Sunday, June 03, 2012

Kolkata battles with its schizophrenia

By Swapan Dasgupta

There were two stereotypes of Kolkata that jostled for primacy amid the huffing and puffing over the midsummer euphoria surrounding the victory of the Shah Rukh Khan-owned Kolkata Knight Riders in this year’s IPL.

The first were the voices of dismay from intellectuals and Leftists disgusted by the show of frivolity at Eden Gardens last Tuesday. What compounded the offence in their eyes was the enthusiastic participation of a Chief Minister in a party dominated by Bollywood and Tollywood stars. For those appreciative of a Jyoti Basu who rationed laughter and a Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee who found inspiration in revolutionary verse and subtitled films, a leader at one with popular culture was more than a departure: it was heresy. By facilitating a carnival on a humid May afternoon, Mamata Banerjee struck a devastating blow at the over-refined self-image of Bengalis. As one angry Communist MP spluttered on TV that evening, the celebrations had nothing to do with either cricket or Bengal.

Yet, the seemingly irrational over-exuberance also corresponded to a parallel stereotype: that of the excitable Bengali. In the rush to deify the effete Bong, the outsider’s perception of those who inspired Rudyard Kipling’s ‘banderlog’ (in Jungle Book) is often glossed over.

The cruel truth is that Bengalis have preferred collective assertion to individualism. The first Test match in India to experience a full-blown riot happened in Eden Gardens on New Year’s Day in 1967, and was marked—or so legend has it—by West Indian players making a mad dash from a tear-gas filled stadium to the Grand Hotel. In his day, Jawaharalal Nehru called it a “city of processions” and by the time his grandson ruled the roost, it was dying from enforced holidays, when traffic stopped and street cricket took over.

It is tempting to relate last week’s spectacle of a lakh of people gyrating to the rhythm of rock groups Bhoomi and Chandrabindu and celebrating KKR’s success to the Bengali penchant for hujuk—an evocative term that signifies infectious craziness. In the past, Kolkata has gone berserk over Pele, Nelson Mandela and—for those with longer memories—Nikita Krushchev and Fidel Castro. Was the spontaneous frenzy over Shah Rukh and his team in keeping with a tradition of excitability?

The answer is self-evident. From the five days of worship and gluttony during Durga Puja to Shah Rukh’s number with Juhi Chawla, Kolkata has loved street parties and carnivals. Why, even the annual Book Fair sees more food consumed than books sold. There is an inverse correlation between economic activity and collective frenzy, and Kolkata is living proof of that. Why then the feigned outrage over Mamata’s party for Shah Rukh?

The answer, it would seem, can be located in Kolkata’s institutionalised schizophrenia. Like Ireland, middle-class Kolkata is blessed with a diaspora larger than the resident population. The exiles, who look back wistfully at the city they grudgingly abandoned, have nurtured an image of a Kolkata that corresponds to their own self-image: gentle, cultured, idealistic, romantic and blessed with an innate sense of decency. It is not that such a Kolkata has ceased to exist, but that this constitutes a fragment of the many enclaves that make up the city.

In a wonderful novel Calcutta Exile set in the 1950s, Bunny Suraiya narrated the touching story of the intersection between the Anglo-Indian community of Ripon Street and the upper-class Bengali of Ballygunge. It was set in a city that was marked for its creativity, commerce and the good life. That Kolkata disappeared with the advent of the Reds. In its place are multiple ghettos of despondency, each bound by the feeling of having been left behind. For today’s Ryan family, the grand-daughters are in Melbourne and the Mookerjee heir is comfortably placed in a Manhattan job. An unchanging Kolkata is just a memory they want to cling on to.

No city in India has been the object of so much pitiable condescension as Kolkata, a city that has forgotten the taste of success. In the KKR victory the city finally had something to celebrate. For India’s other metros, preoccupied with life and business, T-20 victory would have been just one of those things.

Sunday Times of India, June 3, 2012 

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