Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Kolkata Lost and Found
By Swapan Dasgupta
A year ago, West Bengal chose to re-negotiate the terms of the Great Bengali Consensus. After 34 years, it resoundingly voted out the Left Front and chose, in its place, a grassroots leader whose signature tune, ironically, also happened to be "struggle". Not since Subhas Chandra Bose became the lost leader and the stuff of legend, had Bengal reposed such absolute trust in one individual. From 'Party' to 'Didi' wasn't merely a simple electoral swing of enormous magnitude. It symbolised a larger churning, the ramifications of which are yet to be felt.
There was a time, not that very long ago, when travelling through the streets of Kolkata was an unending and compulsive political conversation. It was the heyday of political street graffiti, executed with stylised, artistic professionalism. Whether large wall paintings of muscular proletarians with a red flag marching alongside determined sickle-carrying peasants or bold announcements of the next rally at the Brigade Parade Ground, Kolkata conveyed the unmistakable impression of a city weighed down by its romance with "struggle"-an evocative term left tantalisingly undefined.
Kolkata as the nursery of revolution was a caricature that persisted for more than 50 years-a long enough time for the rhetoric to negotiate a seamless shift from the worship of the "barrel of the gun" to the quasi-mystical invocation of "Ma, Mati, Manusha".
To be Bengali necessarily involved being permanently aggrieved. Prickliness and angst marinated well with endless cups of sweet tea, cheap cigarettes and a visceral distaste for material success. A good Bengali had to mirror the competitive celebrations of "struggle" on the walls of his beloved city. Those with other ideas took the expedient way out: They bought themselves a one-way ticket from Howrah Station. Kolkata became a great place to get out of.
Then CM Jyoti Basu addressing a rally in Kolkata in 1988. (Photo: Saibal Das)
Among the first things to strike a visitor to Mamata Banerjee's Kolkata is its steady incorporation into the melting pot of Indian urbanisation.
What had made Kolkata distinctive in the past was its sheer hellishness-the congestion, the overcrowding, the inhumanity of street life, the disruptions, the stench from garbage mountains, the potholes, the power cuts and, of course, the kaleidoscope of "struggle" on the walls. It was a Kolkata that was somehow tailor-made for the saintliness of a Mother Teresa, the stark cinematography of radicals who found beauty in suffering, and the ghoulish voyeurism of white connoisseurs of disaster tourism.
It's also an image that refuses to go away. Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to combine her visits to the Victoria Memorial and La Martiniere school with the by-now obligatory celebration of initiatives for the uplift of sex workers. It prompted Sandip Ghose, a senior manager in a multinational, to remark on Twitter that the "Lapierre-esque portrayal of Kolkata, including parading of Sonagachi sex workers to foreign dignitaries, is sickening"
Sickening or reassuring, it doesn't correspond to the fact that Kolkata has ceased to be an urban nightmare. Indeed, for the average middle class resident, the city has become a rather attractive place to live. The new Chief Minister's contribution has not been insignificant. Thanks to the thousands of cactus or trishul-shaped lamp-posts installed on the main roads and even side streets, and funded from the mplads grants of Trinamool Congress's Rajya Sabha MPs, Kolkata must surely count among the best-lit cities in India. Coupled with the improvements in the quality of roads, an elaborate metro network and the mushrooming of modestly-priced flats all over the city, Kolkata is experiencing a new normal, centred on the re-establishment of civic order.
Why, if Trinamool Congress MP Derek O'Brien's claim is to be believed, the administration has pressed into service 14,000 people to clean the streets of Kolkata each day. If true, it is something that hasn't happened since the time the redoubtable B.C. Roy was chief minister between 1948 and 1962.
Last year, a restaurant serving Bengali fusion food opened in South Kolkata's Ballygunge. A new eatery in a city that is obsessed with good food isn't news. What was surprising is that the new eatery was located, of all places, on Bondel Road. Till only the other day, Bondel Road was a godforsaken connector linking Ballygunge Phari to the grim locality of Tiljala, on the wrong side of the railway tracks. Today, it houses a restaurant whose Saturday afternoon clientele could just as well have been transplanted from New Delhi's Khan Market.
There is a new Kolkata, bereft of the wall graffiti and the incessant bandhs, that is rapidly emerging. It is a city that is also re-learning something it forgot ever since the "troubles" began in 1967: The ability to enjoy itself. The Christmas lights reappeared in Park Street last year, there's always a wait for a table at Mocambo, Shiraz at the Park Circus crossing has undergone a face-lift and club life is booming. Even the College Street Coffee House has changed. "I went there after a long time," said a long-time Kolkata resident, "and I saw students gorging on plates of chowmein." Revolution R.I.P.
Mamata didn't create the change. The transformation had begun to be evident in the last years of the Left Front. Her advent and her over-stated claim of turning Kolkata into another London have reinforced a pre-existing trend. For five decades, Kolkata revelled in being contrarian; today, it is embracing normalcy with infectious enthusiasm.
"It's a bit like the freedom that prevailed in Russia between the end of the civil war in 1919 and the takeover by Stalin in 1927," suggests historian Rajat Kanta Ray, former vice-chancellor of Visva-Bharati University and, now, emeritus professor at Presidency University, the upgraded version of Presidency College.
The analogy may well be a trifle recondite but in the past one year, West Bengal is witnessing an uneven process of depoliticisation-a reaction to the intrusive, over-politicisation triggered by three decades of Left dominance. Since 2009, when the vulnerability of the Left was first exposed, the creative juices of Bengal have started flowing more generously than at any point in the past 50 years.
The lifting of the Bengali spirit may have more to do with the decline of the Left than with the advent of Mamata, but there is no doubt that the new environment of political non-involvement has acted as a trigger. "What is being witnessed is a generational change," said Gouri Chatterjee, a life-long resident of Kolkata who was till recently the editor of a magazine devoted to the performing arts. She attached importance to the entry of the "English-medium educated Bengalis with contemporary, cosmopolitan sensibilities" into films and theatre. Far removed from the generation that was inspired by subtitled European films but who were burdened by the trauma of Partition, this breed of artistes are not burdened by either pretentiousness or even a 'cause'.
Anik Dutta's Bhooter Bhabishyat (Future of the Past), which has been running to packed houses, is cited as one of Tollywood's best offerings-one which addresses contemporary themes without morbidity and which straddles the divide between Kolkata and Calcutta. Ironically, Parambrata Chattopadhyay, the lead actor of Bhooter Bhabishyat andKahaani-a Bollywood film in a Bengali setting-is the grandson of Ritwik Ghatak, whose films helped define an earlier genre of Bengali films with definite political sub-texts.
Yet, it is impossible to escape from politics altogether. Bengal is probably the only part of India where public intellectuals are not only taken seriously but also perceive themselves to be politically consequential. It is a far cry from the days of the Coffee House when self-professed intellectuals split hairs, engaged in rarefied banter and proudly flaunted their fringe status. Thanks to the advent of energetic Bengali news channels, the ambiance of the Coffee House has been transferred to the studios-with interesting consequences.
The CPI(M)'s excesses in Nandigram and Singur first brought the public intellectuals into the limelight. They certainly played a major role in undermining the legitimacy of the Left Front and transforming the image of Mamata from a stormy petrel to that of a liberator. On her part, Mamata assiduously cultivated and wooed the public intellectuals-although her first preference was always Tollywood stars with mass appeal-who, on their part, injected her slogan of Poriborton (Change) with a dose of gravitas.
Any alliance between a hard-nosed politician and ponderous individuals with equally rigid certitudes was destined to be ephemeral. Within a year of assuming power, Mamata has antagonised many of those who flaunted the banner of poriborton. The Park Street rape and the arrest of a Jadavpur University lecturer for disseminating the "vanished" cartoon proved to be the flashpoints of estrangement. From being liberator, she was abruptly dubbed fascist and spiritedly denounced in modest-sized protest rallies and TV studios. The administration's crackdown on the ultra-Left-inspired squatters' agitation along a stretch of the Eastern Metropolitan bypass even inspired the iconic international rent-a-cause celebrity Noam Chomsky to protest.
The net outcome of the revolt of the buddhijibis has been two-fold. First, the intellectuals, always ill at ease with a lady who played by her own rules, responded to peer group pressure and reverted to their cosy corner as the conscience-keepers of the few. Secondly, the intellectual class was split between those who saw Mamata as a female Caligula and thebiddyajan, berated as captive intellectuals, who felt that she ought to be given more time to settle down.
What is interesting, and runs counter to the impression that Mamata is a stand-up comic, is that the Chief Minister continues to enjoy the confidence of those who seek to use her tenure to detoxify the state's institutions. The Mentor Group entrusted with restoring the quality of Presidency University has functioned without political interference, and its efforts to attract members of the Bengali diaspora back to the city's academic life are at an advanced stage. Yet, there are fears that the present wave of negative publicity may actually deter people from abandoning tenured posts overseas and in other parts of India.
The recovery of Bengal was a term that was first heard in 1972, after Siddhartha Shankar Ray gave the CPI(M) a bloody nose, using means that wouldn't have stood the scrutiny of human rights today. Since then, Bengal has undertaken many recovery ventures and has seen each one coming unstuck. Will Mamata's enterprise be any different?
Hoping for instant results is patently unrealistic. Mamata made a laughing stock of herself at an investors' meet by taking a roll call of the assembled worthies and demanding to know whether or not they will sink their money in West Bengal. After what happened to the Tatas in Singur, it is unlikely that the state will ever be the first choice of manufacturing industry. The mentality of the state has undergone a definite shift from the cholbe na ('won't do') days but there is still an under-utilised army of professional agitators who see every capitalist venture as a blood-sucking exercise. Their numbers may be small but their capacity for obstruction is considerable. There is a disproportionate political price a government has to pay for pressing the accelerator of economic growth.
Harsh Neotia of the Bengal Ambuja Group and one of the biggest investors in the state may have a point when he warns against comparing Kolkata with Delhi and Bangalore. In Kolkata, ambition invariably takes second place to the quality of life, with lots of civility and oodles of culture. In a competitive world, this makes the city a wonderful retirement home-affordable domestic help, modern healthcare and a compassionate environment.
Kolkata began life as the East India Company's foremost trading outpost. Today, it is trade and its ancillary services that keep the city vibrant. Yet, every chief minister since Independence has tried to bolster industry among a people who have developed a temperamental aversion to the rat race. Mamata isn't a great champion of capitalism as a historical process. Unlike Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee who imbibed classical Marxism, she scarcely understands its dynamics. Ironically, it is this liberation from ideological profundity that may better equip her to guide a state that is most content seeing itself in the light of Bhutan's innovative Index of National Happiness. No wonder Rabindranath Tagore, and not Karl Marx, has remained the guiding force for a city that is rediscovering its lost soul.