When the Left Front government changed the name of Calcutta, it overlooked the fact that the “C” in the city’s original name stands for controversy. The city has been stalked by controversy ever since the British alleged that the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud daulah, had perpetrated the horror called the Black Hole into which a number of British lives had disappeared. The verdict of historians that nothing of the sort happened has done nothing to blunt the edge of this particular controversy and the calumny associated with it. Since then, Calcutta has been the site of various chambers of horror at different points in time. A former prime minister had declared the city to be dying. But the city continues to live if after a fashion, as many, including some of its loyal inhabitants, would say. The creeping rigor mortis does not deter the denizens of the city from being extraordinarily and unnecessarily prickly about any criticism of Calcutta. Witness the recent brouhaha about the pronouncements made by the deputy prime minister, Mr L.K. Advani. He made the mistake of commenting that he did not care much for the city. It could be passed over as a statement of personal likes and dislikes. It is entirely possible that a politician like Mr Advani, used to drawing large crowds wherever he goes, is miffed at the less-than-lukewarm reception he gets in Calcutta.
But the people of Calcutta, if their spokesmen are taken as being representative of popular opinion, were unwilling to treat Mr Advani’s statement in such a casual way. They have taken it as a genuine slight and the over-reaction is no doubt prompted by the colour of Mr Advani’s ideology. The response of the people of Calcutta could be ignored if it did not hide a deep paradox. Most Calcuttans have a strange love-hate relationship with their city. The love is manifest in their loyalty and their prickliness to criticism and in their conscious drum-beating about Calcutta’s unique cultural heritage and ambience. The hatred is articulated in the alacrity with which most Calcuttans leave the city given even half a chance. And once gone, they never return. Those who cannot leave continue to live but with loud moans and groans. Their life often becomes an unending litany of complaints and their aspirations are directed towards Mumbai or New Delhi or further afield to New Jersey or the Silicon Valley. This is especially true of the young who, because of the utter paucity of good educational institutions in Calcutta, prefer to make their future away from the city. Such people, and those who live here and complain, will not perhaps object to the spirit of Mr Advani’s statement. Calcutta, for them, is not the city of first choice, but a choice forced on them by the accident of birth or parental preference.
If the conclusion suggested in the previous paragraph is valid — and all impressionistic empirical evidence seem to suggest that it is — then there is an element of bad faith involved in the hostile response to Mr Advani’s statement. The hostility is perhaps person-specific rather than statement-specific. Calcuttans have objected to Mr Advani making the cricticism rather than the criticism per se. Criticism of Calcutta is old and tedious and most of it emanates from the citizens themselves. Self-styled exiles from Calcutta continue to live in Calcutta, make criticisms and bemoan their fate.