The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Anything beautiful in Calcutta is targeted by apathy and avarice

Returning at night to the mother-city recently, the driver brought me via Rajarhat and I saw the sign-posts of the future. Frighteningly, those anti-oases of glass and concrete in the middle of an empty expanse looked pretty much like the present and the recent past of the city I was escaping from — New Delhi, or to be precise, the city that should now be called Delhi-Noida-Gurgaon-Dwarka. The difference, of course, was that in the ‘G’ part of D-N-G-D the desert is real whereas here it is in the process of being created, sculpted, out of verdant green.

Then, leaving the bypass, and getting into the maul of Park Circus, the city looked like it always has, good old Cal where plus ça change, where the lights are always a bit dim, where the car-horn-assault continues unabated, where everything, including newish flyovers, looks crammed, shoddy and tired.

God knows this column has railed on many occasions about the relentless, criminal uglification of the city, but this time my return was made more painful by the time spent in Paris, London and not least the aforementioned DNGD since my last stay here. Paris, as everyone knows, is a very beautiful city, and the French government and municipal authorities are crazily bold in preserving as well as adding to that beauty by continuously creating the most innovative public spaces. London, too, has managed to play catch-up with Paris and other European cities; a walk on a sunny summer afternoon along the Thames from, say, the Tate Modern to the South Bank or the London Eye is a genuine pleasure. In both Paris and London, there is a sense of aesthetic awareness, and of comfort and mystery — normally two warring things — intertwined in the most amazing way. “So far, so what'” you might be saying, “Two great leeches on the poor of the world, Britain and France, are spending their ill-gotten gains to beautify their capitals. Big deal!”

But then what would you say about DNGD and the new metro that’s still expanding at a rate which in India can only be called fabulous' Yes, large parts of Delhi are still brutal and hard on the eye and body, but the Metro system and the work that’s being done around most of the stations is actually quite startling: the station entrances are large and well-designed (if not yet wheelchair-friendly), more lines are being added, and, wherever possible (for example, Connaught Place), the transport system has been integrated intelligently with the city’s public spaces which themselves have been upgraded. There are no concrete pill-box entrances covering entire sidewalks and no ghastly ‘murals’ made with sad-coloured tiles, such as we have here. The whole Metro thing has actually changed the architecture of a normal Delhiwalla’s day, adding reliable mobility to a city which, till 15 years ago, had the worst public transport in the Cal-Bombay-Delhi triumvirate. After digging through 15 years of my life, the Calcutta Metro failed to achieve one-fifth of what these people have done in five.

Someone will remind me of the thick ring of modern ghettos circling Paris, the tinder-box bainlieus that exploded not too long ago, others will point to the great swathes of London that are not salubrious, the estates, the rows and rows of grey towers, standing like J.K. Rowling’s Dementors, sucking light and happiness out of the humans who live in them or around them. Yet others might slam shells of uranium-tipped statistics into their argue-guns and let rip about Delhi, and how large populations of working-class people have been, literally, scooped up with earth-movers and flung into barren wastelands far away from their lives and jobs. No one is in a position to deny any of these facts, but to hang on to them as a defence of Calcutta’s atrocious planning is disingenuous.

Forget the 21st century, we in Calcutta haven’t even made the transition from perversions of early Sovietique architecture to the second half of the 20th century. Let’s face it, most of the decent public building in this city has been executed by the British, 70 or 80 years ago. Leave aside Delhi, this is not even something you can say of Jaipur or Ahmedabad. No matter who has ruled at the Writers’, Congress or communist, Hand-Front or Bam-Front, the divestiture of the beauty and humanity of this city has been carried out with a Stakhanovite energy by both parties. In this, let us without quibble hand the first 30 years of vandalizing misrule to the Congress and the last 30 to our friends who are still with us.

One constant argument from those in power has been: “This government gives priority to the poor, the working class, the struggling masses, not to fripperies desired by the middle class.” Right. So, where then are the great public works changing the lives of the majority of Calcuttans' Do we see ignored shaheb-paras, and wealthy mohallas surrounded (actually, in this city, interwoven) with wonderful public housing for the working class' With parks and public spaces for the children and adults to wander' With museums where the ordinary citizen is invited to enter and come in contact with the world' No, what we see is petty-capital sticking multi-coloured Lego-brick constructions in the middle of collapsing old buildings. We see anything old and beautiful, whether built by Brit or Babu, being targeted with the precise smart-bombs of apathy and avarice. We see a huge flyover slashing across the face of the ‘National’ Museum. We see another long one stretching from Park Circus to Rabindra Sadan with no entries or exits in between — a laughing point for taxi drivers, but also perhaps the one truly post-modern, ironic, art installation in the city. We see this city’s colonial heritage first ignored and then, when it’s brought to unrescuable decrepitude, ruthlessly broken down to be replaced by yet more concrete and plastic horrendousness.

As a Calcutta boy, I grew up hating the superciliousness of south Bombay brats convinced they were living at the centre of the Indian universe, and living as far away as was possible from the stinky armpit that was Calcutta; as an adult, I’ve suffered the patronizing tones of Delhiites as they explained to me how marginal my hometown actually was. My internal defence to all this was always the wit, the remnants of beauty, and the psychic and human scale of my city. Now that all that is nearly gone, I am left without any argument. In this, the real chagrin for someone like me is that DNGD and even Bombay-Navi Mumbai might soon be far more beautiful, and far nicer places to live in than Calcutta, not just for the rich but also for lower-middle-income groups and the working class.

Using it’s own construction of the ‘working class’, this government can rail against the United States of America. Jyoti Basu can come out of retirement to protest against joint military exercises with the US and the 123 ‘sell-out’. The national government can be threatened by the hubris of old and not so old comrades. But what about the ugly Amerification of this town' What about the butchering of beauty by the basest ‘American’ instincts that Jyotibabu himself inaugurated and presided over, and that his successors are continuing with such energy' Will this city be an original, humanist beacon of urban planning, a place of light and laughter showing the way to its neighbours Patna, Bhubaneshwar, Dhaka, Guwahati, Rangoon and Bangkok' Like hell it will. Once the people in power used to replicate spent ideas from China and the Soviet Union, but now what Calcutta is becoming is the worst of America. If we continue the way we are going then, in about 15 years, this city will resemble nothing so much as an aesthetic Chernobyl crossed with a beat-up, shabbier version of downtown Milwaukee.

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