How To Think About Kolkata

There is a Kolkata protocol. As any outsider reaches the new shiny Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport and steps outside the glass doors, and looks into the waiting and loitering multitude just outside the gate, along with a few indifferent guards, a few skinny and bespectacled men trying to look officious with identity cards hanging around their necks, the noise, the sunlight and the general atmosphere of hustle reaches her - she remembers the name: Mother Teresa! As the first act of politeness - as well as of sounding world-aware - she would usually ask those waiting to receive her about Mother Teresa. And, then, the other party would usually start talking about Kolkata's great cultural heritage, its assortment of four or five Nobel Laureates, including an implausible Ronald Ross, who did part of his research in Kolkata (and therefore, has a street named after him), and an apparently disingenuous claim on Amartya Sen, who went to college in the City but have found fame elsewhere. The point of this elaborate response is, of course, that Mother Teresa matters less than it seems from outside, and Kolkata is not all about slums and destitution. In the meantime, of course, the arriving guest would have settled onto her first impressions of Kolkata: She would have discovered another matronly figure, with smiling face and a blue-and-white sari, dominates all the billboards, and she is apparently not Mother Teresa!

Comical it may be, but this welcome dance reflects several things about the City apart from its distorted image and garrulous men. It is, for example, a city of obsessive nostalgia, where one refers to the past far too often. It is also a city of wounded pride, and even the most sensitive visitor can not hide the fact that any reference to Mother Teresa leads directly to its slums. That Ronald Ross evokes its Malaria and Amartya Sen would have been inspired by its poverty is somewhat besides the point. Mother Teresa, directly and unequivocally, stands for something that people of Kolkata does not want to stand for - being an object of Western charity! And, thus, for all its appearance, one must know Kolkata for its strange love-and-hate relationship with the West - it combines a hearty claim of leading India's Independence movement with the pride in Western recognition of its genius through various Nobel Prizes and an Oscar for its very own Satyajit Ray!

Kolkata, which changed its name from anglicised Calcutta to the original name of one of the villages on which the City was built in the Seventeenth century, was, without doubt, one of the great centres of Enlightenment, one of the premier cities of Asia, and for a long period of time, the Capital of British Imperial power. It was one of the first Asian cities to reach a million population, and infamously, a great centre of Opium trade that broke the back of the Chinese empire! A surrogate of Scottish Enlightenment, the City became a great centre of social reform and learning, leading Indian participation in the early days of the British empire (and hence, Indians often think of the natives of Kolkata as collaborators in the imperial project), and subsequently, a great centre of nationalist thought. It was also a thriving port and a centre of trade and commerce, as it sat right in the middle of some of the most productive agricultural land in the world, alongside great minefields of Bihar and Orissa, with huge deposits of Iron Ore, Coal, Bauxite and other minerals. It was one of those rare commodity economies that, due to a strange twists in its economic history, became, at least for a while, obsessed with its intellectual achievements. 

However, if one wants to go beyond Mother Teresa, to narrate its history in the name of other Nobel Laureates is really a false claim. The most abiding symbol of even the enlightenment Kolkata was a particular life-form called the 'Babu', a word that lived on in English language and the annals of Independent India. 'Babu', the Bengali word to represent 'gentleman', assumes a very specific meaning in Kolkata, describing a rentier class who lived off the incomes of land. Side by side with Enlightenment Calcutta, a particularly brutal feudal system with rentier landlords living in great comfort in the City, while their serfs were mercilessly squeezed in various landed estates all over Bengal (including what is now Bangladesh), was established by the British administrators. Babus, who usually lived a debauched life, also funded many of the theatres, poets and playwrights on the side! Some of these families eventually produced some of the greatest intellectuals of the Bengali enlightenment. However, to tell the story of achievements of the people of Kolkata, without mentioning its dark underbelly of repression and exploitation by the Babus, is the sort of selective amnesia all past-obsessed peoples indulge in.

And, this is one of the first things to think about Kolkata - its past! Somehow, it clings to its past everywhere, in everything, but in a meaninglessly selective form. The Babus are wiped clean off the slate, the collaborations with English are all but forgotten as is the final act of Kolkata's originality and intransigence, the revolutionary left movement that took hold of Kolkata's youth in the late 60s and eventually changed the City. The city feels like one filled with almost endless pasts but not coming to terms with it, just like all those dilapidated buildings whose owners would rather talk about when it was built rather than finding a way of repairing them.

One may see this as a great charm, and indeed for those who are doing well. But Kolkata is also one of those great cities whose population has decreased over the last decade. Its past is becoming overbearing, to the point when it drives out its young and the ambitious, and makes it forbidding for all those who come to seek education or fortune. But, also, this is some sort of a great opportunity. The wrap of its great past means that Kolkata is a better place than it is portrayed to be, one brutal fact of life all average sons of greater parents know! It is the past that weighs the present down, and clouds the future. Like other great cities who were in a similar funk - Vienna would come to mind - the great opportunity for Kolkata lies in making a break. And, that is not difficult, when Kolkata embraces its past, its whole past and not the selective bits - and tries to make sense of it! That would mean going beyond nostalgia and getting into history.


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