A Future for Kolkata
People stay away from their homeland for a variety of reasons. But, as I have come to feel, no one can be completely happy to be away. One may find fame or fortune, love and learning, in another land, but they always live an incomplete life. They bring home broken bits of their homeland into their awkward daily existence, a cushion somewhere, a broken conversation in mother tongue some other time, always rediscovering the land they left behind for that brief moment of wanting to be themselves.
The cruelest punishment, therefore, for a man who lives abroad is when his love for his land is denied. It is indeed often denied, because the pursuit of work, knowledge or love seemed to have gotten priority over the attraction of the land. This is particularly true in India: The diaspora Indians are mostly reviled, because they left, by those who stayed, for one reason or other, and enjoyed the return to prosperity. But, that's harsh - because people leave for a variety of reasons, and no one leaves the land where one's parents have lived and died. A procedural exclusion is possible, but unreasonable and inhuman indeed.
So, without apologies, I talk about Kolkata. Without being ashamed or hesitant, this remains my home and always will be. I travelled to know the world, and I have been away for a decade. Many things have changed: My life situation, the things I believe in, the values I cherish and the things I love, but regardless, Kolkata remained at the centre of my identity. It is a place I wish to go back, and that return, and that alone, can complete my journey.
I have always been an idealist, a bit romantic. Earlier, I used to be ashamed about my flights of idealism; no longer, because I have realized that the idealism is a central ingredient of being human. It is that dream that keeps me alive, not content and dead, but alive and wanting. It is the idealism that allows me to think of future rather than the past, and go beyond the mediocrity of my unfulfilled life and dream of world-changing accomplishments. In a way, my quixotic enterprise is my identity, but living through it, every bit is as real as someone else's selfish dreams could be.
So, with this love, this idealism, I think of Kolkata. This is not to deny its air of hopelessness and sloth, that any visitor invariably feels everywhere. Thirty years of unchanged bureaucratic rule have taken away all forms of imagination from the city. The cosy builder/politician nexus, deep politicization of police, health care and education - have helped the city into irreversible decline. While the other Indian cities have taken the bus to modernity and growth, Kolkata has been left behind. Ernest Gellner saw one of the two principal planks of the modern state to be economic growth: The city has been deprived of growth, and the sense of growth, for a long time, and now nurture a deep sense of resentment to the state apparatus altogether.
But change is coming to Kolkata. I am not entirely comfortable with the shape of the change, because I see chaos. I, like others who love Kolkata, see hoodlums being replaced by a new set of hoodlums, one corrupt police officer replacing another, one inept school teacher getting upper hand on another inept colleague. But, at this point, I am possibly unduly pessimistic. Change often happen through chaos, a root-and-branch shake-up of layers which gathered over many years. This, possibly, the nature of any change.
So, just ahead of this inevitable mindlessness, we should gather strength and dream one last time. It is important that we return the imagination to Kolkata, because doing what has been done in other places will never help the city make up for lost time. This is where we saw the current government losing the plot: Pressured by the responsibility to provide economic growth and opportunity, they pursued what some of India's southern states have done, tried to attract large IT employers by providing out-of-turn incentives to set up shop in Kolkata. Some of it has been successful, but yet, it did not feel like growth.
This is the problem statement: Kolkata is so deep into hopelessness, that it will require a sort of great leap to restore its sense of identity. Yes, that 'great leap' bit was a deliberate play - we don't need the disastrous social engineering that Mao tried and failed - but nonetheless we need new ideas and new ways of thinking to make Kolkata count, in India and in the wider world.
I hope a conversation will start soon, involving people from Kolkata and of Kolkata, and others who have loved the city and admired its spirit. Hopefully, some of these will be knitted together in an organized effort - something like a Concern for Kolkata - and people will join in to make the endeavour meaningful. I also hope that this will be able to rise above the self-centeredness and egoticism that invariably mars such enterprises, and some of the words and ideas will be translated into action. As I mentioned, I am an optimist, and there is never a wrong time to do the right thing: We must now seek a future for Kolkata or be condemned in long decline and darkness.
Here are my ideas about a future for Kolkata:
I see Kolkata to be a truly global city, with respect for diversity and commitment to harmony; we would have none of the narrow provincialism and fundamentalism that mar India's other great cities: We must all be proud, to be from Kolkata, and accept and propagate openness and acceptance of others as our key values.
I see Kolkata to be India's bridge to Asia. I think it is one of the great follies of modern India to drift away from its Asian-ness, to undermine its deep ties with the great Eastern civilizations and neighbours, and seek, instead, a cocky individualism and materialism inherited from our colonial masters. I see a conscious rejuvenation of cultural and economic ties with Asian nations starting in Kolkata, with institutions offering courses on Asian cultures, people exchanges and businesses expanding eastwards, facilitated by increased transport links.
I see Kolkata to become a great centre to creative industries in India, in Asia; again, I see an expansion of educational opportunities, incentive-driven expansion of commerce in culture industries, and community-based activities which will expand the horizons of the office-bound Bengali middle class.
I see freedom to return to Kolkata without fear of persecution. This will indeed start with de-politicization of education, police and hospitals, and will need constant vigil by each individual citizen. We are closer to this than it feels; people are disgusted with the corruption and ineptness in every corner of the public sphere.
Finally, I see governance coming close to people in Kolkata. Like rest of India, the problem in Kolkata is that while politics have entered family homes, the government remained as far as ever. It can be said that the modern Indian government is farther from its people, and more insensitive to their feelings than the British Raj. And, nowhere this distance is hurting more than in Kolkata; and since this has to start from somewhere, before the whole country implodes into a civil war, this may as well start in Kolkata.
If this sounds all too Utopian, this is what it should have been. A government close to people, was that not we were trying for last three decades, but ended up degenerating everything into political dogmatism and factions? The linkage to Asia is as close as it gets in Bengal - the ports in Southern Bengal launched the ships of commerce to Java and elsewhere in South-East Asia many centuries ago. The Bengali creativity, conveniently protected by distance from the Indian heartlands of Hindu and later Muslim dominance, prospered with the air of non-conformity and inventiveness. We have indeed forgotten the spirit, but the forgetfulness is only recent and hopefully could be overturned.
All of this can happen, but will not happen without Education, Community and Public Action. The 'intellectuals' of Kolkata have manifestly failed, over years, to provide leadership and contribute in public action: Their rare gestures were self interested, egoistic and disconnected from the aspirations of the proverbial people on the street. It is time for a new generation, people in Kolkata and outside, people in business, education and government, to seize the initiative. We all can do our bits to change, indeed, create a future for Kolkata: Let us not fail yet again, like the generation before us, to make a difference.