Saturday, April 21, 2012

Calcutta: Requiem for a City

Every time I come out of my flight at Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport and then on to the roads of the City of Joy, I get a distinct feeling of being back in my native village. This time as I came out of the airport – dirty and shabby as usual – and landed bang in the middle of a complete traffic chaos in a crater-filled dirt track (perhaps ironically called VIP Road), I could not help being pessimistic. Almost a year back the city welcomed with great joy and relief a new party into power after 34 years of communist rule - and the only signs of change are some blue paint and a new-design of street light, which, I was told, was so designed as it bears a close resemblance to the electoral symbol of the party in power.

2011 also marked the centenary of a landmark event, which of course no true Calcuttan could celebrate. Hundred years back in December, 1911 in a dusty corner of old Mughal capital, the British Monarch announced shifting of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi. Calcutta was then the richest and most progressive city east of Suez. A number of observers have remarked that 1911 marked the exact beginning of Calcutta’s decline. But even in the 1960s, half a century down the line, Calcutta was the richest city and West Bengal was the most industrialized state of the union. Calcutta was, without much doubt, the cultural capital (minus Bollywood) too. Almost every day I come across – both physically and in the pages of newspaper - so many non-Bengalis, over 60 of course, who had close links with the city. It was mostly in terms of education, business and father’s employment. Calcutta, apart from the rich and middling Marwaris and often looked-down-upon Biharis and Oriyas, was home to a thriving Anglo-Indian population, along with sparkling presence of Parsis, Jews, Armenians, Tamils and others. Except for some Chinese, almost all of them have migrated away. Today most of the successful Bongs are also found outside Cal – anywhere from Denver to Dubai, San Jose to Singapore and inside the country, in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Bombay…..almost in any metro city, except Calcutta.
End of history on Park Street?
Today, Calcutta is essentially a provincial town – or a sprawling monochrome urban agglomeration. There is nothing metropolitan about its culture, society or economy. Internet gives two unique credits to Calcutta – world’s poorest 10-million plus city and the metro city with maximum annual rainfall in the world – I don’t know whether the statistics are correct but no doubt, they instantly conjure up some of the more well-known visual images of the city.
City is the greatest innovation of human beings. A city represents the essence of a culture, concentration of knowledge and functions as the engine of economy. It is no wonder that both the Anglo-French words – City and Civilization – come from the same Latin root. Growth or for that matter, decline of a great city, therefore, has to be seen in the context of the civilization it represents. From a silted Port to dilapidated palatial houses of North Calcutta to rusting workshops of Howrah - all point to an utter collapse of the economic foundation of that civilization. Without that base, it is no surprise that Bengali culture today looks more like a shallow and stagnated pool.  

I spent a week in Calcutta, on an average covering 10 kilometres in two hours – as a result I ended up spending more time on the road than meeting people. If you dare to stand at the Science City crossing for more than 10 minutes, you risk being choked to death. Forget AC, finding a taxi with a clean seat was impossible - foremost factor was of course whether he would be kind enough to take you onboard. Public space belongs to anyone but the hapless public and the entire city resembles a giant open-air garbage dump.

Street kids celebrating Saraswati Pujo - none of them goes to school
My last day in Calcutta was incidentally the day of Saraswati Puja – Valentine’s Day for Bengali youngsters. Travelling across the city – from Howrah to Rashbehari and then to Salt Lake and then back to Howrah through North Calcutta and then again to Central Calcutta – I saw scores of boys mostly in Pajama – Punjabi (kurta) and girls, invariably in (mom’s) saree. As they went around giggling, trying to balance new heels and very conscious about their first saree (Ami tokhon nobom sreni/Ami tokhon prothom saree…), Calcutta definitely looked a more vibrant place. I am sure the day would have brought new colours to a whole lot of them. I would not deny that some of them with shampooed hair and large, dark Bengali eyes did remind me of an almost forgotten singer called Nachiketa after a long time – Hotat khola chule, hoyto moner bhule, jokhon takato se obohele…..hazaar kobita….

Yet I could not help noticing absence of a dash of glamour – to put it differently, twenty years back this crowd I would have expected at Rishra than Rashbehari. A friend observed that today there is more socio-economic and cultural energy in South-suburban Calcutta (Behala-Bashdroni-Garia) and suburbs along the Sealdah and Howrah local train lines – from Agarpara to Srirampore. Their benchmark of success – a house/flat, steady job for son/daughter (ideally school service – Rail, Bank PO or WBCS is a significant improvement), Kerala trip in October and may be a small car. Neighbourhood hero is the software engineer currently abroad – hopefully he would be back before Pujo (never mind Durga Puja is just nine months away) - para club is going to celebrate its 60th anniversary with great fanfare. Kasturi Sweets makes phabulaas Hinger Kachuri and Chicken Manchurian at Aheli Café is ‘almost like Tangra’ – slices of life seen in established middle class Calcutta perhaps twenty years back. And that Calcutta now appears a pensioners’ ghost town – children settled abroad, annual trips, daily phone call or Skype – empty nest.

Eight of us – college batchmates – met at Flurys on a Saturday evening. Flurys was then transformed into Pramoda’s canteen for the next couple of hours. There is nothing like an adda with old pals to improve the quality of one’s existence. You can still largely ignore pollution, traffic and a host of other maladies as you sit down with some hot Kaapi at a non-descript South Indian joint with old friends or some delectable Mochar ghonto at Bhojohori Manna with another. This remains the greatest redeeming feature of Calcutta – its people.
Calcutta ultimately remains a bitter-sweet memory like your first love. She held out so much promise. Even today you wonder why Calcutta’s potentials are not realized to any extent. Why can’t we at least have clean sidewalks, motorable roads and less pollution? This – without any political agenda – itself will bring some business and with it job and talent back to the city. So many us would have been really happy to be back in this city for good – in the absence of basic amenities and lack of opportunities, that option simply does not exist today. After so many years you don’t really remember why did you have that fight on that Saraswati Pujo day – millions of years ago – you still pine for her. Kolkata jodi satti tilottama hoto!!