The Telegraph
Tuesday , April 8 , 2014
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The chief minister of West Bengal received the prime minister of the United Kingdom last year; she then urged him to help her turn Calcutta into London. She can only have meant the exteriors, for she is well aware of the intellectual and emotional richness of Bengal, and would not dream of turning her state’s persons into latter-day Englishmen. And she was right in her desire for two reasons: first, because the metropolitan landscape of Calcutta retains much that it owes to British culture and architecture; and second, because London still has the masterpieces created in that tradition. It carefully maintains edifices constructed in every century from the 15th onwards. It would never think of tearing them down, or even of modifying their exteriors in an unbecoming fashion.

Unfortunately, while London may carefully preserve palaces and fortresses going back to the Tower of London, they are being obscured by newer constructions. Thanks to the unreasoning love of Britons, their old buildings stay on forever, and leave no space for new ones. Some new structures have come up on the sites of defunct factories, markets and so on; since they cannot expand sideways, they have reached for the sky. The result is that London’s streets have become even darker. Londoners do not mind that, since they are used to artificial lighting even by day. But they can neither see the vistas they were used to in the era of low-rise buildings, nor get a perspective of their most beautiful heritage buildings. The Queen is well protected from this spreading obscurity because the entire area around Buckingham Palace is immune from reconstruction. But the city is getting overshadowed by tall buildings; even worse, the London as seen from across the Thames is losing its stately charm. The British could ban such modernization; but they are good businessmen. They appreciate the Russian oligarchs and Chinese tycoons who want to settle down in safe, orderly London and are prepared to spend millions for a toehold. So they do not want to stop their city’s upward reach.

Calcutta faces no such dilemma, for no moneybags are in danger of rushing to it. It can keep its beautiful buildings. But they are getting old and decrepit, and crumbling into dust. They need to be repainted, strengthened and beautified. That costs money. The government does not have it, and the chief minister’s relations with Delhi have not been warm enough for the Central government to show generosity. If she charms the new prime minister, he may well be more large-hearted. But she should think of other options. In particular, most buildings in central Calcutta belong to businesses, and should be refurbished by them. They would do so, however, if they see some hope and are given an example. One way she could give them a lead is to turn the Writers’ Buildings into a heritage hotel.