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Slices of India

April 2008
Slices of India

O Kolkata!

A visitor notes how the City of Joy’s bleak conditions shattered his image of it as a colonial and cultural charmer.


Though I always go to my hometown in northern India through Delhi, this time I wanted to chart a different route: I wanted to go via Kolkata. The temptation was to make a brief stopover in that great city before moving on to my final destination, a little known small town in Bihar.

I had been to Kolkata once before. Then, I was just a gawky high school kid and the memories of that visit had faded over the years. More than a decade later, time’s myriad illusions had stirred the desire to see the “City of Joy” once again; the urge to experience this city as an awakened adult was simply overwhelming. I had seen and vicariously experienced the city through so many Hindi and Bengali films.

One night I landed with my wife at the Netaji Subhash Bose International Airport, despite knowing that a madly hot May was not the right season for visiting Kolkata. Its humble airport welcomed the weary travelers who, while fighting off the midnight yawns, were still trying to come to terms with the spartan ambience after having experienced the flashy Changi airport in Singapore. The immigration queue was not very long but the loquacious officers took their own sweet time, asking a number of relevant and irrelevant questions. “Welcome to the land of argumentative Indians!” I told myself. I felt I was home.

As we ambled off to the baggage claim area, a number of people, most probably the airport staff, came forward to help us with the trolleys. They were wearing official identity badges. “You need a trolley, sir?” one of them asked. I got suspicious as I saw trolleys lined up near the carousel. Since when was the airport staff supposed to help passengers with trolleys? Saying “no thanks” with a polite smile, I helped myself with a trolley, and carried on with my luggage. We chose to declare nothing at the customs (green channel) as we were not carrying anything contraband or beyond the prescribed limit, though I was apprehensive if the customs officials would want to see my camcorder or laptop receipts. I was well prepared in any case.

After exiting the arrival hall, I exchanged some dollars at a lousy rate. Moments later, heat and anger began to go north in my head. Since I had booked the hotel room from the next day only, we were supposed to spend the night at the airport. I looked around the airport lounge, bought a bottle of mineral water of a dubious brand, helped myself with a cup of coffee, and got tired all right within half an hour. Morning was still a couple of hours away. Though we had been advised not to venture out of the airport past midnight, I began to think of ways to get out from there to the comfort of a hotel room. My hotel was about an hour’s drive from the airport. Going there now was out of question. I had to find a quick alternative for spending the night comfortably.

When I shared my harmless thoughts with the shopkeeper who had sold me the overpriced water bottle, he pointed me towards the airport manager. A portly man in his late 40s, the manager readily agreed to help me. He made a phone call and asked me if I was ready to pay about a thousand rupees for a night. “How is this place?” I asked him.

“Don’t worry, it is a good place to stay; sometimes, even I stay there,” he said with a wink, assuring me of proper comfort. And I thought I heard him say, “Even I have a stake in there.” While I was lost in the world of indecisiveness, his voice nudged my senses awake. “If you say yes now, they will send you a cab in five minutes,” he added, his betel juice-smeared lips curling into a question mark. Like all good-natured Indian husbands, I demanded a minute from him to confer with my wife.

Ten minutes later we were inside a Maruti van. Unobtrusively, while I conferred with my spouse, the manager had managed to squeeze in one more unfortunate shelter-seeker, an academician from some northeastern state university. We could do nothing but practice tolerance in this matter. Notwithstanding my wife’s protests, I had opted for this deal, and now in the dead of the night while the taxi maneuvered through the deserted roads of Kolkata’s suburbia with a stranger as a co-passenger, I was muttering obscenities to myself. It seemed as if I had invited myself to a nice mugging session in the city of ploy.

After about fifteen minutes of rash driving, the taxi pulled over in front of a three-story building in a godforsaken cul-de-sac. One look at the building and I thought, “Gosh, who would know if we were to be killed here.” However, I reigned in my negativism to face the bellboy–receptionist duo of the hotel. The 20-something bellboy, who surprised me with his Bhojpuri-stained Hindi in the Bengali heartland, picked up our bags. The receptionist, a boy barely out of his teens, made me sign on a register. “You know the rate here, right?” he asked. “Yes, I do,” I said. “The manager told me.”

I got our luggage inside the room. The room was homely with a double bed, a wardrobe, and a dressing table. The attached bathroom had a noisy exit fan. The air-conditioner and the television worked fine. We started preparing to retire for the night. Next morning we had an overpriced breakfast from the hotel’s kitchen. The quality of the food was not better than that of the typical roadside eateries but considering it the taste of India, we gave it our best shot, only hoping that our digestive powers would be strong enough to support this assault. After paying the bill, we hired a taxi and started for the next hotel in Kolkata’s heart.

This journey, from the suburbs of Kolkata to its heart in Park Street, dashed all our romantic dreams about the city. What we had in our mind was the elegance of a city that we had seen in films like Jagte Raho and Do Beegha Zameen. Though we had seen the more contemporary Ronald Joffe’s City of Joy, we believed the city depicted in the film was the inner city, the poverty-ridden slum side of Kolkata. We were sure that there would be a counterpoint to that, a more contemporaneous twenty-first century side of it. But what we saw in those two hours, and later over the next few days, was completely heartbreaking. If one could describe it with a single underpinning motif, the most befitting would be the soot-filled benighted belly of a dilapidated cobweb-infested haveli, crumbling, dying, and in shambles. What we saw was a gut wrenching theater of human and material degradation. Even the Kolkata of my last visit, the fleeting images of the city that I had in my memory, seemed much more attractive than the one I was seeing and experiencing now. In hindsight, years ago the Kolkata I saw was still the big metropolis for me because then I was coming to her from a nondescript mofussil town in northern India. Age, experience, and travel had changed my perspective.

What we saw now was depressing: mad traffic, air pollution, decades-old public transport vehicles in various stages of decay. The majority of the people looked so miserable and tired. We hardly saw anyone smiling. There were tobacco shops every few meters, and at times, I saw many ill-clad minors (child laborers) freely smoking. Huge hoardings could be seen on roadsides. Any available white space had either political slogans written over it or some form of graffiti adorned it. The only uplifting thing visible amid all the chaos and decrepitude was the resilience of the members of the Bengali middle class, especially their womenfolk. They were able to maintain their dignity, which seemed so out of place and miraculous despite being trapped in this dystopia of squalor and despair. One of the images that has stayed with me, even after so many months of the journey, is that of a sari-clad calm young woman who was on her way to somewhere in a rickshaw, while people all around her, on bicycles and motorbikes, and in buses and three-wheelers, were howling and hollering about in a traffic jam. Her placidity, with more signs of cheerfulness than of resignation, was such a jarring sight, but it was enough to uplift our spirits.

The taxi driver dropped us at Hotel Akash Ganga. I had reserved rooms in this hotel online from Singapore. I looked at the hotel and I did not see any reason to regret my decision to stay there.

“Give me twenty rupees extra sir, besides the meter fare,” the taxi driver pleaded, breaking my reverie. When he saw the “what for?” expression in my eyes, he immediately added, “You saw the traffic sir, and you saw how with great difficulty I brought you here.” I was too exasperated to want to pick a fight with him, and so, I handed him the money and checked into the hotel.

In the next few days, to cut a long story short, whatever we saw and wherever we went, our impression about this decaying metropolis did not improve dramatically. No wonder people had been calling Kolkata a dying city. The disappointment was not about the people per se. Many of them, during our interaction, were quite civil, even gentle. The taxi drivers were not rude despite driving their old rickety Ambassador cars, except during the evenings or after nightfall; tired after a day’s work, they might refuse to go to a particular location. But they were not cheats and most charged the fare by the meter. That’s a wonderful mark of discipline and civility.

In fact, the gloom arose more from seeing the crushing poverty all around and seeing the ill-maintained buildings and pathetic civic infrastructure in the city than anything else. It seemed that Kolkata had stopped changing with the times. It felt as if the city existed in a time warp; while other cities had progressed and moved on, Kolkata with its colonial elegance had stopped in its tracks, and whatever beauty it possessed had been washed out of it over the decades.

We went through a harrowing experience in the famous New Market. As soon as we landed there, a posse of dalals (middlemen) landed on us, leading us into shops in the market, promising us to fetch the moon and get us the best bargains. Strangely, they carried empty baskets with them and wore badges. When I asked them, I was told that the empty baskets were symbols of their trade. It was so difficult to get rid of them. Even if you got rid of them, they recognized you and later would taunt you for not engaging them for your shopping.

Apart from shopping and traveling, eating was another area where we exercised caution. Most of the roadside eateries were only poorly maintained and they served passable food. Kolkata has, however, many interesting restaurants that serve excellent Bengali food. Bengali sweets are famous and are found aplenty throughout the city. Every street has plenty of teashops and cafes but sanitation is wanting except in branded cafes such as the Baristas.

The “City of Palaces” also boasts of imposing attractions such as the Howrah Bridge and the Victoria Memorial, a memorial built with Jodhpuri white marble for Queen Victoria. The latter looked so cheerless and desolate that for a moment I thought it had fallen into disuse. When we finally entered its sprawling premises—entry was free—we were not allowed to shoot with our camcorders. Moreover, a signboard announced that carrying “plastic bags inside” was banned. I was carrying two plastic shopping bags but thankfully no one stopped me. We strolled around the monument, marveling at its architectural splendor. We could also spot some young couples, locked in embraces in various poses of intimacy, on the benches by the pond or hiding behind the hedges. Lovers in all cities, be it in Delhi’s Lodi Gardens or in Colombo’s Botanical Gardens, exhibit the same behavior. Love, like death, is a great leveler. It almost always finds for itself the same physical expressions, no matter when or where.

Though Bengalis are known for their humorous banter, I could experience none whatsoever during my stay in Kolkata. Perhaps I would have experienced it had I interacted with Kolkata’s artists, intellectuals, painters, and writers. However, one funny little incident took place just a day before our return. It was early morning and I was standing near the North Eastern Railways reservation office. I was reading and deleting some old SMSes from my mobile phone when a middle-aged man, clad in kurta and dhoti, walked up to me and stood next to me, and began looking down at my mobile phone. I kept doing what I was doing for some time but at the same time this man standing next to me without any care in the world intrigued me. He stood there as if he were my friend. Running out of patience, soon I asked him, “What is the matter, man? What do you want?” He replied, as nonchalantly as one could imagine, “Nothing. I’m just looking.” Even then he did not move. He walked off, maybe disgustedly, only when I angrily pocketed my phone.

For a moment, I was annoyed by this stranger’s intrusion but was also amused at his attitude. This man, most probably a Bihari laborer, found a mobile phone such an object of his attention in this day and age in a metropolis like Kolkata! I hope he did not have any criminal motives, but this incident said a lot about the city. I had never experienced anything like this in any other city—such a thing would be normal in a rural market but not in a city.

On my way back, as I reflected, Kolkata in sweltering May came across as a city whose elites had either deserted it or who lived a secluded life in complete isolation from the city’s hoi polloi. It seemed like a city that was strewn with the half-lived lives of listless laborers and dispirited merchants. It was as if those who carried the cultural legacy of Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray had vanished into the soot-filled benighted belly of this dilapidated cobweb-infested crumbling haveli of a city.


Kolkata Coda: Reasons for Optimism?

“Where were the privileged Kolkatans?” I had wondered during my stay in the city. “Are they mourning for their beloved city? Or, are they busy silently shaping a new city.” I got my answer when, away from the City on the Hoohgly, I began reading newspaper reports about the rise of a new Kolkata. Salt Lake’s Sector V, for example, is bursting with 55,000 people crowding 6.5 million square feet of call centers and BPOs. A new township called Rajarhat is also coming up fast, with gleaming office towers, malls, and apartment blocks. Reports suggest that like Delhi’s fast-developing suburbs of Gurgaon and Noida, this new Kolkata’s citizens, too, have a whole new lifestyle: nightlife, 24-hour bars, and all that jazz.

The prospects look great. The West Bengal government is determined to be India’s third-biggest IT state by 2010. Tata Consultancy Services is going to grow its center in Kolkata from 7000 to 20,000 over the next three years. The government is handing out an “employment generation subsidy” of Rs. 20,000 for each recruit that an employer trains, grooms, and develops. To name just another initiative, The India Design Centre plans to get into making VLSI (very large-scale integration) microprocessors.

Ah, so Kolkata is forever.

I wish I could have also seen this new “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” Kolkata. However, will Tagore’s rain song (Brishti pore tapur-tupur, Node elo ban, Shib-thakurer biye holo, Tin konya daan?) still sound so romantic in this new city? I doubt it, but who knows? The present-day Bengalis might have gotten tired of all this nostalgia.

Singapore-based Zafar Anjum’s fiction has appeared in The Little Magazine and First Impressions, and he is the author of two books.

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