A Requiem for Kolkata

A city without hope, someone told me, and pointed that Kolkata is one major city in the world whose population is decreasing. Statements such as these do not make us angry any more. And what a contrast that makes with the indignation we felt when Rajiv Gandhi called Kolkata (Calcutta then) a 'dying city', or later, when a speaker at a conference in Taj Bengal committed the ultimate faux pas commenting that the city had 'gone to the dogs'. There is indeed a sadness, a sense of loss, about the place we shall all call Home, and surely a touch of guilt for doing nothing. 

But talking about Kolkata always evokes other issues, which must be resolved. Such as, what the city really is, and whether it should be saved. For all the love of Kolkata, its decadent buildings, alleyways, noise of the streets, Kolkata is portrayed as the City of Raj trying to live beyond its time. Its people are fabled for trying to cling to privileges and comfort of an era long gone, object to the loss of a heritage that was never theirs. There is a consensus that Kolkata failed to belong to modern India, somewhat sulking about its loss of leadership, buried in what many see as a pretentious snobbery about its culture and tradition, which, once cut off from its imperial legacy, had little to live on. It is known for its rejection of the present - a modern day Varanasi cocooned from the tides of globalization but also modern Indian imagination - something that gave it the charm, but reportedly stole its future.

It is also ironic that the city's demise seemed to be foretold by people leaving. Kolkata was forever an arrival city, a creation of the European traders trying to find footholds, but since then, drew people away from all declining great cities elsewhere. The courtiers from Murshidabad, the intellectuals and merchants from Dhaka, the workers from Bihar and Odisha, and all the fortune seekers from all over the region, made Kolkata. At times, there were cries that these comers are sinking Kolkata: Now, when people are leaving, there is a mild panic who would have to turn the lights off.

But, then, this city is without hope by choice. This is how we wanted the city to be. Because the hope, and the imagination, that generated out of Kolkata, was too dangerous for the paternalistic culture of the modern Indian republic. The creative imagination of the city, whenever manifested, was promptly repressed, or bought over, with privileges and perks handed down from Delhi. It is, in many ways, best left without hope - because when awake, Kolkata can be disruptive, challenging, problematic.

One of many uninitiated projects in my life is to study Coffee House in the 1950s (as immortalised by Manna Dey), which seemed to represent a different face of Kolkata than one we got used to: It was a place of creativity, debate, non-conformity and anger. The greatest generation of Kolkata was then planning to change the world, which manifested itself in the self-destroying rage of the movements in the 60s and early 70s, bringing in the swift and merciless hand of state come down in full force to crush the dissent, cripple the generation and choke the city. Part of this repression was to destroy the hope, to weave a picture of its people by its people that portray not just the hopelessness but the pointlessness of imagination. So, this was Kolkata's journey - from the anger of the coffee house to the sweet melodrama of CCD today, where, today, we sip milky lattes and trade stories of office intrigues, bollywood plots or the girl few floors upwards.

So, a requiem for Kolkata perhaps in order: To my beloved city, the one which lost hope, and therefore became irrelevant. The one who failed to show up when it was needed most. The young one, who felt too grey, just when creativity was in the air. The one who felt angry, but then turned that anger on itself. The one which was awkward about earning money, selling oneself into mortgages, giving up passions to falling in line. The charmed one, whose past was so romantic that it failed to imagine the future. But, perhaps, in this disconnection, remained its greatest hope - its soul, its love, its ignored but undying spirit, that failed to sell itself off to the lumpen-Raj and hand out culture, which remains undiminished for the day of the change, unblemished and ready to re-imagine our country again. 


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