India: Up, Close and Personal - A Note on Kolkata
I can't really write about Kolkata with the objective eyes of a business traveller. It is home. Yes, it takes longer to get my luggage out in Kolkata than any other airport in the country, and I meet a consistent indifference everywhere, but it is home. Yes, I keep hearing about the decay of Kolkata and how bad its business culture is, but instead of joining in, I tend to feel disconnected and angry. Yes, everything is possibly correct, but it is home.
I love Kolkata. I like its distinctive look - of the metallic gateway of Howrah Bridge [and the two new majestic bridges that have come up since], the dusty Ganges and its various ghats, river boats, and flower petals, the yellow taxis and old buses, and the consistent, never ending chatter. I love its paved streets, colonial buildings, old book shops, crawling trams and smelling, oily food. I love the indifference of the taxi driver standing in the corner who would not take me home because he does not feel like working; the young man who will not take a peon's job because it is beneath his dignity; the merchandiser who will be too lazy to move and the policeman who will be too ashamed to ask for money openly. I keep saying that in Kolkata, lack of enterprise is a lifestyle choice - how many people told me that they love the way they are - and I see nothing wrong in that.
Kolkata is intensely political, persistently argumentative, and an angry and disappointed city. Smug in its moral superiority, it disapproves where modern India has reached today. Narendra Modi is a persona non grata in Kolkata, even though he may be the darling of the rest of the country. [I always feel that Kolkata, and Bengal, may walk out of the Union if he eventually manages to become the Prime Minister]. It is obstinate, it keeps communists in power because rest of the country, and indeed the rest of the world, disapproves it. It lives through one french revolution once every day.
Yes, it is a city of poets and dramatists. Poor poets and amateur dramatists. Of Blog writers like me. Of amateur photographers who know who Cartier Bresson was. The Accounts clerk who just saw The Bicycle Thief. The new lover who gifted his girlfriend a second hand copy of Maupassant's short stories. Of those two argumentative office goers who have to decide, within the short span of a bus ride, whether Amitava Ghosh is indeed a more gifted writer than V S Naipaul. Of a Chief Minister who refuses to take a poet's photograph of his office wall and wrote plays when he was out of office. Of an opposition leader who tried her hand in novels. Of the street vendor who just told me that the latest movie was good to see.
It isn't Mumbai, where street vendors can tell you where Sensex was in real time. It isn't Delhi, where the privileged master can slap his servant. Kolkata is itself - with its laziness as a choice, thrift as a way of life, equality as a moral requirement and independence, from money and from authority, as the identity. It has a Parisian disregard for the orchestrated beauty, and its girls are absent-mindedly alluring. Its effervescent indifference is everywhere, in streets, newpapers and buses, in politics and in business, in education and at work. The funny thing is that it is indifferent, but involved. It is uniquely its own among all Indian cities.
Its air is polluted. They just took the decision to take the buses which are more than 40 years old off the streets. 40 years old? Now it almost seem like the nostalgic love Londoners felt for their red buses, but we did not know they existed. It is scary to know that the 39 year old buses will still ply - does that not sound like another age when we have not heard about Carbon Mono-Oxide - and we have to inhale whatever they spit out. But Kolkata can not change. Or at least can not change in parts. It can tolerate these old buses but colonial era Stephen House and the Great Eastern Hotel must go. It can build India's first metro, but can't get bus shades stand together. It is a difficult city to live in. Unless, of course, it is home.
More people smoke in Kolkata than anywhere else [my estimate]. 1 in 6 has bronchial dysfunction. The health consciousness is next to nothing, and the Kolkatans still regard suggestions of medical check-up as an insult. And, any controlled diet as a patient's fare. It is an incorrigibly difficult place to live in. Unless, of course, it is home.
So, this is the picture of Kolkata I am drawing. An incorrigble city, which will not grow up. A body of people who collectively rejected money as the sole benchmark and chose slowness as a lifestyle. A community which argues about all things in the world, and embraces the world with open arms. Where everyone is a hidden poet, a backroom photographer, a closet dramatist, a bathroom singer or at least an open critic. Where love is inextricably caught between libido and literature.
As I write, I know why I love Kolkata. The city almost sounds like me.