. And the morning is when I’m most reminded of my motherland.