The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Is “eternal” a word that could be used of Calcutta'

“In Bengal to move at all is hardly ever done/ But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” These are the last lines of the song; by the time it arrives at these lines, it’s made its way through various putatively siesta-prone cultures: “The Japanese don’t care to, the Chinese wouldn’t dare to,/ Hindus and Argentines sleep firmly from twelve to one.” However, according to Noel Coward, the songwriter, “Englishmen detest a siesta.”

Coward, in spite of his travels, had probably never heard of Bengal except as an adjective in “Bengal tiger”; but it provided him with an internal rhyme that he located strategically; in an old film clip, he pauses between “In Bengal” and “to move at all”, and as he completes the line, “is hardly ever done”, the audience breaks into callous laughter. The song is an affectionate portrait of imperialism, if such a thing is possible, and it proposes a theory: that, while the rest of the world slept at midday, an endearing band of Englishmen went about and colonized the earth. It’s one of the most coyly disingenuous accounts of daylight robbery ever composed.


Those lines came back to me on the day of the bandh more than two weeks ago. If going out into the midday sun ensured the success of the imperialist project, then surely sleep and inaction might also be forms of passive resistance' Bandhs, then, are a residue of the anti-imperialist struggle; but are we living, today, in a colonized nation-state' Forms of non-cooperation supported by a government (although the West Bengal government made several throat-clearing, admonitory noises during this particular CITU-sponsored bandh) that are directed, in the end, against the workings of the government itself are peculiar, to say the least. Might we say that our political parties have multiple psychopolitical personalities, some that belong to daylight and governance, others to the long night of some perennial freedom struggle'

Similarly, the matter of rallies and demonstrations. Like bandhs, rallies give expression to the pleas and demands of those who have no proper political representation (this, too, is a legacy of anti-colonial resistance; it originates at a time when “subject” nations had no, or little, recourse to political self-representation). That is precisely why they’re such an important instrument of democracy. In a city in which — unlike other cities in the world — we actually see almost no genuine political gathering of citizens, what we usually have are disruptions actively supported by one major party or the other, parties we’ve elected to government or to acting as a responsible opposition in Parliament or the legislative agencies. Again, this is unusual; we don’t see the Republicans or Democrats taking out processions in Washington or New York; we don’t see paid-up members of the Conservative or Labour parties shouting slogans on the streets of London, holding up traffic. In all democracies, parliament is where we expect parties to be at work, redressing their grievances or, more accurately, ours. Why, then, in the case of Calcutta, are they — or their cadre or members or rank and file — on the streets' Rallies are an exercise in democracy, true enough; but if political parties, rather than ordinary people, begin to constitute rallies, as is by and large the case in West Bengal, are we to conclude that these demonstrations signal a breakdown in, or failure of, the parliamentary system' For it is in Parliament and other institutional forums which we have no access to that we wish to see political parties at their task, fighting, on our behalf, perceived political and economic injustices.

Should we say, then, that rallies in our city are commonly a form of political muscle-flexing; a form of what is known in Britain as the “party political broadcast”; an advertisement of the party’s power and strength' Such advertisements are, of course, admissible during the period leading up to the elections; and a certain amount of disruption of public life might be tolerated when parties are campaigning. In West Bengal, however, are we to conclude that election week, or election month, lasts for five years' For what other reason do we have what’s in effect ceaseless campaigning by one party or another' The worthiest of causes, as I’ve already said, must be addressed by political parties in the institutions we’ve given them access to through the all-important and expensive process we call the elections; or else, however hoarse they might shout themselves about howsoever noble a cause, they aren’t doing the job we’re all paying them to do. A politician and an activist are not the same thing; neither are democracy and activism synonymous. Activism plays a robust role in a democracy; but it is not a substitute for it, or for governance.

Amitava Lala’s court order has now become history. No one could seriously imagine that it would come to pass; because no democratic society can or should ban rallies. But we should recognize the order for what it was: not so much an expression of the law, as a gesture of protest; not a literal statement, but a provocation, a metaphor. It asks us to rethink the semantics of the issue, because the issue is mired as much in semantic confusion as it is in emotion; to differentiate between political demonstrations that protest a cause, and gratuitous meetings and events designed to coerce us into acknowledging the presence of a party.


Imperial legacies of a certain sort are, or should be, an embarrassment to both colonizer and colonized. For instance, the Victoria Memorial. History has not made it familiar. It still has the air of having dropped from the sky on to the Maidan. This is Indo-Saracenic architecture gone badly wrong; a monument afflicted by a form of filaria against which, during the days of the raj, prophylactics were evidently unavailable.

The inside is another matter; I discovered it only recently, when invited to deliver a lecture there. I did so, with Clive hovering behind me like an unwanted dinner guest (I had my back to him; he was pointed out to me later). Since then, I’ve been there twice. When you step in, it’s as if the monument has been taken inside out. Standing in the Princess Hall, I felt I was not so much in the Victoria Memorial as in a place of transition between the Victoria Memorial I was familiar with and the one I’d now arrive at, in a city I hardly knew. Volume and solidity had been replaced by endless space and shade. It’s like putting your foot in a sock and finding yourself entirely swallowed up by it; the inside is extraordinarily mysterious. I see now that the outside of the Victoria Memorial is actually a skeleton, an exaggerated stocking, and that the body is concealed in the inside.

This interior is a natural exhibition space, a place for people to mill around, stare, and move on. Just as the Musee d’Orsay, converted from a railway station into a museum that houses Gauguins and Cezannes, is haunted by what it used to be, so that art-lovers who stream into it unconsciously approximate the gestures and impatience of those vanished Parisian commuters — so visitors to the galleries in the Memorial, from the city’s outskirts, from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, from other countries, appear to be in the throes of travel. I hadn’t realized that the Victoria Memorial is not so much a commemorative site as a terminus for itinerants until I stepped inside it.

This might be one of the reasons why no local ever informed me of the existence of the marvellous Calcutta Gallery — a narrative, in prints, paintings, photographs, commentary, and simulated street scenes, of the city from its nebulous inception to, roughly, the Seventies. It was recommended to me by two friends visiting the city, a South African and an American.

There are some striking things here, artefacts that engender a telling confusion. For instance: two large oil paintings by Thomas Daniell, Distant View of the Esplanade from near the Fort William c.1785, and Calcutta from the Garden Reach. When you look at the first picture, you think, for a second, that you’re looking at a copy of a Canaletto, possibly The Grand Canal: Looking East from the Campo San Vio. Then you see the three redcoats fishing in the foreground, the “native” dinghy before them, and, on the right of the Hooghly, the imperial buildings in front of the governor’s house. A barricade of wooden poles planted in the water has been bent in one place, rather like the railings dividing the traffic in Dhakuria or Gariahat.

The first exhibit is a miniature scene in an aquarium-like box, of Englishmen who’ve alighted on the muddy banks of Sutanuti. Next to it is inscribed an entry from the Fort William Factory Records: “August 24, 1690. This day at Sankraul ordered Capt. Brooke to come up with his Vessell to Chutanutte where we arrived about noon, but found ye place in a deplorable condition, nothing being left for our present accommodation & ye Rains falling day and night.” It’s as if the English found in Sutanuti not the mysterious East, but something dense and intractable as the New World. My feet planted on the ground of this obdurate metropolis, I am reminded of a handful of lines by Borges, about the founding of Buenos Aires: “And was it along this torpid muddy river/ that the prows came to found my native city'” Further, “On the coast they put up a few ramshackle huts/ and slept uneasily”; much later, “A cigar perfumed the desert like a rose.” The final couplet: “Hard to believe Buenos Aires had any beginning./ I feel it to be as eternal as air and water.” Is “eternal” a word we might use of Calcutta'

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