I was very excited when Payal floated the idea of a blog entirely and exclusively dedicated to Kolkata. KOLKATA-- my home, the place where I was born and brought up, to express my feelings better I borrow Spivak’s words “Well, you know, I have a mother and that’s Calcutta…” (In an interview/discussion, ‘Postmarked Calcutta, India,’ , Spivak stated to Angela Ingram). I wanted to say so many things about Kolkata and I felt this was the right place to do so. But ever since I have not been able to write anything.
Every time I thought of writing, I would start asking myself what do I write about--- the city herself, the educational places I went to—my school, my college, my universities, or the places I visited/visit with my parents or the places where I hanged out with my friends at various stages of my life spent in Kolkata or about new things that are happening to the city? In the middle of it, I would feel too overwhelmed and just drop it.
I was born in Kolkata and grew up there. All my education till masters has been there. I left Kolkata in 2002. I keep going back because emotionally Kolkata is my home but also practically because my parents and other family are there. But every time I go back home I find there is some change—a new bridge has popped up, a road has been turned one-way only, few more portholes in the roads, the people are little more ruder and hassled, the city a lot more dirtier, more old houses demolished to be replaced by fragile looking multistory buildings, latest shiny mall just next to a slum, another crazy government scheme being tried out, one more useless, destructive bandh around the corner…the list goes on. I stare at amazement and let my friends and cousins guide me through the maze of new developments. Walking on the roads I try and identify the old landmarks—some beautiful old house, maybe a tree, an old favourite shop… ninety nine percent of the time I find these old symbols gone—a Mac Donald’s or a CCD has taken its place. People rush past me but I hesitate, I feel this structure was here only last time I came, so maybe it is still there somewhere…only I cannot find it.
Every time I am there in Kolkata I remember the eternal lines from Salman Rushdie’s about how it feels to be away from home i.e. India and in my context-- Kolkata. Rushdie in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. (1991), tries to recapture his lost home through his imagination “…physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.”
While reading Rushdie I realized this is what I actually do. When I am stuck in Delhi, trying to survive in its rude world I keep thinking about Kolkata and how my life would be so much easier there. I remember the small things like how people are friendlier, how you do not have to fight with the taxi driver unlike Delhi autowallahs (auto rickshaw drivers) so on and so forth. I remember the first six months all I did in Delhi was compare it to Kolkata and needless to say every time Kolkata won hands down.
But like every other person away from home I eulogize home a bit too much. When I am away from Kolkata, she is perfection itself—a utopia of my mind. Even slightest criticism about her gets me all defensive and ready to fight. But when I visit Kolkata suddenly the rosy picture that I created in my mind gets a little dimmed, reality takes over. The city is not all of joy; it looks shabby, downtrodden and extremely badly maintained to my critical eyes.
Lately my sense of disillusionment is tremendous with my city—all I see around me is fake development—a few malls which is taking away business from small and medium scale shopkeepers and where middle class Bengalis go to confirm their status or some such silly stuff, a few more cineplexs which have made cinema watching a very prohibitive and expensive affair, some fancy restaurant opened, one more designer/ brand opening a show room in the city and some more multistoried buildings. Funny thing is Kolkatans are seem really proud of this. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against all of this but these are being done at what cost? Who actually gains from these-- an emerging group of nouveau riche with black money to spend rashly? But what about all those middle and lower middle class people trying to survive in the city? Isn’t the city becoming more and more prohibitive for them? What about maintaining the Bengali culture? Isn’t it getting lost somewhere in the tussle between the pseudo Bangla speaking communists and the mad rush for globalization? I remember reading an editorial in Anandabazar Patrika a few kalipujos back where Sharmila Bose had bemoaned the fact that diwali has so taken over kalipujo and her sense of disillusionment and loss when she comes home from London to celebrate kalipujo only to find Kolkata does celebrate diwali.
What about some resilience building like some solid infrastructure most importantly some really good roads, cleaning the city up (the corporation alone cannot do it, if the citizens do not grow their civic sense ASAP), get the drainage system into shape so that every time there is a heavy downpour people are not stuck in their houses for 2/3 days, maintain its heritage (stop demolishing old houses to build these monstrous multistoried buildings—every other city like Delhi, Mumbai—they all have put a ceiling on these horrible buildings, but Kolkata goes on merrily) planting some trees (look at Delhi, some judicial tree planting has dealt with the pollution problem to a large extent and also as the Congress government is claiming helps in making the weather a bit better), reopening some of the locked out mills and factories so that people can get back their jobs, deciding not be do another bandh like maybe for ever, what about maintaining some wholesome “bengalines” (there seems to be no middle way—either it is those who refuse to speak in anything other than bangla and who see great central treachery in everything or there are those who cant understand bangla staying in Kolkata) and last but my most favourite daydream stone the garbage spewing, lying, conniving, corrupt and idiotic politicians to death!
I know reading so far you may get confused and feel but then every city in India is going through this transition. Yes they all are, but I can say about Delhi that here all this transition is balanced with growth, new roads, over bridges, new suburbs, new buses—these things do keep coming up to supplement the other part. Sadly I don’t see that in Kolkata—there it is all lopsided. And I fear if it continues to go like this one day this city of joy would crumble and then no amount of crying can save it.