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Revisiting Calcutta - Part 1

Oindrila Mukherjee

Updated: June 26, 2012, 12:52 PM IST
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Last night I came back from a breathless visit to Calcutta, the city where I spent 17 years, including my most formative ones. Middle school, high school, college, and my first job, all happened in that city. I find it hard to call it Kolkata, however politically correct it may sound, Calcutta was the city I grew up in, and to me it will always be Cal.

I went back to Cal after an interval of eight years. Even eight years ago, I was there for just a few days, and spent the time catching up with relatives and friends. It was in 2002 that I left the city, to go to the US. Subsequently, my family moved out of there, which means that every time I visit India, I come to Gurgaon instead. This time, however, I was determined to visit, not just to see people, but to see the city. It was meant to be a pilgrimage of sorts, a very personal nostalgia trip, but also a professional research tour given that much of the fiction I write is based there.

People had been telling me for a few years that Calcutta is very changed. One person called it "happening". Everyone mentioned the flyovers, mostly with pride. Everyone also mentioned that cultural phenomenon, South City mall, and its adjacent block of condos. This was supposed to be the new cool hub of the city.

Add to these cosmetic changes the toppling of the CPI(M) government in 2011 after more than 30 years of continuous rule, and you have the potential for seismic change in the state of West Bengal.

And so I went to Calcutta, not sure what to expect.

When I lived there, as is common, I didn't pay much attention to details. Being a writer, of course, like being a photographer or a painter, makes you notice details more. And coming back after a gap of several years changes your perspective. As I try to process the whirlwind images of Calcutta, I discover that it hard to pint it down with words. Riddled with contradictions, the city defies description more than any other I have known.

I don't think I ever realised before what a beautiful city Calcutta is. It began to rain just when I arrived there, and the rain made it even prettier. After the dry, dusty streets and air of northern India, Calcutta was moist and green. The air was sticky but pleasant after the rains came. I switched off the air conditioning and rolled down the windows.

Trees share space with crumbling old houses, their leaves drape windows like curtains. Banyan trees a hundred years old sit on street corners, their aerial roots hanging to the ground. Under them, old men smoke beedis and play cards, or younger men sell things.

Imposing structures such as this dot the city but many of these are crumbling.

But most of all it's the buildings that stand as a silent reminder of the city's past glory. In the old, northern parts of the city, the houses, all crowded together, are gorgeous relics with their intricate friezes, long, narrow balconies, and wooden shutters. The houses are painted in bright hues of turquoise, red, pink, and green. But the paint is peeling off, and many of the derelict houses look haunted. This perhaps is the inspiration behind the very popular Bengali film currently playing in the theatres, "Bhooter Bhobishyat." (The Future of Ghosts).

Some of the heritage buildings look well maintained.

In central Calcutta, the old private homes give way to large heritage buildings that house government offices and commercial buildings. The colonial Victorian-era buildings are often well-preserved on the outside, but not so much when you go inside. The streets are chaotic with buses belching smoke, cars and yellow Ambassador taxis playing dodge 'em, cycle rickshaws, trams chugging along, herds of sheep, and thousands of pedestrians crowding the pavement, huddling around make shift food stalls on the street. I pulled the windows down as I was being driven around in the rented car, and the smells of smoke, cooking, and trash floated up in the humid air.

The chaos of central Calcutta suddenly gives way to the wide green fields of the Maidan, known fondly as the lungs of Calcutta. The white marble dome of the Victoria Memorial and the red brick walls of Fort William stand testimony to the city's colonial past. In the distance, the steel pylons of the Vidyasagar Setu spread out like lace fans, and the tall floodlights of the Eden Gardens kiss the skies.

A British era World War I memorial stands on the Maidan with the Eden Gardens cricket stadium as its background.

This is perhaps the only part of Calcutta (if you set aside the interiors of five star hotels) that does not appear to be scarred by neglect and lack of hygiene. Elsewhere, it's hard to admire the beauty of architecture or the elegance of old trees without the filters of squalor.

If only the lovely old buildings got a fresh coat of paint and the streets were cleared of trash, Calcutta might resemble a historic city in Europe. It has the same charm and elegance. It has more sense of history in a single street than most places in the world. What's tragic is the utter lack of will displayed by the government for decades to clean Calcutta up.

When I was a teenager living there, I often got irritated by foreign tourists and the media going on and on about the city's poverty, the beggars, the homeless, and Mother Teresa. This time, going back after an interval of nearly a decade, I was shocked by the number of homeless on the streets. Nearly every single sidewalk is occupied by families who bathe there, pouring water from mugs over their bodies, cook food in large aluminium pots, hang their clothes out to dry, and of course, stretch out to sleep at night. There has always been a division between the left-leaning who sympathise with the homeless and protect their right to be accommodated, and those who want their streets spruced up and rid of the hawkers and the homeless. Bengalis are largely a hospitable lot, and for decades the communist government counted on the poor for support. The new chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, has risen to power with mass support and is worshipped as a cult figure by the poor. Large cutouts of her stare down from billboards across the city. Beneath them, the homeless continue to live out their lives on the sidewalks, largely ignored by city dwellers.

But to a visitor the in-your-face poverty is horrifying. Not because I don't know that India has many poor people, but because I cannot imagine how some of us lived there all these years without noticing. Not only is it disturbing but the complete lack of sanitation makes this a very difficult city to negotiate. Piles and piles of garbage line the streets, dirty water accumulates in open drains. The monsoon makes it worse. A mix of slush and rubbish litter roads. Add to this the chaos of traffic, the constant blaring of horns, the pedestrians trying to weave through it all, and you have a veritable madhouse on the streets.

The most obvious cosmetic change of course is the flyovers. They are a bright blue and white, and have been erected over the main streets like a second storey or floor. Unlike Delhi or Bombay where people drive around flyovers when they're not on them, in Calcutta, you have to go under them. Even if you ignore the hideous blue and white paint that Mamata Banerjee's government has splashed everywhere, it's hard to ignore the concrete. We stood in traffic jams at every intersection. Some of the famous landmarks and most beautiful buildings are half hidden by flyovers. When you're on the first floor of the street, you can't see the sky. You literally drive with a roof over your head. I tried to take a picture of my old school, La Martiniere, from Minto Park, and couldn't see most of it, so I had to go on the flyover and take pictures from there, but I only got the school waist up. It felt like the whole city had been scaffolded with flyovers.

Even though it's a much smaller city than Delhi, with distances not far at all, it takes a long time to get between any two points due to the congestion. I wasn't sure how the flyovers were helping, but I was assured that things would have been far worse without them. I guess flyovers were necessary, but since they were constructed, it seems, with minimal planning, they've managed to deface the city and make it even more claustrophobic than before.

The South City mall is one of the most popular among the four or five swanky ones which have come up all over the city.

The other cosmetic change of course is the rise of a few malls, led by South City. Going from Gurgaon which boasts three malls on each street, I was a bit perplexed by this excitement over a single one. One of my old professors at JU told me I must go see the mall since it's a tourist attraction. Not for Delhiites or Westerners perhaps, but for hundreds of people from the villages who travel far and wide to look at the imposing glass and steel structure that houses global chains like Marks and Spencer under one roof.

Unfortunately for me, I went to university in Jadavur, a couple of blocks from South City. I remember that area as a somewhat laidback, homely Bengali neighbourhood. The structure looks completely incongruous where it is, as if a an alien spaceship had been dropped in the middle of a quiet residential area. I am not opposed to malls as a whole because they do serve important commercial functions. But to see one become a cultural hub is disturbing. This is the recreational venue of choice for many people in south Calcutta, much as malls are to residents in Gurgaon. I feel a sense of loss because Calcuttans always took great pride in their cultural contributions, their cinema, their poetry, their music. I am of course at great risk of romanticising, but hey, this was a nostalgia trip, remember?

The South City housing complex stands tall and proud behind the mall, beaming its lights on the city at night. Gurgaon is littered with such complexes, but it's unique in Calcutta for its gated isolation and its recreational and commercial facilities. This location right next to the city's new cultural hub is prized real estate. The traffic congestion around South City reminded me of bottleneck jams during Durga Puja festivities. But the goddess being worshipped now is a different one.

To be continued (next post)

First Published: June 26, 2012, 12:52 PM IST

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