Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Calcutta: In Search of a Lost City

Let's start with a disclaimer. I am biased when I talk about Calcutta. I love the city. Wherever I am in the world, I belong to Calcutta. And, yes, some day, I shall go and live there. Some day soon!

I have stated the reasons before and I love repeating this. Because Calcutta is home. That's it, really. Not because I was born there, but because it is the city where I shall never feel lost. I know Calcutta the way one gets to know one's own home: its alleys and corners, its sounds and smells. And, therefore, there is no other city for me like that. One can only love one city in one lifetime.

But I don't live in Calcutta. That's a sad truth. I keep saying I love London too. I love its parks and benches, its narrow roads and drizzles, its red buses and black taxis, endless line of umbrellas on the rainy days, libraries, Museums and theatres. I enjoy living here, but you can get the sense - I love London in the image of Calcutta. Or, Calcutta the way I saw it, remember it, fantasize it. This is true to what I said about loving one city - like women, you always love your first love and keep discovering her in everyone you meet.

I was fortunate to make a number of trips to Calcutta in last couple of years. These visits were always short, constrained, full of conflicting commitments and some disappointments. But it was great to be able to walk around the city, discover the same old museums of my childhood [though I struggled to find my wonderment]. I spent time visiting my college, where I knew no one anymore; my school, which is now gated and covered by walls on all sides, and I could not get to the playground I spent so much time on; and also College Street, where I evidenced a dying industry and an withering identity.

But, then, indeed, we carry around Calcutta always in our expatriate life. We always talk about it, for a start. I did not know for a while that the great movie theatres of Calcutta, the New Empire, Lighthouse and Globe, were all shut down, and have turned themselves into cheap discount stores and shops of some kind; every movie I saw in Leicester Square Odeon reminded me of the days when we queued up at the back of New Empire for a cut-price ticket without a pre-arranged seating. We cook Calcutta food at our house in London and debate endlessly among friends about various variations of the cooking methods. And, in a few days, most Bengalees in London will congregate to celebrate Durga Puja, a very Bengali festival celebrated with unparalleled pomp in Calcutta, and we shall try to bring in the memories of our lost lives together.

But, then, if it is such, home, why don't we go back there? Why does one have to endure all the alienation, feel like strangers at work, face racist abuses on the streets and still live here? Economic opportunity is the easy answer, but it is not that straightforward for me. I am optimistic in nature and never actually thought that living in Calcutta will mean the end of my career. Besides, I firmly believed that one should create the opportunities rather than follow them, and that way, I have every reason to move back to Calcutta as soon as I can.

However, I think the problem in Calcutta is not with the economic opportunity, but with freedom. Surprisingly, because Calcutta should have been the most 'free' city in India, given the cherished claim of Bengalees that the new age enlightenment started in India here in this city, and people from Calcutta led the country in the sphere of thought for a long time. 'What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow' someone may have said, and it gets quoted everywhere and Bengali children grow up listening to these words. In fact, I remember the feeling of hurt we all endured when Rajiv Gandhi called Calcutta a 'dying city', somewhat poor judgement from his part, and how that brought out what all of us believed - that Calcutta has a special place in India, in terms of thought leadership, and that rightful place is being denied by a wide conspiracy.

But the sad fact remains that this talk about thought leadership is history, and all the instances we can give belong to past. The problem with Calcutta is that it is so deeply glued into its history; indeed it is lost in its history. The enlightenment has long faded. So did our revolutionary spirits, wanting to change the world. One must admit that the thought leadership was an unintended consequence of the British Colonial policy in the first place. They wanted to train clerks and we ended up taking those opportunities and discovering the wonderful world of Western liberal thought, advancing ourselves in various cognitive fields and even conjuring up, along with many other leading thinkers across India, an idea of modern India well ahead of the time.

Those days, we thought about future. We looked forward. But that stopped long time back. We have been looking mostly backwards since then, and keeping ourselves busy about the trivialities of the present. Everyday, we, as devout Bengalees, open up the web edition of Anandabazar Patrika, one essential ingredient of the Bengali middle class social life in Calcutta that we always carry around with us. And, one gets the sense immediately. Admittedly, all newspapers around the world display a certain level of seize mentality, perhaps a sign of their own age and impending mortality. But, yet, this Calcutta newspaper is truly unique - so deeply smug and self-contained, narrow and busy with non-news, so subjective and judgemental that it amply displays a somewhat dysfunctional social character - a whole society in denial and firmly fixated on its rear-view mirror.

And, as the rest of the World, India, moves on. In Calcutta, one can see the complete confusion in governance and the self-destruction and populism in the opposition. One can see no leader in any walk of life who can rise above the consuming obsession of day-to-day trivia and allow anyone to look to the future. All talk of progress today is only the weak, half-hearted attempts of followership of other Indian states. All imagination is borrowed from far-away China; if not, it is dictated by personal megalomania of a deranged matriarch. And, in order to live in our self-contained world, we have fortified ourselves with a gravity-defying mediocrity, at all levels and walks of public life.

And, hence, I come back to freedom. Freedom to think, do and act. Freedom to imagine and change. Freedom not to care about what one is compelled to do, and to do what one thinks right. By fixating ourselves to the past, by shackling ourselves to the present, by being smug and by conjuring up conspiracy theories, we have denied ourselves the freedom to dream about the future. The same freedom of thought and action that defined Calcutta.

We lost Calcutta. We let it become meaninglessly mediocre and almost without a purpose.

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