| Digger’s delight
I have always shied away from writing about the condition Calcutta’s in, much as I might speak about it in private — the subject seems inexhaustible, and I have nothing new to say about it. Calcutta remains the subject of infuriated exchanges in traffic jams; a private despair. In public, the subject is taboo. A fatalism grips the air; only the very stupid or innocent, you feel, waste their time talking about Calcutta. The rest migrate or get on with their lives.
Calcutta is a state of qualified but perpetual abeyance, comparable to that of a grand old house in the middle of a long property dispute. Everyone must have seen these houses. The provenance of the dispute is now forgotten; the original disputants might now be dead. Part of the family is elsewhere; part of it — the less fortunate part — lives in one section of the house. The retainers’ families have multiplied; their grandchildren occupy other sections of the mansion; and yet other rooms are occupied by squatters who have, by now, lived in them for years.
For all this, the house looks abandoned; when you enter it, you’re surprised to discover so many lives, so many livelihoods, inside it. It’s a makeshift existence, but strangely tenacious. You’re intrigued to find that, although the house is in severe disrepair, restoration work is in progress. A wall is being restored in one place; about fifty feet away, a window is being mended. There seems to be no master plan for renewal; it’s as if disconnected, ad hoc impulses from different members of the different families bear fruit temporarily in these measures, and then die out with lack of impetus.
“We can’t let tomorrow slip from our grasp because of the petty problems of today,” Nehru had said — or used words to that effect — to justify his programme for industrialization after independence. Somewhere along the way, you feel, Calcutta became one of West Bengal’s “petty problems of today”, for reasons quite different from Nehru’s. Somewhere along the way, Calcutta became not only a historical and economic problem, but a moral, political, and ideological embarrassment; one can think of no other reason for its devastating neglect. There have been achievements, in what is loosely and almost piously called “rural Bengal”, and we’re immensely grateful for them; those achievements, and their rather complex significance, have already been discussed in two very good articles in these pages, by Kaushik Basu and Abhirup Sarkar. I won’t go into the fact that Bankim’s golden and green land is, as one journeys to those rural places, covered everywhere in soot and dust, from branch to leaf. Calcutta is the subject of this piece. The paper I read in the morning tells me of a man “in his early twenties, dressed in tattered blazer and trousers, with a yellow band on his forehead,” someone “who is not all there”, skillfully managing the traffic at the A.J.C. Bose Road-Elliot Road crossing in the absence of a “proper” constable. This is the archetypal “man without qualities” — I’m surprised no one invented him before he sprang to being — in whom the city lives as much as he lives in it.
I live in Ballygunge. The changes that have been taking place around here are bewildering. One fine day, the trees on the main road were uprooted. The pavements were dug up; it became dangerous for my daughter to walk to school in the mornings; we now send her there in the car. For months now, we’ve been witness to the drama of tramlines being removed, and then replaced upon a new concrete surface. The progress has been slow and miraculous; because, as you seldom see people at work, all progress becomes a miracle. Further on, toward Gariahat, where a small part of the road has been made concrete, and the rest is scarred with pot-holes, you’re reminded that, for the last six years or so, Calcutta has had the worst roads of any metropolis in the world, except, possibly, Kabul.
Behind each one of these bizarre changes, constructions, and developments, there is, you sense, an intangible network of decisions, agreements, and transactions. That is, while it’s easy to take refuge in anthropomorphizing Calcutta, as many of us are tempted to do daily, and believe that it is a living organism that has a perverse life of its own that can’t, or won’t, be controlled, the opposite is true. Calcutta is a social and political continuum that looks horribly naked; it is actually deeply opaque. Rarely does a sign tell us why a particular project has been embarked upon, and what its aims and schedule are. Instead, we’re offered the opportunity for religious self-flagellation: “Today’s Pain Tomorrow’s Gain”.
There must be some other reason for this besides idiocy, carelessness, and lack of imagination. There are a number of very clever people in this city, I think, who are benefiting from a persona they’ve cultivated, of stupidity and coarseness. In the end, it’s we, who sneer at such people for the work they do badly, and for their manners, who are made fools of. Week after week, people are killed on the road by speeding buses: no other city in the world would tolerate this repetition. Not long ago, a number of people died on Bijon Setu in this manner; a minister said: “Well, what can we do' After all, anything can happen. The ceiling might fall on my head tomorrow.” An extraordinary statement: what kind of a man sits in a room in which the ceiling might fall at any time' Later, you realize it’s quite a clever response. The minister is making use of coarseness, of outrageousness; the stakes he’s interested in are probably quite different from what we think them to be. At first, the statement sounds like an example of Calcutta’s savage, outspoken obduracy; later, you realize it’s an instance of this city’s profound opacity, a coded language.
Not that Calcutta doesn’t have, even today, some fundamental strengths. Strength number one: its largely “secular” (for want of a better word) character. Besides London, Calcutta is the only major metropolis in the world that has had several reasons to flirt with the extreme right (a sizeable, economically empowered non-local population; a large community that belongs to a minority religion), but has managed successfully to contain that impulse; to find, in the means of economic despair, a means to peaceful co-existence.
In its way, this is quite extraordinary. Calcutta, of course, has seemingly had to fight less hard for this right to peaceful co-existence than London did; this might be one of the Left Front government’s most impressive achievements. There are curious parallels between Britain under Labour in the Sixties, and Calcutta and West Bengal today. The suffocating, almost extortionist, hold that trade unions had on the Labour Party is too familiar to us here; and Britain’s “three-day week” in the early Seventies, under the supervision of Ted Heath’s moribund Tory Party, is here, because of our frequent bandhs, an unofficial reality. There is, though, one intriguing difference between that Britain and this West Bengal; “multiculturalism” began to take roots in Britain in the reign, paradoxically, of Thatcher, and not under Labour rule. Here, in Bengal, as we know, our experience has been different. Post-Independence economic stagnation and multiculturalism — not so much as a vibrant aesthetic expression as a delicate social equipoise, a balance, we’ve almost come to take for granted — have oddly coincided. In this context, the banning of Taslima Nasreen’s book in the name of this delicate balance, and the near-silence on the matter amongst the city’s writers and intelligentsia, is a startling betrayal.
Every day, the city becomes more and more unliveable. The middle and upper classes, instead of organizing themselves into responsible forums that demand to know what’s happening to the place they live in, are retreating — retreating not only to other parts of the world, but to “country clubs”; country houses; health spas; theme and heritage parks. This is where we’ll now find them, or each other, once we take the trouble to arrive there via the broken roads. Everywhere, we see variants of utopia: Udita; South City; Hiland Park. The demography and landscape are changing, from the cramped and mysterious clusters of neighbourhoods that used to be Calcutta, and the featureless suburbia of Salt Lake, to these walled cities, with schools, shops, clubs, gymnasiums, where we can, as a sign puts it, “live like the world does”. These walled cities — our tomorrow — are neither locality nor suburb: they both inhabit the city and rival it; they mimic its contours while deliberately, and necessarily, expunging its existence.