The problem

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‘IT is the easiest thing in the world to come close to despair in Calcutta. Yet for anyone with the wilful staying power… a splendid truth about this city dawns upon his perceptions and his understanding. It is that although he will surely never before have encountered so much that is deadly in any one place, he has never been confronted with so much life either... While it is staggering miserably, it is also wondering thoughtfully. It is reproducing itself minute by minute; it is thriving and proudly brandishing itself. It dominates.’

Like all large Indian cities, Calcutta too is a city of extremes. Quintessentially Bengali, unselfconscious in its linguistic parochialism, revelling in its idiosyncrasies – and yet – it has a peculiar power to attract. Probably no other Indian city has so many non-ethnic Bengalis laying claim to the city as theirs. And nowhere else do we have as many non-native speakers so fluent in the language, a skill they seem to retain even when they have migrated elsewhere.

This, despite a rather troubled history. Ever since the English decided to shift the national capital to Delhi in the early years of the last century, Calcutta has been seen as a city in decline, finding it difficult to come to terms with its loss of status as the ‘first city of the Raj’. Delhi became the seat of power and Bombay grew as the site of modern wealth creation. Calcutta’s rich and powerful, garnering their surplus as traders and fattening on extractions from an increasingly impoverished countryside – what the Naxalites decades later characterized as a ‘semi-colonial, semi-compradore bourgeoise’ – remained mired in the perceived glories of the past, unable to accommodate the shifts in history.

The politics of denial was matched by a culture of rage. Be it the aftermath of the first Partition of Bengal, the recurrent famines that racked the countryside, above all the great famine of 1943, the inability of the modern economy to provide meaningful employment possibilities for its growing tribe of the educated, and the steady influx of refugees seeking shelter from an impoverished hinterland – all contributed a militant and violent edge to a culture of protest. Little surprise, more than the constitutionalist C.R. Das, it was the militant Subhash Bose and subsequently the Communist left who came to dominate the city’s political imagination and culture.

Nothing captures this better than the troubled days of the late ’60s and early ’70s, when extremist Maoist protest seemed to overwhelm the city. It was as if the continuing ire against perceived discrimination – New Delhi’s unconcern about the millions of refugees who sought shelter in the city following the partition of 1947, the refusal to address the crisis of employment created by industrial decline, and the list of grievances is endless – had spilled over in a frenzy of nihilistic destruction. Such were the images captured in the street plays of Utpal Dutt, the films of Mrinal Sen, and the haunting novella Hazar Chaurasi ki Maa by Mahashweta Devi. Truly, Calcutta had for the outsider become an iconic city of despair.

Little seemed to work – industry, offices, education and institutions, not even civic life. Calcutta, as architect Jai Sen once characterized it, had become an ‘unintended city’ – the countryside taking over and remodelling the urban space. And yet, between the slums and the decay, or the despair of the young, with all those who could so manage migrating elsewhere, the city never once lost its vibrancy and soul. Not even in its most trying moments did Calcutta ever give up on itself – there were no communal or caste riots unlike in our other big urban centres. And always, its citizens, particularly the less well-off, accommodated and created survival space for others like them. From Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin to the Hollywood blockbuster ‘City of Joy’, Calcutta’s poor – and they are legion – have demonstrated an amazing fortitude, an ability to find joy and celebrate life in the most trying of circumstances.

To appreciate Calcutta one needs to move beyond the monuments of the Raj, or the fabled palaces of erstwhile zamindars and Marwari traders. The city is most itself in its adda culture, small groups passionately discussing the relative merits of its favourite football teams East Bengal, Mohan Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting, dissecting the fine points of global politics, the films by Ray, Sen and Ghatak (and now probably Ritupurno Ghosh and Aparna Sen), or even how modern Bengali writing compares with that of the old greats Tagore or Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, not to speak of popular writers like Bimal Mitra and Shankar. Also, never ceasing to amaze is the seriousness with which each para (neighbourhood) takes its annual puja celebrations.

The last two and a half decades, all under Left Front rule, have witnessed a new make-over, evident not only in the country’s first underground Metro (which the city is justly proud of) or the frenzy of building activity but equally in its ability to attract new capital, enterprise and energy. No longer is Calcutta the place that entrepreneurs shun, and though run by the Left it has demonstrated surprising pragmatism in the manner it is attempting to re-fashion itself. Who could have imagined the privatization of power distribution in a Left bastion, making recurrent power cuts a matter of the distant past. Or the current aggressive wooing of foreign and monopoly capital and the setting up of new institutions to stem the outmigration of the intelligentsia and attract students from elsewhere. It’s another matter that many find it difficult to square this ‘reasonableness’ with vehement protests against globalization, fulminations against US imperialism and, most amazingly, a continued deification of Stalin.

True that these new developments are seen by many, particularly from the old Left, as succumbing to bourgeoisfication, a giving up on the ideals of revolution. They point to the steady squeezing out of the underclass, the brutal eviction and demolition drives, the proscribing of the hand-pulled rickshaw – all this without adequate efforts at providing meaningful alternatives. So even as Calcutta revels in its new buildings and flyovers, the haute restaurants and Bengali pop and jazz, the growth of a fashion industry and now Information Technology – is the city losing its way, becoming one more colourless metropolis?

The battle remains joined. In handling the inevitable birth pangs of a make-over, necessary if one has to join the new world of the 21st century, Calcutta (now Kolkata) needs to rework its politico-cultural imagination, learn a new work ethic and add to efficiency without sacrificing its innate humanity and concern for the less well-off. Even more, it will have to learn how to respond to the urges of the young, a new generation impatient with the shibboleths of the past. It remains a city of protest, and there is still need for the humanitarian interventions a la the Sisters of Charity, for Calcutta, like all large cities, retains a substantial presence of an underclass.

The challenge before the city and its political masters is to build on its welcoming and accommodating character, retain its universal concerns without sacrificing its regional specificity and still exude hope. After long years of decline, Calcutta today shows the promise of becoming a vibrant regional hub attracting the enterprising for the opportunities it offers. This issue of Seminar celebrates the many, often contradictory features of this sprawling, complex and multi- layered city – a unique megalopolis that refuses to give up or barter away its soul.


* Geoffrey Morehouse, Calcutta: The City Revealed, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971, pp. 350-51.