Saturday, April 03, 2010

Big town delusions, small town truths (April 2, 2010)

In sheer size, Kolkata has grown exponentially; at the same time,
its horizons have shrunk. If it is to be all that it thinks of itself as,
it must progress well beyond the reality of nostalgia as its biggest
industry, bandhs as its greatest success story, and beyond the
present opportunistic economy

By Swapan Dasgupta


While channel-surfing one lazy evening, I came across Karan Johar in
conversation with the lovely Bipasha Basu. Speaking about her childhood and early years, the Bong belle mentioned that she had grown up in Calcutta (as it was then called and what I am most comfortable calling it), blah, blah.

“A real small town girl,” retorted Karan, wallowing in his own cleverness.
Bipasha looked a bit bewildered. A small town called Kolkata? Either Karan was an air-head par excellence or one of the canniest observers of contemporary India.

The celebrity Mumbaikar’s condescension towards this corner of eastern India reminded me of the time in 1972 when, as a wide-eyed 16-year old,
I boarded the Rajdhani Express to Delhi and St Stephen’s College. Let alone any feeling of inadequacy in the Capital of India, the handful of us who wisely fled the academic chaos of Calcutta secretly harboured a sense of
superiority. Compared to our classmates from Patna and Jaipur, not to mention the public school types from Doon and Ajmer, we knew that we had seen the bright lights of big city life — which they clearly had not.
What is more, we had also imbibed a good enough dose of the pseudo stuff to warrant that cultivated intense appearance - mainly to impress the girls. We knew the pronunciation of Camus and could, without even the hint of a concealed snigger, call something a Kafkaesque experience. We had even seen subtitled Japanese and French films.

Nostalgia is a bourgeoning cottage industry in today’s Kolkata. When Stephen Court became an inferno, the probashi Calcuttans exchanged stories of languid afternoons in Flury’s (where there was a waiter in the mid-1970s who was the spitting image of Brezhnev) and boozy lunches
at Peter Cat. The more ancient among us looked back wistfully at the time when the Armenian College rugby team literally used to pulverize the opposition. Where are they now?

One after another, the landmarks of old Kolkata have disappeared. My parents spoke of the demolition of the Senate building of Calcutta University. I saw the grand front façade of Bengal Club being replaced by the Metro Rail headquarters, a building of incredible ugliness. In 1969, there was the ceremonial removal of all the grand bronze statues of the icons of the British Raj. With special glee, the United Front Government of the day kept the de-installation of Lord Curzon till the verylast. The grandest of all the Viceroys and, ironically, the man who protested most
against the transfer of the capital to Delhi in 1911, was being made to watch the winners rewrite the past in their own image.

The banishment of the imperial bronzes symbolised the end of gracious
Kolkata. In 1970, Firpo’s and its Long Bar was turned into a market for the rag trade; the charming flea pit of Tiger cinema has gone; there is no Skyroom for fine dining, with its unspecified dress code, courteous service and an unchanging art-deco interior; and Sir Biren Mookerjee’s grand mansion on Harrington Street (the prehistoric name of Ho Chi Minh Sarani) and even Statesman House on Chowringhee Square sit in anticipation of the demolition man. If the levellers had had their way in 1969, the memorial to the Old Queen would have probably been renamed too, just as the Ochterlony Monument was.

Cities change and none more so than those that live through profound historical flux. There is precious little left of the Kolkata of my youth that can be passed on to another generation. That, perhaps, was only to be expected. Indians are particularly insensitive to history; they move on. Calcutta too has moved on, to a new Kolkata, to the marginalisation
of the old North Kolkata, to the over-congestion of the once spacious
expansion south of Park Street, to the creation of suburbs that stretch to
Baruipur and beyond; and to the creation of a spanking New Town in Rajarhat.

In sheer size, Kolkata has grown exponentially. At the same time, its horizons have shrunk. Calcutta may not be the archetypal small town — a term we still associate with Bhubaneswar, Jamshedpur, Ranchi and Durgapur. But it is definitely a provincial town--vibrant, but provincial

As with most things, there is an obvious economic explanation attached to
the change in status.With the exception of tea, the old industries that sustained Kolkata have either died or are in terminal decline. Jute belongs to history; light engineering was devastated by the crippling power shortages of the 1980s and 1990s; and other heavy manufacturing
was done in by the mindlessness of labour militancy. Kolkata has received
the crumbs of IT; politics quashed the emergence of a hub for automobiles; and financial services never recovered from the flight of capital that began in the 1970s.

Kolkata merely leads the way in the number of successful bandhs.

The city is experiencing an unending crisis of opportunities. Life is good for those with an inherited house and an assured modest income. The trappings of the erstwhile big city are still in place: decent schools, good medical support, agreeable clubs with reasonably-priced food and
drink, domestic help and friendly neighbourhoods. But this is offset by a collapse of future prospects.

The tell-tale signs of an improvised, jugaar economy stare at the visitor. The ubiquitous hawkers are everywhere, selling everything from cheap electronic imports from China to everyday clothes at unbelievably low prices. For the itinerant vendor who comes into the city each day from places as afar as Burdwan, trade is a facet of the subsistence economy. He
competes against settled retailers, leveraging the absence of overheads and taxes to competitive advantage. Both the hawker and the small retailer are, however, confronted with a common challenge: the size of the overall cake doesn’t seem to be getting any bigger.

It’s no longer a problem confined to the people who, in happier circumstances, would have sustained an organized services sector. The growing impoverishment of the abhijat middle classes has resulted in need-based Bengali entrepreneurship. Initially, there were the fast-food outlets run by venerable mashimas and the younger son in two ground floor rooms or even a garage. The more ambitious ones have converted
charming old houses into small restaurants. The successful ones even have valet parking and accept Visa cards.

In the past year, the leveraging of prime real estate for extra income has
taken another turn.Kolkata today boasts of innumerable ‘guest houses’ located inside middle-class homes. They cater for a wide range of people, from the travelling mid-level executive who would have otherwise stayed in a grotty C-class hotel to the overseas Bengali ‘doing’ Calcutta with his family. I would argue that these guesthouses have not merely ppropriated
a share of traditional hotel occupancy, they have in fact nurtured a new market for themselves.

The emergence of a new breed of bhadralok restaurateurs and hoteliers
has been propelled by the quest for opportunities in a stagnant economy. In a fight for survival amid adversity, many Bengalis have had to reinvent themselves, eschew their inherited lordliness and abhorrence of commerce and assume new roles.

The reinvention was overdue. A curious feature of the economic stagnation of West Bengal is that it has affected the ethnic Bengalis in Kolkata far more than their Hindi-speaking counterparts. The
evidence of this is largely anecdotal. The managers of Kolkata’s five-star hotels have all pointed out that most of their prized clientele happened to be vegetarian and that the city is emerging as a major centre of innovative, multi-cuisine vegetarianism.

Whether the relative prosperity of Kolkata’s large non-Bengali elite owes to their businesses outside the state (tea in Assam and mining in Orissa
and Jharkhand come readily to mind) awaits empirical verification but it does suggest an intriguing quirkiness to the story of economic stagnation.

The Bengali bhadrolok has traditionallybeen peripatetic -the Bong traveller is a figure of endearment and ridicule in most of India’s tourist spots - seeking opportunities wherever they presented themselves. The British were forever complaining of the ubiquitous babu who had planted himself in clerical jobs throughout the land. However, the establishment of a Bengali diaspora both within and outside India was complemented
by a pulsating and vibrant Kolkata which was both home and the
fountainhead of culture.

Today, Bengalis seem to be doing much, much better outside the home
state. This has created a strange disequilibrium which has translated itself into the blunting of cultural dynamism. Culture always needs an economic surplus to sustain and patronise it. The artists of Kolkata have, for example, prospered on the evolution of a lucrative Indian art market in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. Unfortunately, Bengali writers, poets
and playwrights have had no such luck, their language defining the limits of marketability.

The net consequence has been a steady erosion of cultural dynamism
verging on debasement. You have only to see some of the more recent Tollywood productions or the Bangla serials on TV to realise the scale of cultural decline.

The self-assured, arrogant Calcutta of the past has died. It has been replaced by the Kolkata of genteel decay, by brashness and a gritty struggle for sheer survival. The city’s future now depends onits ability to confront the present and recover a lost inheritance. It’s cholbey na
to the present and zindabad to the quest for another (elusive) utopia.

This poor, big, small town.

Times of India (Kolkata edition), April 2, 2010

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