Places: Calcutta

In the opening lines of the hit show ‘The Wonder Years’, the narrator says, ” I guess most people think of the suburb as a place with all the disadvantages of the city, and none of the advantages of the country.” This quote can be used in the context of Calcutta, albeit modified. Calcutta is a place with all the disadvantages of an Indian metropolitan city, and hardly any of its advantages.

I grew up in Calcutta. It is called Kolkata now in English, but that is only politically. Bengalis, and Calcuttans in general, are a nostalgic lot, and they’d rather call the city Calcutta. There are better ways to disassociate a city with its colonial past. Besides, Calcutta has much more than its colonial past to worry about now. The once ‘glorious’ association of being the capital of British India cannot harm its reputation much.

Lonely Planet describes Calcutta as “India’s second-biggest city… a daily festival of human existence, simultaneously noble and squalid, cultured and desperate.” Granted, travel magazines have to embellish anything they write. Second only to Mumbai in population density (23,900 people per sq. km), the mad rush of people sweltering under the oppressive humidity in the streets is anything but a festival of human existence. As I write this, there are alarmed reports on an aide of Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, who is incidentally, her nephew and the chief of TMC’s youth wing. Ms. Banerjee’s nephew threatened members of the opposition that their arms would be cut and eyes would be gouged out, to point out that the ruling party would use mafiadom to enforce its writ. This is a city whose cultural identity has been shaped greatly by the heavy-handed, misguided Bengali bhadrolok operating under the diktats of the Marxist Manifesto and taking inspiration from the struggles of the ‘labour class’ around the world. Their glaring political and strategic fallacies, controlled use of force to subvert state machinery in their favour that allegedly guaranteed them an uninterrupted rule of 34 years, made industrialists avoid the state like plague and made Calcutta what it was. A city that could have been great, but decided not to be so, because its politicians were short-sighted and lived their political lives by Marxist ideologies and personal lives by possibly capitalist agendas. A city that forsook rapid industrial development for becoming the cultural capital of India. If you had asked anyone to describe Calcutta in the 90s, or even in the early 2000s, they would have mentioned football, communism, music, arts, theatre, fish, Victoria Memorial and the Howrah Bridge. These defined Calcutta, except for football, with increasing passage of time. Bengaluru FC lost to Mohun Bagan only recently, in the final of I-League. Other than that, Calcutta can no more lay claim to be the Mecca of Indian football.

Calcutta still has the Howrah Bridge, with gaudy lighting, and a Victoria Memorial perennially under renovation looking out with its colonial glory at a new city that stands to forget its association. But the music band scene has shifted elsewhere, and theatre does not belong to Calcutta anymore. Quizzing has fallen out of favour with Calcuttans. The book fair stands nowhere in discounts to that offered on e-commerce stores. College street still remains the king on that front, though. Shoddy shops with piles of books and helpers nimble on their feet, who will do a disappearing act and then come up with the book you are looking for- Asia’s largest second hand book market retains its old ground.

But there are mikes at traffic signals blaring Tagore songs in odd inconsistency with the rush and cacophony of traffic. There is a madwoman at the helm of affairs whose idea of industry is a tea-shop. But there’s still fish, and there’s still the ever increasing sickening, uncomfortable sticky humidity that rises out of the squalor and  stench of  sweat of thousands of people.

Calcutta was never a city to be able to take on the metros under the Leftist rule. Its fate had been sealed as people began leaving the state for better opportunities outside, once-famous political institutions became the hotbed of cheap politics, academia of the knowledgeable Bengalis became rife with claims of corruption and the city became notorious for bandhs.

Calcutta’s famed intelligentsia, once on the forefront of cultural revolution, ushered in a new era of politics that has hastened the  stalling of the revival the city could have seen. Industries have scurried out, the remaining that were there, and the major working population of the city has followed suit readily. There are incidents of rape and undeterred movement of hooligans working under party protection. The city has fallen so far behind in the race with other metros that other Tier II cities seem to be catching up quickly. Some might argue that Calcutta is not in that rat race. That it retains its old world charm. But it doesn’t, not anymore. Once a hub of intellectual activity, however wayward, the city’s voice is now stifled. Parodies and political satires are better avoided. An online police scans objectionable content posted on the internet, and its secular image was discarded when reportedly, Salman Rushdie was deported from the Calcutta airport on the behest of Muslim groups whom the CM did not wish to offend. Votes count, and liberalism, of the non-preachy kind, does not.

Calcutta now feels like a city frustrated with its pace. It laboured under all the ridiculous impositions of Leftist rule, now it is reeling under the regime of lawlessness. The blue and white paint on the public structures, over railings and bridges, the unnecessary paving of roads with asphalt that blocked the drains, and drained out municipal corporation coffers paint a picture of desolation the city has not seen in a long time. Even its famed transportation system has gone for a toss, as auto drivers flout traffic signals and taxi drivers behave as if they are obliging passengers. The rickety buses still run, and the tram snakes its way through the traffic, a lazy means of conveyance in a city afflicted with a fatal laziness.

Poverty stares in the face of many people and the illegal immigration problem from Bangladesh does not help matters. One section of the population is still rich, and growing richer, but the jobs are moving, along with the people in them, outwards. Yet the population in the city increases, its throbbing intellectual atmosphere replaced by a heavy suffocating alien air that seems to be strangling the last vestiges of hope in the city.

But all is not bad.The lovers in the gardens of Victoria Memorial are thankful that there is no Shiv Sena or VHP to ruin their intimate moments. The Park Street rape incident apart, Calcutta is still a safe place, but that position is increasingly being questioned. It’s a city where public transport is still cheap, and will be, for short term populism dwarfs public welfare in the long run. Durga Puja is celebrated with as much fervour as ever, but the heavy footfall on the streets somehow lessens the fun.

Adda, tea, cigarettes still exist, still immune to the all consuming spirit of decadence swallowing everything up. But Calcutta is dying. Or maybe the city has always been like this, I have just moved on to more life, and better cities. That is sad, because the Calcutta I loved and remember used to be an industrial upstart, with sodium-vapour lamp coloured streets, a temple for the quizzing fraternity and music lovers, and a sense of safety rarely found in other Indian cities.

With time, their vices have crept into Calcutta. And Kolkata is left with very few of her virtues.