This is an archive of random things - aesthetic and offensive, high-browed and subaltern, cerebral and ridiculous - about Calcutta, that people deeply in love with this city wish to share with others. The hope is twofold - first, to know our own city better by looking at it through each other's eyes; and second, to offer a database to outsiders looking to explore the city through alternate channels that, unlike much of the available travel guides, do not try to play up cultural clichés.
Jayshree Ray fixes her gaze on Central Calcutta in Satyajit Ray's Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970)
Today comes the surreal news that anyone painting their house or apartment white or sky blue in Kolkata can claim a waiver on property tax for a full year, a horror conjuring up a city that looks like a crumpled weave of Mother Teresa’s saree. Now, towns of Regency England and the Cornwall coast have uniform building and color restrictions to maintain historical continuity, but this idea is more in the perverse vein of babus suggesting that the burning ghats at Varanasi be “white-washed” for “freshness”.
The Chief Minister’s radio and music in public places scheme
Thankfully, another Humphrey shot that idea down, yet the decimation of the architectural integrity of the façade of these famous ghats continues apace, with sealed air-conditioned buildings overlooking the burning bodies at Manikaran. Bengal’s Chief Minister has been known to remark that the colours “promote happiness” and accordingly, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) Mayor has incentivised citizens to embrace the “theme colours of the city”. Coming on the heels of a general election, where the TMC won 34 seats out of 42, up from 19 in 2009, and compared to only 2 each for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (with 18% of the vote share, not to mention an almost win in the city), even discounting for dirty tricks appropriated by their cadres from the Left of old, the scorn must be tempered by what this result says about the contemporary citizen of this state and city.
What it says is what bampanthi Bengali friends of mine, originally from Kolkata, never cease to tell me, when I am openly admiring and envious of the culture and milieu that is theirs – that it was theirs, but is no more (I’ll discuss the nostalgia-chimera effect below, theirs – Bhooter Bhabishyat – and mine!) I have come to accept what they insist on, that my eclectic and random sample circle is not representative of a population that is increasingly emulating the worst of the rest of India – conservative, censuring, consumerist, with closed minds, even casteist and communal by other genteel names. They are not alluding to Marwaris here, as central to the fabric of the city as the next native, but bhadralok Bengalis, with their share of arrivistes (as a Punjabi, this comforts me); those who’d gossip about single women; and worse, those not reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez, rather favouring to listen, not so secretly either, to pyaar pyaar pyaar hookah bar from Bollywood. These attitudes carry from Kolkata to CR Park in Delhi, as they would if one prefers to always carry the weather with one, to paraphrase the song. A look at Bengali popular television series, not very different in their regressiveness from Hindi serials, and I began to see why my friends are trying to remove my rose-coloured glasses.
But why, oh why, must this be so? Even as a non-Bengali, who had made only one previous visit during Durga puja to north Kolkata in the early 1990s and a fleeting day trip to present a paper at Centre for Studies in Social Sciences (CSSS) more recently, a leisurely stay in the city this past winter made me feel intensely nostalgic about its past, their past. Because for those with a certain sensibility, what Kolkata came to be (as opposed to what the British wanted it to be) is India’s finest past and losing it means a place of refuge, a dying but essential world, is gone forever. I am conscious I sound like a geriatric loyal life member of the India International Centre (IIC) here, but ceding and admitting upfront that all nostalgia has an element of sincerely remembered fiction and projection, that’s its very purpose, I see no harm in it. All the more reason for genuine natives of a similar aesthetic and politics, who take Kolkata for granted, as a place of psychological and actual belonging, a place that they can retire to when the rest of the world fails to deliver or falls apart, ought to sit up and speak up, or hold their peace forever. Its decline and disappearance will hit them harder than the rest of us in India, who have never had such a city – whether imagined or real, it doesn’t matter – to call one’s own.
If praise is in order to salvage, then here is what struck me about Kolkata on this recent visit. Some qualifiers are in order here. I stayed in the IIMC Joka campus, on the south-western edge of the city, or the Republic of Joka, as my Bengali hosts christened it, an independent metaphorical island standing in stark contrast to its environs. I walked the rest of the city, as much as I could – which does not include the new extensions of Salt Lake and New Town, only because I didn’t get a chance to visit either. My piece is a modest one, written as a complete outsider, with no prior connection to the place (and therefore, far from the perspective of an embedded insider, as Amit Chaudhuri’s or Indrajit Hazra’s recent books on the city portray). Having no baggage to a place frees one to sometimes see things – good and bad – that locals are blind or immune to, however, with a starkness and cold comparator gaze that begs documentation. That, alongside my research interests in urban and metropolitan life in India, compelled me to pen this sketch of a city, admittedly only experienced in a compressed amount of beautiful winter time.
The Hugli river
The magnificent matriarch, bordered by the splendorous languorous Hugli, like a nonchalantly tossed pallu of a saree in freefall, cannot be described in terms that crudely focus on her inability to attract investment, or retain skilled white collar workers, functional attributes that can never explain a great city. These might be necessary but are insufficient conditions, as an economist would crudely put it, to sustain and regenerate urban agglomerations over time, as will be found out in the many bustling metropoles (Bangalore) and flourishing satellite towns (Gurgaon and Noida) playing to the tune of just such a single-minded, instrumental piper. A living, breathing space of beauty, densely inhabited by old trees growing out of old buildings, as much as people from all walks of life, Kolkata is a city no amount of urban planning could ever create or recreate, for it’s a space visibly contoured by and contingent on its past.
‘Compare, for instance,’ says Sir J. Strachey in chap. i of the 1903 edition of his India, ‘what Calcutta was when Lord Lawrence became Viceroy in 1864 and what it is now. This city, the capital of British India, supplies an excellent type of what has been everywhere going on. The filth of the city used to rot away in the midst of the population in pestilential ditches, or was thrown into the Hooghly, there to float backwards and forwards with every change of tide. To nine-tenths of the inhabitants clean water was unknown. They drank either the filthy water of the river, polluted with every conceivable abomination, or the still filthier contents of the shallow tanks. The river, which was the main source of supply to thousands of people, was not only the receptacle for ordinary filth; it was the great graveyard of the city. I forget how many thousand corpses were thrown into it every year. I forget how many hundred corpses were thrown into it from the Government hospitals and jails, for these practices were not confined to the poor and ignorant; they were followed or allowed, as a matter of course, by the officers of the Government and of the municipality. I remember the sights which were seen in Calcutta in those days in the hospitals, and jails, and markets, and slaughter-houses, and public streets. The place was declared, in official reports written by myself in language which was not, and could not be, stronger than the truth required, to be hardly fit for civilized men to live in. There are now few cities in Europe with which many parts of Calcutta need fear comparison, and although in the poorer quarters there is still much room for improvement, there is hardly a city in the world which has made greater progress”.
Today, I would say London ought to fear comparison with Kolkata (on dirt, filth and those other native abominations, as much as the beauty and grandeur of the buildings). For as a friend remarked, the British Empire could afford luxury and scale in the colony that they could not back home, and if India was the jewel in the crown, Kolkata was its first and finest cut (Delhi, I’m afraid, does not even come close). The magnificent General Post Office dome rising above the surrounding vista, taken with the fact that it is that very British thing called a GPO and not a paean of love such as the Taj Mahal, can only be an imperial imprint. The flat green expanse of Maidan, punctuated only by the canopy of trees that have witnessed the passage of time, and under which shelter people selling jhaalmuri to lovers and kids playing cricket, is just grand. Then there are the buildings of the Dalhousie area, or as it is now known, BBD Bagh (central business district and government center), each finer than the next, conjuring up tea and the sabre and thrust of commerce and speculation of the trading houses of old. Built to similar height, neither high rise and neither single storey – as is much of Kolkata – with civilised walkable alley space between two constructions, each would be a listed building, with a plaque of “Here lived so and so, from such and such dates”, were these in a richer region more cognisant of its heritage, such as Europe. Switzerland even celebrates fictional characters and their places, such as Heidi Land, as King’s Cross Station in London marks Harry Potter’s departure to Hogwarts on Platform 9 and 3/4ths.
GPO at dusk
Of course, there has to be balance, of not demolishing and burying one’s history, but equally, allowing a city to be a living, dynamic phenomenon. As our heritage would crush us, if that’s all we focused on preserving and maintaining, it’s wonderful to see the dense and equalising occupation of space, oriented towards cheap functionality, or as McKinseywallahs love to put it, efficient service delivery (albeit coming from the so-called ‘informal sector’, not a chain store). What else are the small shops selling puja-ware outside the Netaji Bhawan metro station? Or the chai ki dukaans in the midst of BBD Bagh, serving invigorating masala decoctions in Rs. 6 khullars, with Marwaris half in and out of suddenly stationary Audis, pulling out wads of cash in search of change, rubbing alongside pedestrian patrons, all patiently awaiting their turn while watching the stock exchange ticker in the background. I’m observing the peculiar police van, with its open grills, parked outside the Lal Bazaar police station, the sight of which heralded terrible things in the Naxalite movement times of the 1970s. For the narrow by lanes and galis of this city, in long shadows and short nights, have seen violence of an unprecedented kind for a metropolitan in modern times, one cannot forget. But today, with the bougainvillea flowering outside the Writer’s Building, which remains lal only in letter and not spirit, that seems a misplaced past. What seems closer, curiously, are the boulevards and expanse of the imperial imagination, at its finest in the “Race Course/Fort William/Esplanade” area, north of “Allipoor” and “Bhawanipoor”, as sketched in A. Upjohn’s yellowing map of the Kolkata of 1792 displayed in a moth-ball scattered glass display case in the Asiatic Society.
The Asiatic Society on Park Street
I visited the Asiatic Society of Bengal, “a British scholarly institution in the capital of British India”, in hot pursuit of an intrepid Hungarian traveler who became its librarian, whom I learned about from another idiosyncratic Bengali friend. Most of them seem to lead dual cognitive lives quite seamlessly i.e. an exterior and an interior, or a real and an imagined etc., which makes it all so much more interesting and means their corporal selves might end up somewhere quite different to whence they commenced! Similarly, Alexandre Csoma de Koros (1784-1842) set off for Turkestan in Central Asia but ended up in the subcontinent, and it was said that “aggressive Sikhs” and their potential attack on the Ladakh valley [further] changed the course of his life, depositing him in the high mountains. He went on to become the founder of Tibetan Studies, translating the first Tibetan-English dictionary and some Buddhist cannons, amid constant adventures of permissions and locations and elusive lamas. He gets a mention in Nicholas Roerich’s Altai Himalaya and Shambala writings:
“Lama, why do your priests claim that Shambhala is far beyond the ocean, when the Shambhala of earth is far closer? Csoma de Koros even mentions, with justification, the place—the wondrous mountain-valley, where the initiation of Buddha was held. I have heard that Csoma de Koros reaped misfortune in life. And Grunwedel, whom you mentioned, became insane; because they touched the great name of Shambhala out of curiosity, without realizing its stupendous significance”.
Of course, I felt a personal connection with him and had to pay homage.
The Asiatic Society is located at one end of Park Street, just before the Free Masons Building (tickles my fancy to imagine high Anglo-Saxon politicians rumoured to be among the society’s illustrious members visiting in stealth). Its old and new buildings lie connected by its own, open-air Bridge of Sighs, a worthy subaltern equivalent to the St Johns one in Cambridge and the New College one in Oxford, at any rate. Unlike many libraries and archives in India, where sheerbabudom keeps anyone without the requisite paperwork out, the head librarian accepted my host’s academic credentials in lieu of any identity card which would gain me a legitimate entry. Warming to my queries about Csoma – as she referred to him – she showed me his many entries in the reference card section of the new building, before marching me smartly across to the old building, to proudly point to his bust and rather basic writing room. Opposite him stood a portly polymath Ashutosh “Mookherjee”, mathematician and lawyer, after whom a College in Hazra is named. Both flank the musty, velveteen, old world Vidyasagar Hall, where the results of the first survey of this and that were set out in colonial times.
Back in the manuscript collection, a letter electing P.C. Mahalanobis as ‘Physical Sciences Secretary’ in 1924, is displayed right next to a Tibetan Smon-Lam-Sutra folio showing an exquisite miniature of a fierce deity, such as Vajrapani or Hiyagreeva, dancing in flames that represent the burning of the veil of ignorance, set against black handmade paper. Further along are some gems from Csoma’s Mahāvyutpatti (1831) Sanskrit Tibetan English Lexicon:
“”Priests! Like as gold is tried by burning, cutting & filing, the learned must examine my commandments (doctrine) and receive them accordingly, and not out of respect (for me)” – so spake Lord Buddha”. [On my host’s suggestion, I am reading Louis Althusser’s brilliant easy, On Limits of Marx, in which Marx is quoted as saying he is not a Marxist i.e. it is not an ideology that he has propounded, to be followed in blind faith! To the extent a religion is an ideology, the Buddha said it long before, is all I can think.]
“There is no eye like the understanding; there is no blindness like ignorance; there is no enemy like sickness; and nothing dreaded like death”.
I am arrested by a bust of James Prinsep – of the redeveloped waterfront Prinsep ghat fame – who is curiously made to look like an ancient Roman, with aquiline features and a toga flung over a shoulder. Off I go to the publication shop outside, which sadly does not have a copy of Csoma’sMahāvyutpatti for sale. The Asiatic Society should reprint its classic publications, the lack of which is felt by many a discerning reader, as they bought out some treasures in area and disciplinary side alleys in times past. I must make do with P. J. Marczell’s earnest two-volumes on Csoma, instead. As the Indian Museum is closed to due to extensive renovations, I wander into Park Street and stop at a roadside stall to pick up a tourist guide and map of Kolkata (Jui Juli Publication), which allows me to walk the city alone, and thereby make it my own. There are cheap reprints of Chetan Bhagat bestsellers lying alongside those of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit – only in Kolkata!
The air-conditioning at Firpo’s is too chilly, and the queue for chelo kebabs outside Peter Cat’s too long, so I go across to Flury’s for open asparagus sandwiches and Viennese coffee. Assuming myopia rates are similar across the spectrum (not to fall into the cultural stereotypical trope of higher reading rates!), I notice many more women in Bengal wear spectacles than in the rest of the country. As one notices multiple race identities in Cape Town (black, white, coloured, Indian etc.), I’m struck by the mixed population of bhadralok Bengalis, Marwaris, Anglo-Indian and Chinese-origin customers, representative of various communities who call Kolkata home, I suppose. My Bengali friends point out that the numbers of ‘others’ used to far exceed what they are today, to the detriment of the city’s cosmopolitan nature. To a frontier Punjabi this seems a real pity, as we are good at absorbing and being absorbed, for we’ve learned that the rising tide at the shore arrived at and the shore abandoned – propelled by migrant and immigrant labour – raises all boats. I say white channa, you say ghugni and so it happily goes.
Stepping out into what at dusk is a merrily lit Christmas Champs Élysées, even though Jesus’s birthday has passed long since, I set out for the South Park Street Cemetery. If the Chief Minister has redefined Keynesian government spending to mean mood lighting for the depressed masses, who am I to complain? Her other unique Keynesian scheme, of uplifting music via radios in public spaces, is visible in dangling contraptions hanging at periodic intervals from the trees, literally at a height where one could unwittingly get bopped on the head by one (or electrocuted, should it be raining?) Melodious sentimental Rabindra sangeet is gently wafting out into the atmosphere, sadly drowned out by the sound of taxis zipping past. An attempt to cross the street is quickly abandoned, as unlike other cities of India, a competition on risk seeking versus risk averse behavior, illustrated by the pedestrian gingerly stepping into the midst of moving traffic holding their hands out in a makeshift supplicatory stop-sign, is likely to end up with one being killed in Kolkata. If one absolutely must cross the road, then shadow the locals closely, even using genteel old ladies in their beautiful jamdanis as de facto human shields!
Continuing with my spell of good luck with staff at places of public interest being understanding and indulgent of the curious, by the time I arrived, it was as Tom Waits would croon Closing Timeat the South Park Street Cemetery, but the caretaker allowed me in, to stay on until I’d seen the place. Set amidst lush foliage and odd-shaped large gravestones, William Jones’s resting place is impressive. In an inversion of the scene from Passage to India where Adela and Mrs. Moore are each in their own way spooked by the Marabar Caves trip with the native Aziz, I am very unnerved by the ghosts of the many British officers and their wives, some dearly departed in their early twenties as they clearly couldn’t withstand the strains of colony. I’m relieved to get out and return to the very here and now Behala Bazaar, and tomorrow, to brown ghosts ofzamindar north Kolkata.
Armed with my map, I decide to take the metro from Kalighat, only slightly smarting when recalling my friends’ laughter at my earnest query about how come the next stop, Jatin Das, is named after the artist, who is spotted regularly at the IIC in Delhi? It’s evident that the prettily-tiled metro is used very heavily, for there is a separate queue for those with exact change. Getting off at Shyambazaar metro, I walk down to Bagbazaar ghat.
Shyambazaar mansion in north Kolkata
In Bhooter Bhabishyat there is a throwaway line about the “two hundred year old mansions of north Calcutta and the art deco ones of south Calcutta” (around Deshapriya Park and Rashbehari Avenue, I imagine, as a friend has walked me through their beguiling leafy surrounds), but nothing has prepared me for the sight of these stunning traditional homes, with Venetian blinds and old trees intertwined naturally with the walls and structures. Peeping into narrow by-lanes that demarcate homes, the shadows cast on a supine sleeping dog or a Punjabi-dhoti-clad pundit mounting his bicycle, I wander past hole in the wall shops selling Bengali wedding bangles. A temple, some railway tracks, and one begins to feel the breeze of the mighty Hugli. Just as seaside cities have a sense of freedom and the vast unknown, riverside ones have a sense of calm and expansive refuge, so “you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you”, as Kipling put it. A little known fact about the city shared by my host is that gasping, choking waterways run the entire length of it, so an imaginative transport minister could actually conceive of reviving such a friendly mode of getting about – then Kolkata would have not only the Villa Borghese’s of Rome, many of them, but some of the romance of Venice, too!
I flag down a cab to take me to College Street, but after a short ride, during which the taxi driver tells me “profiteering” under the Left happened much as it is under the TMC (show me a city where a blue collar worker uses exactly this English term – please don’t be predictable and say Havana – and I’ll change my politics!), he deposits me near a tram stop. Startlingly honest, he explains a TMC rally means streets are clogging up and the Vidhan (Sarani) tram will be faster and cheaper. Just like trams in Europe, although this one could do with some paint, I trundle along with mothers, children and the odd student, the conductor having politely taken my Rs. 2 fare and given exact change. Contrast and compare with recently experienced toll booth behavior in Uttar Pradesh, where venal louts are forcibly dispensing aloo bhujiya packets worth Rs.2 in lieu of Rs.5 change, take it or leave it – and then we wonder at the governments who come to power, is it any surprise given the number of seats that state accounts for in Parliament? Asinine administrators that Kolkata appears to have at present, mean trams are being discontinued and the expensive land on which central tram depots lie is being auctioned off, as the deeds are apparently very clean and organised, thanks to white ghosts and their penchant for order and documentation.
Forensics’ building in Medical College, Calcutta
Lackadaisical lunch at the India Coffee House on College Street follows, enveloped in cigarette smoke despite prominently displayed signs saying the activity is prohibited. I’m intrigued not just by the book sellers peppering the street outside – now selling more texts and fewer rare books – but by the many ‘publishers’, who I later learn are actually functioning independent presses. Imagine that! A stroll through Sanskrit College, Presidency, and then through the red brick Calcutta Medical College and Hospital, is a must. Once I’m past the odour of the open waste dumps in the premises, I see the most incongruously beautiful forensics’ building en route to Central metro station. I think of the dead body of a poor woman lying at the edge of the Maidan ground the other day, passersby giving it wide berth. No one appeared to be missing her. And yet, as cruel a metropolitan city as Kolkata is to the marginalised, as are all metropolitan cities (Mother Teresa wouldn’t have had a job otherwise), I haven’t seen one in contemporary India or the world in fact, where they are so integrated and interwoven, literally, into its fabric. For in many cities of the developed world, there is de facto segregation (homeless, mentally ill, predominantly black people in Washington DC come to mind) and in others, they have been forcibly shunted out and made to disappear en masse to the peripheries (for instance, due to Ahmedabad’s waterfront development project or Delhi’s Commonwealth Games). From footpath dwellers, who have carefully and neatly carved out their ‘work’ and ‘living’ space in one, and stall owners, who redefine the word “cubby”, to the fact that one can eat a decent meal for Rs. 25 or even less on the street – all point to a dense coexistence, born out of codependence, of every class of citizen of the city.
A footpath dweller neatly carves out space
A great city must have its share of eccentrics or what is the point of it? Mullick’s Marble Palace is ode to such an acquisitive character, a wealthy merchant of the nineteenth century with a penchant for collecting ‘art’. Nondiscriminatory in his fancies, the imposing house with a lot of marble is said to boast of a handful of Rubens, Reynolds and a Titian or two, each framed without glass and therefore exposed freely to the elements, as well as the smoke from havans in the open central courtyard wafting through the Venetian slits. Those in the know, the highbrow sniffy set, are certain they are not originals, but surely, such nonchalant upkeep even of very deceptive fakes is a subaltern watermark for a truly shahi lifestyle? Scattered through the dark, dank halls of display are large objects d’art from the Orient, including ornate vases and screens, placed next to European curios, from statues representing the seasons, to those representing the planets. Outside, birds in cages lining the verandah are producing a cacophony of sound, and in the garden, in whichever direction one’s gaze falls, there are Grecian busts and majestic lions on plinths. We sadly don’t make it to the live zoo on the premises. Speaking of ghosts and eccentrics, I wonder if for all those who believe the revolutionary son of the soil, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, is still alive and in hiding (as many in Kolkata do, there is even a society or two for such faithfuls), there are at least a few who believe Raja Rajendra Mullick, too, is somewhere and somehow keeping a close watch on his whimsical property and many bric-a-brac belongings.
Another hallmark of a great city is one that is walkable and that, Kolkata still very much is – no matter that the broad footpaths are in disrepair in places and that locals say it is a more unsafe place for women in recent times. There isn’t a city in India where I have felt so unobserved and comfortably invisible whilst in public places, even after nightfall. If I’d had more time, I’d have made it to the Department of Economics, Calcutta University, where stalwarts such as Kalyan Sanyal chose to stay. I missed seeing the much written about Sonagachi, and the cultural hub around the Nandan area. I didn’t get to visit the National Library, although the Municipal Office building on nearby Belvedere Road in Alipur has to be one of the most striking to be inhabited by pedantic local government babus. After a lifetime of anticipation, a pilgrimage was made to Chamba Lamba’s in New Market, and it did not disappoint. I made time for numerous dois at the famous Sen Mahasay, naturally, and lots of aloo fritters in street side stalls, too. The image of Tipu Sultan’s mosque in Dharmtalla, at dusk, and the Jewish businessman Ezra’s mansions in Esplanade / BBD Bagh area, will stay with me. I witnessed nightfall and the city’s skyline from the rooftop bar at the Lindsay Hotel, though a visit to Khalasitola eluded me. I circumambulated the Lake Area and visited Buddho Mandir at its edge. I did a lot; I could have done so much more.
It was time for me to go to Bolpur Santiniketan, via lush green Bardhman district and onwards tolal maati Birbhum, following my favourite aloo posto and Baul singers, maybe even to Nadia district. Who knows, to chance upon the ghost of Lalan Fakir. And I realise, Kolkata has cast a spell on me, and I am as prone to the Bhooter Bhabishyat nostalgia about it as are my best Bengali friends. As the poet Shankha Ghosh wrote, “There is another Kolkata within Kolkata, walk and discover it” (“e kolkatar majhe ache arekta kolkata / hente dekhte sikhun”), perchance to dream.