Pratidwandi (1970)

Pratidwandi (1970)
Jayshree Ray fixes her gaze on Central Calcutta in Satyajit Ray's Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970)

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Calcutta, c. 1945: Photographs taken by a G.I.

In the mid-1940s, Calcutta swarmed with American G.I.s, on duty on the eastern front against a possible Japanese invasion. For most of these soldiers, the city -- with its imperious colonial architecture, the simultaneity of splendour and poverty, and seemingly strange lifestyle and practices of the 'natives' -- was a exotic wonder. Many of them found it worthwhile to take back visual memories of their stay and went around the city taking pictures of whatever they found curious. One such collection of sixty black-and-white photographs, taken by one Clyde Waddell, has come down to us in good condition and is preserved presently in several American libraries. Each photograph comes with a caption, put down by Waddell himself. Apart from giving us a glimpse of the bygone city through the lens of a military photographer, these accompanying captions also tell us something about how the American soldiers perceived and thought about the city and its people.

Aerial view of Calcutta downtown.  In upper left background is Hindustan building, U.S. Army HQ.  The oldest
part of the city starts at the esplanade and extends upwards.  The city was founded in the early 1700's.
Chowringhee Square.  The Mohammddan mosque, Juma Masjid, is shown at left.  This is actually one of the
quiet moments when GI trucks, taxis, bicycles and other modes of transport can move with comparative freedom.

Probably the largest market in the East is the New Market.  Convering several blocks in the downtown area,
the 2,000 stalls offer most anything you could ask for, wartime shortages excepted.  In addition to all the
items appealing to the local and tourist trade, the market contains giant food departments.
Indicative of the resumption of an age-old struggle for decent conditions is this immediate post-war
picture of tram-workers on strike.  The strike lasted nine days but employees won par of their demands.

These Sikh lads have chosen an auspicious stand for their business of selling 'precious' stone to GI's.
No more than 12 years old, these boys are shrewd and 'malum' English well enough to trim a sucker every time.

Of Calcutta's assortment of colorful and intriguing characters, the sikh taxi-driver and his co-pilot
rank high. The co-pilot was added in 1944 following an affray in which a soldier knifed a driver.  The two
GI's shown here are doing their best to convey their destination to the driver of the ancient jalopy.

This cocoanut market on Cornwallis street is a sample of the haphazard way in which many basars are operated.
The popular pauses for refreshment is indulged by Indian in central foreground drinking cocoanut milk.

Calcutta's poor from a line to buy kerosene at 6 a.m. Each little cubicle may contain a shop and living
quarters for a family ranging possibly from 6 to 12. Sanitary facilities consist of an open street drain.
A little snooping in Chinatown will turn up the little opium dens stuck down an alley (not recommended without police escort). Actually the smokers shown in this picture do it legally. Each den is licensed for so many pipes. Each pipe costs a rupee, a phial of opium five rupees. Average smoker consumes a phial a day and there are about 186 pipes licensed in Calcutta.

The indifference of the passerby on this downtown Calcutta street to the plight of the dying woman in 
the foreground is considered commonplace.  During the famine of 1943, cases like this were to be seen in most
every block, and though less frequent now, the hardened public reaction seems to have endured.

Indian movie actresses.  Dressed in Sarees, 19-year old Binota Bose, left, and Mrs. Rekha Mullick, right,
are right at home before the camera and lights.  Miss Bose earns $360.00 per month and Mrs. Mullick $210.00.
Both are well educated and prefer American books, pictures.

In a different post, we have already seen how the American military establishment decided to equip their soldiers who were to be posted  in Calcutta with some sort of a guide book to launch them in the foreign land. These photographs, taken by one such soldier once he landed up in Calcutta, completes this circle. It tells us how, equipped with this guide book, he explored his way across the length and breadth of the city.  In the process, he ended up creating a wonderful visual and textual archive for posterity.

Here is the link to the complete album, which has all the sixty photographs:

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

In Pictures: Mass Protests at Jadavpur University, by Ronny Sen

[The following photo-essay of the ongoing Jadavpur University student movement by Ronny Sen was originally published in This is a repost. For the original, see]
Students at Calcutta's Jadavpur University have been protesting for the past fortnight at the sexual assault of a female student. A government-appointed panel has begun an inquiry, but the students, upset over the universities' decision to call in police against the protesters last week, say that is not enough.
Photographer Ronny Sen went to find out why they are so angry.
Parnab Das
Parnab Das a 1st Year student of Masters in Comparative literature
What began as anger over last month's assault has snowballed into fury over the authorities' response. Protests have also spilled outside the university campus, and at the weekend up to 25,000 people marched through Calcutta's streets. Parnab Das is doing a masters course in comparative literature. "I am also teaching in a school and I plan to leave my job so that I can give my full time to this movement," he says.
Supratik Sur Roy
Supratik Sur Roy is studying a Masters course in Film Studies
Last Tuesday night, the situation came to a head when university vice-chancellor Abhijit Chakraborty called in police to quell a protest on the campus. Mr Chakraborty says he called in the police because he was under siege and had to be rescued. Dozens of students were injured and admitted to hospital. Supratik Sur Roy, a student of film studies, says it was "completely unacceptable" to send "commandos and police to beat up students who were protesting peacefully".
Upasana Chakraborty
Upasana Chakraborty is is an undergraduate 3rd year student of English at Jadavpur University
Ms Chakraborty, an undergraduate student of English, says she was present on the night and that police came inside the campus and beat up the students. She has alleged that her boyfriend was severely beaten up and suffered multiple injuries. The students are now demanding that the vice-chancellor resign and Ms Chakraborty says she will not give up protesting until he quits.
Prabuddha Ghosh
Prabuddha Ghosh is a MPhill 1st Year student of Comparative Literature
Mr Ghosh, an MPhil student of comparative literature, says: "I am proud to be a part of this movement. I was not present on the night when police came, but I wish I was there with my friends who were beaten up." The poster behind him, with the war cry Halla bol (Raise your voice), aptly sums up the mood of the protesting students.
Sanmit Chaterjee
Sanmit Chaterjee is a Mphill student of second year studying Woman Studies.
"We are not only fighting against the vice-chancellor, we are addressing other issues as well. We are fighting against many things like moral policing on campus, which is being forcefully imposed on us", Sanmit Chaterjee says.
Rupsa Sarkar
Rupsa Sarkar is a Mass communication and journalism student in a post graduation course
Ms Sarkar, a mass communication and journalism student, says: "I don't think our demand to the vice-chancellor for a proper investigation into the molestation was wrong. What was the reason to bring the police inside the campus? The students were peacefully protesting. We will fight against police brutality and until the vice-chancellor resigns."
Devi is an ex student, she passed out in 2012.
Devi is an ex-student who graduated in 2012. But the protests have seen many former students like her return to the university. Along with some other students, she has been painting and making posters which are being put up across the campus.
Prantick Das
Prantick Das is an ex student of Comparative Literature and Mass Communication in Jadavpur University

An ex-student of comparative literature and mass communication, Mr Das says he is here because he feels "very strongly" about the incident. "This could have happened to any one of us. Former students who are in different parts of the world are sending messages with their support and solidarity," he says.

#hokkolorob: A Photostory of the Ongoing Movement in Jadavpur University

[September 2014 saw the dramatic escalation of a localised student movement in Jadavpur University in South Calcutta demanding a fair investigation into an incident of molestation of a girl in campus to a huge movement of students, intellectuals and citizens of Calcutta that strongly condemned the authoritarianism and callousness the university administration displayed in handling the situation. This photo-essay was originally published in This is a repost. For details regarding the initial student movement demanding a fair investigation and the punishment of the molesters, see
'Students, tired after a long day of protest, unwind with music, and much-needed sleep as the posters scream in the darkness. A photostory in (mostly) multiple exposure, documenting the ongoing protests in Jadavpur University at night, on the 11th of September, taken between 2am and 4am.'


Prose of Power and the Poetry of Protest – An Outsider’s Attempt to Make Sense of the ‘Kolorob’ in Kolkata: Uditi Sen

[Following an incident of molestation of a female student in the campus of Jadavpur University in South Calcutta, the administration set up an internal investigation committee to look into the matter. Fearing partiality in investigation, the students raised their voice and demanded the inclusion of impartial non-partisan people in the committee. The adament administration, however, decided to ignore these demands. As the students gherao-ed (blockaded) the Vice Chancellor (VC) in his office, the VC called in the police, who lathi-charged (beat up with sticks) the peacefully protesting students up and manhandled protesting female students. In response to these police brutalities in an educational institution, Calcutta saw, in the second half of September 2014, massive spontaneous protests and demonstrations (which mobilised with the catchphrase hokkolorob, literally meaning 'let there be clamour') on its streets by citizens and intellectuals, led primarily by the students. The following piece, a sympathetic yet succinct analysis of the governmental rhetoric aimed at delegitimising the movement, and the language of the protesters seeking to counter these governmental narratives and present alternate visions of politics and democracy, was originally published in on 28 September 2014. This is a repost.]

#Hokkolorob – Embodied
It’s been more than a week since tens of thousands of students marched in a rain drenched Saturday in Kolkata, in solidarity with Jadavpur University students and their fight for justice. Much has happened since to delegitimise this mammoth, genuinely popular and student-led march. A counter-march, the co-optation of the victim’s father by the ruling party, adverse propaganda in the press and fatigue and confusion amongst the protestors have been some of the dampening developments that followed the unexpected show of student power. True to their clarion call, hok kolorob (let there be clamour)the marchers made a lot of noise. A week later, as the numbers of protestors on the streets have dissipated as fast as they had congregated, it is perhaps time to step back from the euphoria of the gathering and the intimidation and murky co-optation of protest that followed, to reflect on the political meanings and potential of this uprising.

The march was not organised by any single political party, though many with experience or background in student politics of one ilk or the other, marched. The vast majority, however, were students who had never marched before and had no experience of politics. The question therefore arises, what, if anything is the unifying ideology of this body of protestors? What goals motivate them? Above all, the question that is doing the rounds the most, on social media, on mainstream news and on the streets is what are the politics of the protestors? The question of politics is seldom posed directly. Its ubiquitous presence, however, can be clearly read in the answers provided regarding the nature of the march, the motivations of the protestors and the identity of the marchers. Unsurprisingly, diametrically opposite sets of answers emerge from members of the ruling party, inside and outside Jadavpur University; and the people who took to the streets on Saturday. From the Vice Chancellor, the Education Minister and officially ordained leaders of the ‘youth’, such as Abhishek Banerjee and Shankudeb Panda, characterisations emerge that focus on indiscipline on campus, presence of Maoist and other outsiders and deep conspiracies. From students of Jadavpur University and their sympathisers, assertions emerge that this protest is about justice and not about politics. Both characterisations fail to capture what is at stake.
What we are witnessing, in the kolorob that has spilled over from Jadavpur University onto the streets of Calcutta, is a clear opposition between the prose of those in power and the poetry of protest. But this opposition is not between politically motivated speech and an ‘apolitical’ quest for justice, notwithstanding characterisations by mainstream media and the disavowals of spirited protestors. What is at stake is a disagreement over the limits of political power, the manner in which elected governments and executive authorities can rule and the expectations that people, ordinary people, can have of those who rule in their name. While these may not be issues debated or taken up with any seriousness by existing political parties in West Bengal that does not make them any less political, in the broadest sense of the word. A closer look at the poetry of protest reveals not just wit and catchy phrases, but a profound critique of the established patterns of party-politics, what I call politics as usual. Defending the status quo of politics as usual is the prose of power, a concerted and by now, predictable pattern of allegations and misinformation designed to delegitimise popular protest. A closer look at the slogans thrown up in Kolkata suggests that the poetry of protest is not just critical of the prose of power, but also carries embedded within it aspirations of a different, more just society, thus speaking, in hushed tones, of a politics of democratic possibilities.
Dismantling the Prose of Power: The Proud Outsider
The response of the authorities to the protest has followed what has become, by now, a familiar pattern. Every protest, every report of violence against women in Mamata’s Bengal is dismissed as choto ghotona (insignificant incident), shajano ghotona (a made-up incident) or chokranto(conspiracy). Such attempts to reframe and discredit genuine popular protest as either insignificant or a deep conspiracy by outsiders (bohiragoto) is eerily familiar in West Bengal. The allegation of being an ‘outsider’ was most famously and consistently mobilised by the Left Front government in Singur and Nandigram, as was the spectre of Maoism. Thus, despite a change in the identity of the ruling party, little has changed in the way those in authority relate to popular protest. It is clear, that neither the CPI(M), nor the TMC, once in power, have any space for popular movements that cannot readily be transformed into electoral gains. Despite whatever ideology might separate these two parties, they (and I suspect any political party that comes to power without actively seeking to dismantle the structures of domination that characterise West Bengal’s society and economy) share a common prose of power. The goal of this prose is to delegitimise popular protest. Its most obvious tool is language itself, backed by an entire machinery of propaganda and where necessary, some old-fashioned intimidation.
My attempt to map out this prose of power is heavily indebted to Ranajit Guha’s ‘Prose of Counter Insurgency’ that taught us to read self-avowedly neutral reports of peasant insurgency produced by colonial officials as texts entirely complicit in upholding existing structures of domination. Following Guha’s work, which taught us to read ‘revolt against zamindari’ whenever colonial reports spoke of ‘defying the authority of the state’ and replace allegations of ‘intention to attack’ with ‘intention to punish oppressors’; may we not also learn to read the present prose of power for signs of complicity? The process has already started, on the streets, with student protestors countering allegations of being outsiders or ‘bohiragoto’ with declarations of ‘ami gorbito, ami bohiragoto – pashe achi Jadavpur’, which translates as ‘I am proud, I am an outsider, # Standing with Jadavpur’.
Bohiragoto Card
‘Bohiragoto/Outsider ID Card’ – Circulated Online in Response to the Calcutta High Court Interim Order Restricting the Entry of ‘Outsiders’ into the Jadavpur University Campus
Thus, the poetry of protest takes the allegation of being from outside, being an illegitimate presence, and turns it into a proud presence of solidarity, an act of standing by friends/lovers/fellow students/fellow citizens. Surely, in future, it will be easier to read ‘proud presence in solidarity’ every time the authorities report ‘illegitimate presence of outsiders’ in a movement of protest. Neither the allegation of bohiragoto, nor its poetic refutation is new.
Bohiragoto - Poem by Shonkho Ghosh, widely used during the Jadavpur Protests
Bohiragoto – Poem by Shonkho Ghosh, widely used during the Jadavpur Protests
Shankha Ghosh’s brilliant poem by the same name begins by declaring ‘You don’t want to talk about me ? Then surely, I am an outsider’. But it is with the current kolorob that protestors on the streets have radically inverted the meaning of being a bohiragoto. They have made it into a fine thing to be, instead of a terrible and indefensible thing to be.
The authorities have made several other allegations of terrible acts/ways of being against students. Not all of the allegations have (as yet) met their match on the streets, in the poetry of protest. But all can be subjected to a similar inversion of meaning- a peeling away of the prose of power to reveal an idiom of protest- a fine way to be. Such an exercise has its uses for two reasons. Firstly, the prose of power is far from toothless. Its tactics and propaganda are designed to demoralise and its campaign in Kolkata has just begun. This piece is my humble contribution to the work of rendering its language toothless. Secondly, whatever action the authorities mark as terrible is what evokes the most terror in those who cling to the trappings of power at any cost; that which is demonised as indefensible is often also the very act against which the status quo has little or no defence. Thus a productive, might I even say, revolutionary, response against the allegations of those in power is not to plead or demonstrate innocence, but to embrace what one is accused of, but by its true name.
Bohiragoto Statement 1
Source: Bohiragoto-r Diary, Community Page on Facebook

[ Partial Translation: ‘Today it’s them, what guarantee is there it won’t be us tomorrow? To protest one does not need to be an insider or outsider. I had joined the march to fight against this tendency to divide. I will march again. In solidarity- Shubhrangshu Sarkar, Rupkala Kendra.]

The proud embrace of the label of bohiragoto, as an ally, as one who stands in solidarity with the oppressed, demonstrates this move perfectly. Besides slogans, t-shirts and banners, the protests in Kolkata have also led to a facebook page, the ‘Bohiragoto-r Diary’ or ‘Outsider’s Diary’, which has testimonies from protestors who are not students of Jadavpur, but who marched anyway and who stand in solidarity with their struggle. Through these testimonies, the true names of the much-demeaned outsider emerge – ally, compatriot, human, student, sympathiser.
The Bohiragoro's Diary (Outsiders' Diary) Facebook Page
The Bohiragoro’s Diary (Outsiders’ Diary) Facebook Page
This act of re-naming the bohiragoto is of vital political importance as it points towards what the proponents of a politics-as-usual fear the most – alliances, solidarity and unity across campuses and between disparate sections of society. For such a politics of solidarity to come into being, the presence of ‘outsiders’ is a must. The presence of the bohiragoto can even be read a sign of when a local, isolated act of protest starts becoming something larger- a movement with dreams of justice. And a movement is neither as easily ignored, nor as easily suppressed as an isolated act of protest.
Following this logic, beginning to list all that the prose of power denounces as terrible can create a check list of all that terrifies the authorities the most, and therefore, all the actions that must be embraced in their true name. Below, I have attempted an analysis of the most common allegation against the students – indiscipline, phrased variously as ‘nairajyo/arajokota (which roughly translate as lawlessness) and gundami (thuggishness). The attempt is to translate what the prose of power says into what it actually means, and also, to speculate what the true name of indiscipline might be in an idiom of protest.
Indiscipline Vs Autonomous Learning
Accusations of indiscipline have been the most common refrain used to delegitimise the protestors. Rather than go into the specifics of these allegations, I would like to get to the core of the authoritarian, top-down vision of education that enables this allegation to stick. Our education minister and state-ordained political leaders define education in the narrowest possible terms. The students are repeatedly told to ‘return to books’ and to ‘exams’ and thus restore ‘normalcy’ to campus.
[ Trailer of Film Adaptation by Q of 'Tasher Desh' Rabindranath Tagore's Visionary Anarchist Opera ]
The vision of disciplined education and campus life the authorities are evoking perhaps has its best expression in Rabindranath Tagore’s Tasher Desh (Country of Cards). The rules of that land evoked niyom or law/discipline above all else. ‘Cholo niyom mote, cholo niyom mote. Dure takiyo nako. Ghar Bankiyo nako…’ (Live by the rules, Don’t look Far, Don’t look askew).
In this vision of education, we have students as automatons, who stick to their prescribed roles: learn only what is offered for learning in classes and prescribed text books, and regurgitate that in the exams to win the necessary piece of paper that will be currency in the job market. Learning that cannot be converted to such currency has no value, if the authorities are to be believed. In fact, the prose of power would have values such as justice and all the skills that students can learn through organising excluded from the sphere of education.
Prose of power masquerading as protest at TMC sponsored counter-march. Translations below.  2nd From Left: We want education in educational institutes, not lawlessness. Hiding behind guitars is a deep conspiracy.  5th from left:  Alcohol and Marijuana are becoming scarce, the real reason behind songs of protest. Source: Shankudeb Panda’s Facebook profile
Prose of power masquerading as protest at TMC sponsored counter-march. Translations below.
2nd From Left: We want education in educational institutes, not lawlessness. Hiding behind guitars is a deep conspiracy.
5th from left: Alcohol and Marijuana are becoming scarce, the real reason behind songs of protest.
Source: Shankudeb Panda’s Facebook profile. Shankudeb Panda is the leader of the Trinamool Congress Student Organization

Organising outside classrooms, conversing with the administration, requires students to educate themselves in the structures of administration, the ins and outs of how to effectively communicate and make demands within a certain system, how to hold it accountable. These are the nuts and bolts of practicing democratic citizenship. Yet, these are devalued as they are not the students ‘job’- they have deviated from memorising and regurgitating texts into learning about how to practice democracy and stand up for justice. This is, indeed, a terrible thing. They are also learning through doing the skills of communication, public speaking, the challenges of working with and across differences, the risk that egos pose to any kind of organising and the resolve and creativity needed to preserve unity. These are also, clearly, terrible skills for students to pick up. Indeed, what can be more terrifying to un-democratic power structures than an informed and active student body that does not just learn from texts, but also from the world they live in? A student body that applies their skills with words and their intelligence in the pursuit of dreams of democratic administration and justice, and not just in the pursuit of a pay-check, is surely a fine development for any democratic polity.
The true name of indiscipline seems to me, to be autonomy – of thought and action. Far from not being a student’s job/role, autonomous thinking and learning that is aided by but not confined to books, is the very essence of education and what distinguishes it from ‘training’. Any educator worth his/her salt will tell you that our job is not to help students memorise relevant facts for an examination, but to teach them to think for themselves, in an informed and autonomous way. It is thus unsurprising that of the many cultural tropes used by students to describe themselves, one is of the students of Satyajit Ray’s Hirok Rajar Deshe, who were at the forefront of the crowd pulling down the king’s statue, a symbol of autocratic power. By evoking this trope, the movement that has spilled out from Jadavpur onto the streets, has inadvertently called out the authorities’ vision of education by its true name: mogojdholai, or brain-washing, which is designed to control and not to educate.
The prose of power is rich with allegations that lend themselves to this work of translation. This piece is inspired by and written in solidarity with the idealism of the students on the streets, and against an all-too-easy recourse to cynicism. So the list below is an open invitation to all to defang the prose of power through translations and re-namings.
Allegations/Claims of the Prose of Power(Terrible Acts)
Meaning/Intentions of Authority
Its true meaning 
Mod/Ganja (drinking and smoking marijuana) on Jadavpur CampusMoral Policing of Behaviour/Character AssassinationA rejection of puritanical codes of behaviour/Aspirations for Freedom (see image of graffiti below)
Girls in shorts/girls wearing tank topsGender policing through slut-shaming and victim-blamingAspirations of safety of expression for women and de-sexualisation of the female body
Disrespect of elders/professors/ administratorsAuthoritarian administration of student affairsDemocratic governance that includes student representation
#hokprotibad (let there be protest)Claims of protesting against student indisciplineA command performance of protest, filling the streets with TMC constituents. Intended to capture the political capital of being a dissenter (protibadi)#hokkyalano (let there be beatings) Hopes of beating into submissionautonomous student movements (I am indebted to TMC’s ‘youth’ and student leaders for providing this translation of their own actions)

Graffiti in Jadavpur University Photograp by Ronny Sen
Graffiti in Jadavpur University Photograp by Ronny Sen
This list is neither exhaustive, nor thought through. But it reflects my hope that in the kolorob in Kolkata, a new generation of students have begun to dream of a new kind of politics, rich with possibilities of democratisation, participation, equal opportunity and gender justice. These dreams and aspirations are not new, nor are they easy in a society riven with deep inequities of caste, class and gender. Moreover, these aspirations are expressed within a democratic structure where political parties have learnt to thrive on social inequities, rather than challenge the social status quo. This context of politics-as-usual, which relies of bullying, intimidation, hierarchy and propaganda, and is actually hostile to popular and autonomous aspirations of democratisation, brings me to my final and perhaps most vital act of translation.
‘Apolitical’ Protest Vs A Politics of Possibilities
In their desperation to protect their dreams of justice and democratic participation from becoming fodder for politics-as-usual, many students have claimed an ‘apolitical’ stance. In the immediate aftermath of the mahamichil (grand march) on Saturday, The Telegraph reported the presence of anti-government sentiments, but absence of ‘politics’. (JU-bagh at heart of city, 20 Sept). Many students, especially many who have sought to proudly embrace the tag ofbohiragoto have also hastened to embrace the label ‘apolitical’. (See example below.)
A Post on the Bohiragoto'r Diary Facebook Page
A Post on the Bohiragoto’r Diary Facebook Page
Yet, how can the demand for justice, the demand to be heard, the refusal to accept imperious or irresponsible behaviour from figures of authority, be anything but a political demand? These demands carry within them aspirations of a different, better society and a reworking of the relationship between the rulers and the ruled, where those in power cannot rule with impunity. This, at its core, is a deeply democratic and therefore political aspiration. It seems that an act of translation is necessary to make sense of this paradox: an idiom of democratic protest that has donned the garb of the ‘apolitical’.
Life of Galileo, Bertolt Brecht, quoted by Riddhi Sen in ‘We The Young, We the Fighters’, an article in The Telegraph, Kolkata
Riddhi Sen is a student of class XI in the National Institute of Open Schooling, he is also an actor on stage and in films.

Ridhdhi Sen’s article in the Telegraph begins to get closer to articulating what this assertion of being ‘apolitical’ means for today’s youth. He identifies as a fighter, evokes Brecht, the power of saying NO to injustice, the potential of independence of thoughts and actions amongst the young and yet, distances himself from politics through the claim ‘we don’t need any political party to protest’. (We the young, we the fighters, 22 Sept). The disavowal of politics is clearly not a turning away from active participation in the fight for social justice. It is a distancing from existing political parties.
It seems a correct reading of the claim to be ‘apolitical’ would be a critique of ‘politics-as-usual’ and not an absence of political aspirations, such as justice and democracy. The poetry of protest thrown up in Calcutta expresses a deep dissatisfaction with so-called alternatives or options offered to an electorate by opposing political parties. Through poetry and art, the students were quick to point out that wildly varied official ideologies and pre-electoral posturing give way to but identical autocratic tendencies once in power. A slogan heard at the mahamichil last Saturday was ‘Alimuddin shukiye kaath, shotru ekhon Kalighat’. The Telegraph aptly translated this as ‘Alimuddin is a shrivelled stick, the new enemy is Kalighat (where Mamata lives)’, and yet failed to grasp its political significance. This is a new generation of protestors, for whom the rewards of politics as usual are insufficient. They are willing to call the bluff of the ‘establishment’ left and the right with equal passion. Though calling themselves ‘apolitical’ they are unwilling to be pushed out of the sphere of public protest or intimidated into giving up on their dreams of a different, more just society.
The concensus that emerges out of the Kolorob in Kolkata is thus one of deep disaffection with politics as usual. An ability to see through the competitive posturing of rival political parties to the self-serving rot within political parties that destroys democratic possibilities is neither new in West Bengal, nor unique to those who walked for justice in Kolkata last Saturday. What is new is a willingness to re-occupy the public sphere. What is new, is the willingness to share experiences, organisational skills and dreams of a better tomorrow across campuses, unmediated by the elders of established political parties. And in this space of sharing and organising, the seeds of a new kind of politics have been sown. This is a politics pregnant with new possibilities – of democratisation and of justice and of holding the elected accountable to the electorate. I hope that as the seeds of this new kind of politics takes root in West Bengal, those who identify as ‘apolitical’ today might eventually come to call themselves by their true name- idealists, fighters and dreamers of a politics of new possibilities.
Uditi Sen lives in a small town in Massachusetts, USA and teaches South Asian History at Hampshire College. She was active in student politics, with and without banners, at Presidency University and Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Monday, September 1, 2014

'You have a date with Calcutta; treat her like a lady and you will find her to be one': A G.I.'s guide to wartime Calcutta

Imagine yourself as an American soldier in the early 1940s. The war is on, and you have just been assigned to the India-Burma-Japan front. Your station will be Calcutta.

Jittery? Thinking how to get by on unfamiliar terrain? Worry not, G.I.! The Information and Education Branch of the US Army has just what you need. The perfect guide book, meant for none other than you!

Let's take a peek then, shall we? You are confused at the queer customs of the 'natives, are you? Well, here you go then:
THE LOCAL MANBeing a Bengal he usually has no headdress. Of the Bengalis only the Muslim wears a fez, and even he does not wear one all the time. The Bengali is that chap who wears a sheet-like cloth which you will see draped about his waist and legs, with the ends of the cloth tucked between the legs - sometimes winding up in a flowing, folded end that hangs in front. The shirt-like garment is worn outside the lower one. (Remember those jitterbugs back home who thought they were starting a new fad by allowing their shirttails to hang outside their trousers?)

YOU LOOK AT THE INDIAN:You look at the Indian daily, you pass him on the streets, his life touches yours constantly. But do you actually see him, do you get a picture of what makes him tick, or do you brush him off in your mind as "That darn native who... ?" (He is an Indian, not a native, by the way - and you, being a non-Asiatic in a country where all such visitors are for convenience classed as Europeans, you are a 'European.') You do see that the Indian is different from yourself. Granted. But - do you see that that difference between the two of you does not give you a reason to criticize the Indian? Do you try to realize that the Indian's dress is not strange for India? Rather, it fits the climate here. The Indian thinks his turban to be sacred and does not want it touched. Is that silly to you? Okay, soldier, how'd you like to be back in the States sporting a new light-gray, snap-brim felt and have some stranger come along and casually reach up to finger it? When the stranger had picked himself up ... ! Many Indian women object to their hands being touched even in a friendly handshake. Perhaps you may feel the same way about the French custom of kissing you on both cheeks. Kissing you, the nerve of the guy! Everywhere, in streams, ponds, or under public fountains, you will see Indians taking baths by pouring water on themselves; although they have their own standards and their own instincts for cleanliness, a great number of Indians consider a bathtub to be dirty. Queer of them, isn't it? Ha ha! Some of our own States once outlawed the use of bathtubs as being immoral. To repeat, yes, the Indian is different. But instead of merely noticing that difference and judging it hastily, suppose we take a good long second look and attempt to understand the fellow's customs and ways of living. Remember, it is an age-old failure to laugh at things that you do not understand.

Yes, Calcutta is a great place to shop cheap, as you would notice. But what to buy? And where from? How would you get the best price? Well, let's talk about that then: 

There are two ways to buy in Calcutta (if buy you must); you can buy at FIXED PRICES or you can BARGAIN for merchandise. Certain reliable, well-established stores in the city have a fixed-price scale, which simply means that there is no lookout posted to watch for your arrival. In all the other stores and in the markets or bazars a deliberately high price is quoted you for an article, and it is then up to you to argue the price down to somewhere within reason - without in the process losing your reason. You seldom win. If you leave any shop in India confident that you out-smarted the salesman, then be sure of this: YOU DIDN'T! You can profit by the experience (paid for) of other American soldiers. Buy sound products in reliable stores at fixed prices.' 

Your number one buy in the Calcutta area. They're made in this vicinity, for one thing. Buy sarees, for instance. Sarees are the Indian woman's outer garment, a strip of cotton or silk some 54 inches wide and 6 to 8 yards long. Your girl can make them into dresses, coats or hangings. Or buy linens, lingerie, brocades - look over the shop's complete textile line for something that appeals to you.

Did you say you want to have some fun? Some drinkin' and dancin' may be? Well there you go then:

Calcutta has some fairly glamorous looking and tasting dishes, but, naturally, the present food is not up to its pre-war standards. You will want to sample some Indian food and some Chinese items - and then you will be quite ready to hurry back to that good old American style of cooking. eat only at in-bounds restaurants. Even these you will find none too clean.

Bad news. You won't be too happy about the liquor situation in Calcutta; and yet the place hasn't reached the desert stage as yet. Good whisky is available on the black market, but you'd be a fool to pay the prices. Indian whisky, rum, and gin aren't too bad; but in the long run you will probably do both your mind and stomach a large-sized favor if you stick to that beer ration from the P.X. In the cabarets and restaurants you won't find the brandy-and-soda too hard to take; and you might like the gimlets (gin, lime juice & water) - or the John Collins. Some beer is available at Firpo's Services Restaurant on Old Court House St., if you get there between 1900-1930. It's a here-it-is, there-it-was proposition. For bottled goods try the Army & Navy Stores at 41 Chowringhee Rd., or Mookerjee, O. N. & Sons, 3,4,5 Lindsay St.

In Calcutta you will not find night clubs of the type you knew back home. In fact - no night clubs. However, there are a number of places where you can dance.   For E.M. there are regularly scheduled dances at the ARC Burra and Cosmos Clubs on Dalhousie Square, at the Continental Service Club at 12 Chowringhee Rd., at the Y.M.C.A. on Corporation St. Gals will be on deck. You can have fun. Check at any club for scheduled nights.   Other spots where a G.I. can go - but where he should bring his own partner - are the Winter Garden and the Princes Room in the Grand Hotel (some real jive music in the Winter Gardens), Firpo's in the block above the Grand, and the Great Eastern Hotel (Wed. & Sat. only).   For officers there are weekly or nightly dances scheduled in most of the private clubs. Members and their guests only.   Firpo's, the Winter Garden, and the Great Eastern Hotel are open to officers, too.


Wondering what all this is about? It's is a guide from 1945 to wartime Calcutta for the American soldiers who were being dispatched to be stationed here. With a slightly patronising, yet surprisingly liberal tone, this guide discusses in details whatever these soldiers would be looking to negotiate, starting from the local climate, manners and customs of the people of the city, to places to go for dining, drinking and other entertainments. The guide to what to shop and how is especially detailed, with a separate section for buying souvenirs. Expecting that the soldiers would want to send mails regularly back home, it also discusses issues about postage. There is also a list of shops for purchasing dresses, films, jewellery, musical instruments, radios, shoes, sporting goods, as well as a range of dry cleaners, hairdressers, opticians, pharmacists, stationers and so on. Expectedly, it also has a map of the city:

Here is the complete book: The Calcutta Key. I will leave you with the opening note of the book then, from none other than Brigadier General R.R. Neyland, signed in Calcutta, 1945: 

  Once I knew a man who grew up in Philadelphia but never visited Independence Hall located there. I know several New Yorkers who though they live in its shadow, have never visited the Statue of Liberty.   I hope it can never be said that you were in Calcutta and didn't visit the Burning Ghats, the Kalighat Temple, and some of the other - equally famous - sights which Calcutta affords.  If you come here with an open mind you will find Calcutta is "Teek-Hai" (Okay). Of course, it's just like visiting any big city back home: you can have a good time, or a bad time, depending on how well you take care of yourself.   Incidentally, the people here like us. They think we're all right. Thanks to the good behavior of the American soldiers who preceded you, a friendly welcome from these folks awaits you. If you behave equally as well, a similar welcome will await your buddies who follow you in here. 
  "Teek-hai ?"

P.S.: While we are on the topic of the G.I.-s going to 'exotic' locations during the World War II, listen to this beautiful number, recorded by the Andrews Sisters. It's called Rum and Coca Cola and is about US soldiers in the West IndiesIt stayed on top of Billboard's U.S. pop singles chart for ten weeks in 1945.