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CHANGE OF A DIFFERENT KIND

- Birthday wishes for a city at once real and imagined, fresh and decaying, energetic and lazy

Last week, it was that time of year again. A time when there are furious debates over whether August 24 really is Calcutta’s birthday or not. The Calcutta Municipal Corporation and the West Bengal government both marked the city’s 300th birth anniversary in the year 1990, acknowledging the date that had been widely accepted as the day on which Calcutta was ‘born’. However, a ruling by the high court, stating that August 24 cannot be deemed the city’s birthdate, effectively put a stop to the brouhaha over the city’s tercentenary.

The English tradesman and East India Company administrator, Job Charnock — who was widely considered the founder of the city of Calcutta, and who lies buried in the grounds of one of the city’s oldest churches — is believed to have landed at Nimtala Ghat on August 24, 1690, and been made the lessee of three villages by Sabarna Roy Chowdhury, who was the owner at that time. The three villages were Sutanuti, Kolikata and Gobindopur. However, in 2001, the Sabarna Roy Chowdhury Paribar Parishad filed a public interest litigation at the high court, asking for a probe into the date and presenting a copy of a 1698 deed which reportedly showed that the three villages had been leased out to Charles Eyre, Charnock’s son-in-law. An expert committee of historians — among whom were Barun De and Arun Dasgupta — was formed by the court to examine the problem. De had asked whether it was logically possible for a city, which has a landmass that naturally expands over time, to have a definite birthdate.

After the high court ruling, agencies that are backed by the state stopped marking August 24 as the city’s birthday. However, several private organizations continued the practice, even though the date remains contested to this day. But what if we could cut our poor, beleaguered city, already groaning under the weight of paribartan, some slack and allow it the luxury of a birthday, just as we allow ourselves one every year? It doesn’t matter when it is celebrated. A birthday is always welcome.

If birthday enthusiasts had had their way, then last week would have marked the city’s 323rd birthday. And if the city had its way, one wonders how many things it would have liked to change about itself. Trying to list everything about the city that one would like to alter would boggle the mind. If the city had a day, what would it choose to change? And indeed, where would it start? For example, could it aspire to a day where the traffic on its roads moved like clockwork and ordinary people managed to reach their destinations without much trouble, owing to the fact that taxi drivers and autowallahs chose to not refuse passengers at whim? Could Calcutta, just for a day, offer its women the freedom to travel the length and breadth of their city, alone, if they so pleased, without the slightest fear of harassment or violence? Or could it give its people cause to celebrate just because they saw that Esplanade and Chowringhee were not paralysed by some rally?

But that would be up to Calcutta entirely. I, for one, am sure of what I would say if the city asked me for one suggestion. If I had to advise my beloved, sad city to do something fun on its birthday, I’d tell it to use its numerous potholes and road craters, otherwise such a hazard to human life, to its advantage. Imbued with the birthday spirit, it could inexplicably widen these perilous ruts — it’s a birthday wish, let us dispense with logic for a while — to mysteriously swallow up every person blithely peeing or spitting in public. (This is because there are few things I hate more than the sight of people doing either of these in public, and the city is hypothetically asking me for a suggestion anyway.)

There are many ways in which the residents of Calcutta might wish to celebrate their city’s birthday. I would be absolutely delighted with a day when I step out of my house and do not see that man who does his business against the wall of the neighbouring building everyday, and in my heart of hearts know that the ugly, stone chip-filled crater just a foot away from the spot might have had something to do with his disappearance. What a birthday it would be!