Friday, February 10, 2006

Calcutta: An Exile's View (February 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta


One of my earliest recollections of Calcutta dates back to 1961—the year the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the city.

One afternoon, my mother told me and my twin sisters that we were going for an outing to “see the Queen.” To a six-year-old that sounded exciting. To see a real Queen—I was familiar with her picture thanks to a relative’s stamp collection—truly tickled my imagination. We got into our grandfather’s enormous sky-blue Studebaker and drove to the house of one of my mother’s many relatives on, what I think was, Central Avenue. We were taken to a large portico overlooking the grand street. It was house-full there. The children were allowed the luxury of sitting on the ground and peering through the balustrade. It was the best view of the street.

I still recall the large crowds on both sides of the impressive avenue. Then, a motorcycle with a siren driven by what we called a “police sergeant” drove by. The crowd began cheering and, in a flash, there was a white lady in an open black limousine waving to the crowds. She was standing and wore white gloves. Besides her, but sitting, was an elderly gentlemen with spectacles and a generous smile. I was later told he was Bidhan Roy, the Chief Minister of West Bengal.

Although the motorcade was not really speeding, it was all over in a flash. We returned home all excited and told everyone in the large house on Ballygunge Place, where the joint family lived, that we had seen the Queen.

I don’t remember the reactions but I am fairly certain that my childish jubilation was greeted with sneers. There was always a cultural divide between my mother and the rest of the family. It was not merely that my mother was a West Bengal “Ghoti” and from a landed background, whereas my father traced his roots to Jessore district and was thus a “Bangal”. The conflict was more political—my parents spanned two extremes of the Bengali political culture.

Take my paternal grandfather, a large man who doted on me. He was always dressed in starched, white khadi. Except on one occasion when I saw him in a western-style suit and had a good laugh, he was always in a dhoti. Yet, and this is the paradox, his food habits were incredibly western—soup, roasts and Irish stew—and he travelled in one of his two enormous Studebaker cars. He was quirky and unique. He founded and ran a thriving industry and was fanatically committed to swadeshi entrepreneurship. He hated the British and had great admiration for everything American—he was one of the earliest graduates of Stanford University. Naturally, he was uncompromisingly anti-Communist, believing that every Indian Communist should be deported to China.

My maternal grandfather—who died before I was born—was one of Calcutta’s most successful lawyers. Extremely westernised and very Bengali at the same time, he was an unabashed Raj loyalist. He used to travel to London almost each year in connection with cases before the Privy Council. In his last years, he moved to Delhi to work with the Law Member of the Viceroy’s Council. My mother lamented that he died in 1942, just after he was made a CBE. “Another few years and he would definitely have got a knighthood,” she always said.

My inheritance spanned both Calcuttas. There was a Calcutta that oozed Empire and the proverbial “Black Town” which was quintessentially Bengali. Yes, there was also a Marwari Calcutta which had a culture and dynamism of own but which was unfamiliar to both wings of my family.

A glance through the Queen’s itinerary of 1961 shows that Independence didn’t put an end to what Lord Curzon once accurately described as “a European city set down upon Asiatic soil.” First, there was a garden party hosted on the lawns of Raj Bhavan—the full version of what Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire should have looked like—attended by some 4,500 handpicked guests. Next morning, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh attended a service in St Paul’s Cathedral, with a string quartet from the Oxford Mission in Behala adding to the musical efforts of the choir. They then dropped in to Victoria Memorial—Curzon’s most enduring monument to the Raj—and visited the Horticultural Gardens in Alipore. Finally, she gave away the prizes at the races from the special enclosure of the Royal Calcutta Turf Club.

As she drove down the Red Road and viewed the impressive bronzes of the stalwarts of the Empire, shook hands with the mercantile rajahs of Clive Street and read The Statesman ( still British-owned and edited by an Englishman) with her chhota hazri, the Queen must have delighted in the seamless transformation of Empire into Commonwealth.

At every place the Queen visited, she was warmly received. The British expatriates—there used to be a sizable number those days—and the Bengali gentry put their best foot forward to receive the second reigning British monarch to have visited Calcutta. The “seditious” Bengali who was the dread of every Viceroy from Curzon to Wavell was nowhere to be seen. Either British officialdom had got it completely wrong—remember, even Curzon opposed the transfer of the Capital in 1911 to a city that he called the “graveyard of empires”—or Calcutta had undergone a genuine change of heart.

It was neither. Calcutta was always a British city dominated by Bengalis. Its ruling culture was British (not English, because Scots dominated the business life) and physically, the Raj defined the city’s landmarks. In 1966—the last year of Old Calcutta—Desmond Doig, one of those oddballs who stayed on, published a series of 39 impressions of Calcutta for The Statesman. Only five of his sketches—the cluster of Shiv temples on Diamond Harbour Road, the Chitpur Road dominated by Nakhoda Masjid, the Jain temple, the “bastard baroque fantasy” called Jhagra Kothi on Armenian Street and Raja Nabakrishna Deb’s palace—can be said to skirt the colonial encounter. Otherwise, everything, from the imposing portico of La Martiniere (my alma mater) to the Eden Gardens created to commemorate the annexation of Burma and the Gowalior Monument on Strand Road honouring a long-forgotten campaign of 1843 reeks of a history that began from the time Job Charnock set up a trading post for the East India Company.

Since 1967, there has been a systematic attempt to reinvent Calcutta. It began with the wave of industrial strikes and bouts of labour hooliganism encouraged by the first Communist-dominated United Front Government. The gherao movement triggered a process of terminal industrial decline. The already beleaguered jute and engineering sectors started wilting. The British expatriates quietly packed their bags, sent their household goods to the auction houses on Russell Street and left by the last international flights from Dum Dum. The Marwaris didn’t do anything so dramatic. They stopped all reinvestment in West Bengal and quietly shifted focus to other states. Alipore and Ballygunge are dotted with well-maintained but deserted palaces of the Marwari stalwarts who began life in Calcutta but have moved on since.

The process of cultural remodelling began with the removal of the British bronzes from the heart of Calcutta in 1969. The imposing bronzes of Canning, Mayo, Havelock, Curzon, et al were lifted ceremoniously by crane and carted off to a dump in Barrackpore where they have subsequently been vandalised. More widespread vandalism was prevented because Victoria Memorial came under the Centre’s jurisdiction. Therefore, mercifully, the Old Queen still survives the desecration of the Second City of Empire.

The change wasn’t confined to removing British symbols and changing Dalhousie Square to BBD Bagh. The denial of history led to the most rampant and mindless destruction of the city’s most beautiful buildings. Urban renewal is unavoidable and necessary but when aesthetics is completely submerged by crass commerce, the results can be debilitating. The fa├žade of the Bengal Club was torn down and replaced by a high-rise of incredible ugliness. It was the same story all along Camac Street, Theatre Road, Middleton Row and all of Ballygunge and Alipore. Nor were the casualties only the buildings that housed the boxwallahs. The houses of the old landed Bengali gentry, the foremost casualties of Partition, were the next to go all along Lansdowne Road, Gurusaday Road and Burdwan Road. The architecture of gracious living was wilfully killed by the perversity of post-colonialism.

In this age of incipient globalisation and emerging consumerism, it is painful to suggest that Calcutta was there first. From the gracious department stores Hall and Anderson, Whiteway & Laidlaw and the Army and Navy Stores to individual specialist shops in New Market and Lindsay Street, Calcutta thrived on the foundations of a free market. Till the late Sixties, Park Street and Chowringhee boasted the most vibrant night life. For those with class it was the Firpo’s, Prince’s, Blue Fox and the bar at the Great Eastern. For the flamboyant and the young there was the Golden Slipper and the Sarky Bar. And, of course, there were the clubs—the Bengal Club (once for Europeans only) which was an extension of the committee room of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce; the “old money” Calcutta Club; and the weekend Tollygunge Club.

Till the early Sixties, there were sufficient expatriates in Calcutta to keep some sporting clubs exclusively European—the Calcutta Rowing Club, the Calcutta Swimming Club and the Calcutta Cricket and Football Club with its manicured grounds in Ballygunge. In 1969, one Ram Chatterjee, a colourful politician representing the Forward Bloc (Marxist) was appointed Minister for Sports. He mobilised a hundred or so adivasis, marched into the Calcutta Swimming Club premises, undressed and jumped into the pool. It was hailed as the end of the colour bar in Calcutta. It probably was. By then, however, there weren’t enough whites to sustain the establishment.

To the outlander, it seemed that sahib Calcutta was in permanent conflict with the Black Town. Under the Raj, racism was pretty widespread and the single factor which fuelled the bhadralok demand for swaraj. Yet, as Nirad Chaudhury has forcefully argued in his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, the relationship between Empire and the Bengali middle class was extremely complex.

First, the Anglo-Bengali encounter was the longest and most sustained in India. Despite the nationalist myth around Siraj-ud-Doulah, it can never be forgotten that Clive’s victory in Plassey was plotted and financed by the Bengali merchants of Calcutta. When the victorious Clive returned to Calcutta, there were celebrations and the victor of Plassey was hosted by Bengali financiers like Raja Nabakrishna Deb.

Secondly, the intellectual appeal of the European enlightenment was strongest among the Bengali Hindus because they had been only nominally influenced by the culture of the Mughal court. They took to European culture enthusiastically, sans Christianity, and easily absorbed it into their Bengali identity. The dress code in Calcutta Club, for example, is revealing: during the winter months, admission to the main dining room can be ensured only with either a jacket and tie or national dress. At the Calcutta Club however—unless the rules have been changed of late—national dress means dhoti-kurta and not pyjama-kurta. The pyjama, Bengal’s most colourful exponent of the dhoti, Aveek Sarkar, once informed a stupefied Congress maharaja, “is something you wear between the bedroom and bathroom.”

Sustained exposure to westernisation has not compromised the self-identity of Bengalis as Bengalis. Indeed, the colonial education system promoted this synergetic autonomy. Most Bengali graduates of an earlier generation who mostly studied in government schools in district towns were fluent in English, Bengali and Sanskrit. They knew their Shakespeare, Milton and Byron but they were equally at ease with the Hindu epics, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Michael Madhusudan Dutt. Nirad Chaudhury was the product of such a culture. In his last years in Oxford, he wore tweed when walking to town. Inside the house it was invariably the dhoti. My anglicised grandfather maintained two separate kitchens and dining room—one was only for European food. Yet, beef was strictly taboo, except in Brahmo Samaj households. Maybe this explains the high incidence of Brahmo Communists.

The flowering of Calcutta was centred on the Bengali success in detaching the idea of Britain from the reality of British rule. Not everyone could comprehend the nuances of this emulation-opposition. Working in The Statesman of the 1930s, Malcolm Muggeridge was aghast that his westernised Indian friends were strong supporters of the Congress. He thought they were humbug. “Our parts in history”, he wrote in his Chronicles of Wasted Time, “are allotted, not chosen; and their belonged to the Raj, which they hated, rather than to Swaraj, whose coming to pass they sought.”

Muggeridge misread his Bengali friends. C.R. Das, J.M. Sengupta and Tulsi Goswami—to cite some examples—were neither toadies nor hypocrites. They lived up to their convictions and it did not conflict with their lifestyles. There was a certain broadmindedness, for example, which allowed Congress heavyweights like Sengupta and Goswami to enjoy a quiet drink at the Calcutta Club with the likes of Sir P.C. Mitter, the Raja of Santosh and Sir Rajen Mookerjee. In the social interaction of Bengalis, the Congress-Loyalist divide was notional. How else would my parents have got married?

It was this Bengali harmony which epitomised Calcutta and made it such a vibrant and cosmopolitan city. Since 1967, there has been a steady breakdown of the social code. There has been an onrush of insularity, provincialism and bad taste. Where gentlemanly conduct was the norm, there has been the intrusion of both the parvenu and the outlander. To some extent this social upheaval was unavoidable but, unlike Delhi, it coincided with a prolonged period of economic stagnation and, of course, socialist deprivation. Calcutta was a city built on global trade; it was crippled by the closed economy that followed Indira Gandhi’s populist turn in 1969.

Communism finally killed Calcutta. Bengali Marxism started off as rebellious games played by boys (and some girls) from good families. As long as the Communist adventure was in the hands of the likes of Hiren Mukherjee, Indrajit Gupta, Snehangshu Acharya, Renu Chakravarty and Mohit Sen, it was more like a repeat of the Young Bengal movement. Tragically, the Bengali babu had not factored in the deep mofussil insularity, intellectual cretinism and the cultural envy that was built into the bloodstream of the CPI(M).

Apart from the shell and some outward forms of civility, the Calcutta I knew and grew up in no longer exists. The landscape has changed. The old landmarks are gone. The mindset is unappealing. This Kolkata is not my Calcutta.

(Published in Seminar, issue 559, 2006)