Tuesday, June 17, 2014

On Kolkata

A much maligned city, Calcutta of the black hole, when several Englishmen perished locked up in a small room, on a hot summer night on the 20th June, 1756, lived in Western memories in different forms, lately in the ghastly revocations of its poverty and squalor by the likes of V S Naipaul and Gunter Grass. With the international spotlight on Mother Teresa's work, it was confirmed as a terrible place, somewhere you may want to send your charity money to but never wanted to go yourself: The Bengali diffidence in sticking with its Communist government, despite its misery, made an Indian Prime Minister call it a 'dying city'. And, indeed, it turned out that way, as the only metropolis in the world whose population has declined in the last decade.

But there is another tale, which hardly gets told. Kolkata was one of the two cities in Asia in the early 1900 with more than a million people, the other being Tokyo. The capital of the British India till 1911, when King George the Vth announced the newly created city of New Delhi would replace Calcutta as the seat of the imperial government, Calcutta was cosmopolitan, rich and a place of people coming together. It was a colonial city, which it still perhaps remains at its core, with its usual game of aristocracy and power, with lots of people left on the margins; but it was also a city of nationalism, of ideas and of entrepreneurship. The merchants ran a 'coolee' trade to Africa (shipping people from the interiors of India to work in East African firms) and an opium trade to China (causing the Opium War eventually) to get rich: Soon, the riches flowered into culture - the Opium trading Tagore family bestowing the city with its most famous citizen - though these riches equally caused corruption and debauchery at the same measure. With Djakarta intended to be the Paris of the East, Kolkata could have been its Vienna: It rather developed a rather unique identity, with a fondness of Art Deco (like Shanghai, Bombay or Miami), a taste of romantic poetry, fought early battles of gender equality, harboured a blend of revolutionary nationalism and communism (which perhaps came naturally to elitist yet compassionate Bengalis) - and then crashed and burned.

One can blame politics or the social structure, which, being more elitist than anywhere else in India, did Calcutta no favours, but it was geography which should stand out in Kolkata's decline. The Independent India, as it turned inward into an import-substituting industrialisation, the great city of commerce, ideas and interaction, the gateway to China and South-East Asia, suddenly lost its value. After half of its population was yanked away to East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), it did not command the numbers in the new Indian parliament; in divided India and divided Bengal, its voice of secular nationalism was relatively less relevant. 

What came in its place is anger, on oneself; and a fallback on commodities trading. But there is no riches in commodities trading, except for the very few, as we know from all the resource economies around the world. And, there is no escape from self-destroying anger. Those who could, ran away. The politics, after the disappearance of the genteel leaders of the first generation, degenerated into directionless populism, and partisan activism. 

But the soul never died away. The city maintained the same cosmopolitan openness, deep connections to the East, its pride in Bengali culture and cuisine, and a fellow feeling towards the Bengalis across the border in Bangladesh. Its famous citizens, from the film-maker Satyajit Ray, to the Economist Amartya Sen, the poet Sunil Gangopadhyay, and many many remarkable others, maintained the spirits of Calcutta's golden age - a sense of liberal nationalism, a secular commitment, compassion, love of art and culture, respect for learning (sometimes expressed in the obsession with education and middle class jobs). The Bengali middle class, which predated the glorious rise of Indian middle class in the Western eyes, sought refinement, stuck to its modernist, change-the-world attitude, and defied the gravitational pull of overwhelming economic decline around themselves, earning the 'intellectual' label, which, unlike France, is meant to be an insult in India.

In 2001, Calcutta became Kolkata, perhaps as a necessary first step towards overcoming its colonial legacy. Another decade afterwards, its politics finally shifted to the right, and the communists were voted out after 34 years of power. The new shopping malls, along with gated communities for the middle classes, kept sprouting out all over the the city. Its eateries, glorious in their cosmopolitan cuisine, got a new lease of life with the new-rich rediscovering the joys of eating out and the returning immigrants funding the new businesses and services in the city. Though its politics continued its journey into abyss, the new populist administration that replaced the communists predominantly failed to deliver the 'development' the city-folks wanted, the city appeared to be coming back to life again. And, again, it may be geography, physical and human, that one may have to look into for an explanation.

After years of neglect and isolation, the consensus in Indian politics is now of engagement and openness. The Import-Substitution ideology was long abandoned, and finally, India  has started taking notice of the biggest change happening in the world, the economic rise of China (not to mention its military might, which makes attention to India's North-East a strategic priority), and looking at the possibilities of deeper engagements with it and South-East Asia. The roads that the new government in Delhi wants to build, the new regional politics it wants to forge, may all give back Kolkata the hinterland and the engagements that once made it a great city. 

The question indeed is - could that really happen? Aren't Bengalis a broken group, too skeptical of their own abilities, too parochial, too divided? But then these social attitudes are factors of the circumstances one is born into, a mixture of experiences and conversations: Once the circumstances change, this may change quickly. 

So, for once, let me end with optimism: Let's recount what Kolkata has got going for it. To start with, it has its own supply of drinkable water. We take this for granted, but this is the scarcest resource in most other Indian cities and in cities across the developing world. Kolkata has its river, its ample rains, its water bodies, which, if preserved and maintained, make it one of the most sustainable cities at a time when water becomes a precious commodity. 

Second, it has its education. For all the disgrace, Kolkata still has a great tradition of good universal education at primary and secondary levels. At a time when educational quality is measured in terms of the prevalence of elite schools (whose quality is usually measured by the fees it charged and amenities they boast of), Kolkata's counter-intuitive claim is of having a broad-based education system which still remains strong. This is complemented by Kolkata's abundant supply of young people, which it can further supplement if it attracts back the students from India's North-east, who faces discrimination in their favourite city of Delhi. 

Third, Kolkata's shared culture with Bangladesh is its great strength, as witnessed in the recent flowering of the Bengali 'culture industries' after the first steps were taken towards openness. The 'culture industries', always strong in Kolkata, represents its great escape from commodities, and plays to its strengths. 

Finally, Kolkata also has its rainmakers: They are everywhere, in other Indian cities, in other cities across the world. They are those who have the experience, knowledge, exposure and the money, and above all, an overwhelming love for the city and what it means. They stayed away as the City declined, but Kolkata, unlike the Indian cities, are perhaps more forgiving and ever welcoming: It has taken back so many entrepreneurs back in its fold and made them. Despite all the political mayhem, this is already happening: I saw two US-born Bengali entrepreneurs buying out 2 million square feet of commercial real estate in the City on the assumption that it has now bottomed out. This is the start. Indeed, the ecosystems still has to be built, conversations have to be started, politics have to be sorted out. But, history always happen cyclically: Decline often precedes renaissance if the spirit can be truly preserved. On that measure, Kolkata has managed to preserve Calcutta in its heart, if only by chance, if only because its people loved it so much.

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