Friday, November 29, 2013

Waiting for a Future in Kolkata

It's a slow city. One can notice this as they watch the taxis mill around, somewhat slowly pulling over when waved at, declining a fare if that would make them late for lunch; one can hear that in the art of making conversations, bringing up things which may not be of any immediate or practical interest, but would just fill an empty time; and indeed, feel this when one goes around the city, as if it is frozen in time, in its degenerating buildings, unkempt roads, lazy policemen, people loafing around endlessly. 

One can see that Kolkata's attempts to catch up with the modern and the fast is somewhat out of sync, somewhat comical, in fact, if one cares, mostly tragic: One could take personal stance about how to view the Office Secretary spending a day at South City Mall peering into the branded clothing all day, but, unlike as her counterpart would do in Oxford Circus, never really having the courage to buy anything that would max her credit card out. It is melodramatically sweet to take someone out to Peter Cat, with its Raj-era dressage and dimly lit interiors, and to enjoy a signature meal which originated in Ottoman Harems as an aphrodisiac. It is also deeply erotic to walk the gardens of Victoria Memorial, a Raj era museum mostly forgotten, which display a collection of company memorabilia, and have beautiful gardens which allow couples a chance to steal a kiss and the assorted policemen a chance to harass them to earn a bribe. And, in conversations with the modern office worker, one can hear the eternally emerging Kolkata dream, the lure of the 'flats':  The idea of happiness away from the past and the responsibility of the crumbling family homes, to the bondage of a mortgage and sweetness of anonymity within a gated community. 

My visits to Kolkata are always full of such melancholy. Watching a 93 year old relative cry as his family home has now been sold by his nephew and has to be vacated in a few days is somewhat anachronistic to the general merriment of the celebratory feasts inside these new communities. True, if you are a middle class Bengali living on a meagre income, you never get to own one of these flats, but rent them.  True, you get a 'T' ticket, representing your tenant identity, which gets you an inferior meal than those holding 'O', owner, tickets, in the community gatherings. But it is still better to live in a community where you are defined by income, because income could rise and you can change, rather than in a community where you are known as someone's son, or brother, because it is hard to change those identities. Being nostalgic about the past is a good-natured Kolkata amusement that newspapers indulge in and modern Bengali art celebrates; but denying this nostalgia and being practical is equally the hallmark of a Kolkata professional, who treat the insensitivity towards such attachments as the badge of being modern. 

In this setting, it is only fitting that I get to see 'Achorjo Pradeep' ('Magic Lamp', as in the story of Aladin), a Woody Allen-esque rendering of the City, a fantastical narrative of a Bengali professional coming to fortune. This smart film, adequately displaying the best acting talents, sharp editing and brilliant cinematography, escapes the 'golden age' thinking and rather attempts to portray the disenchantment and bleakness of the middle class life. Its evocation of melancholy comes as a shock, a sudden, rude exposure of the downside of consuming lives, rather than the steady decline and trivial sadness that really marks Kolkata. However, despite the technique which reminded me of Woody Allen, this fantansy is deeply Bengali: Despite the attempts to avoid nostalgia, there is a deep attachment somewhere, a belief that the centre still holds, an illusive quest of love. It is also very Bengali because it is very male, its aesthetic defined by the morality of magic, celebrated over the degeneration of work: Its story told from the vantage point of sudden fortune rather than the murky world of dehumanising work, that represents its inescapable other half.

That, in essence, is the life in Kolkata: An irreversible dream alongside a hopeless life; a past without a future, which we have no time to live but no space to abandon it into; a quest for an identity without the roots, but a fantasy of love that must survive such a leap; a City, uncomfortably at ease, living modernity in a slow motion, reliving its festivities on Facebook, recasting its old narratives within a new fantasy. Every time I go to Kolkata, I lose a little part of myself: The paradox is that this makes me belong there even more.

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