Kolkata or Calcutta – having read so much about the city over the years, there is a picture off Kolkata imagined in my own head. All the Bengali authors (translations or original) and I believe I have read a lot - have loved and decorated the city through their books.
Bibutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Rabindranath Tagore, Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Sankar, Sharadindu Bandopadhay, Satyajit Ray, Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Anuradha Roy – they all have based their stories, characters, plots so beautifully in and around the city highlighting its culture, heritage, social, lifestyles, richness and family structures. The only other Indian city that comes close to being the famous muse of authors is ‘Bombay’ which is a separate discussion in a separate blog.
Rudyard Kipling said - “Thus the midday halt of Charnock – more’s the pity! Grew a City as the fungus sprouts chaotic from its bed.”
VS Naipual said - “The British had built Calcutta and given it their mark. And though the circumstances were fortuitous – when the British ceased to rule, the city began to die.”
Sir George Trevelyan quoted in Calcutta: Old and New - “The place is so bad by nature that human efforts could do little to make it worse.”
18th century saying quoted by Sumanta Banerjee - “Forgery, swindling and falsehood, these three make up Kolkata.”
Lot of people have said a lot about the city, good, bad as well as ugly. Never having visited the city, the image in my head was only based on what I had read and heard. And as they say ‘Never believe what you hear, test it with your own eyes’. So after a long wait I finally got the chance to visit the city and I was excited as well as sceptical – ‘Finally I was seeing the city of my imagination” or ‘What if it's not even close to what I read and imagined.’ Only way to resolve the confusion in my head was to just go and see it.
So how was it you ask! It was as I expected it to be – a city of past in the time of now. A metropolis with glorious symbols of a bygone era. The concrete jungles are not allowed inside but the swampy marshes and wrath of time is decays it from inside. It had its past, its monuments, its Ghats, its culture, but the era was different – it was not the 1800s of Aprajito, neither 1900s of Tagore, nor 1960 or 70s of Satyajit Ray. It was Kolkata NOW. There was some charm around the Park Street, the Victoria Memorial, the Howrah Bridge, and the Ghats of Hooghly. But The old heritage British monuments are now surviving the bureaucracy of West Bengal Government. The hand propelled boats on the Ghats have now been replaced with polluting, noisy, motor boats. The College Street of original editions was now flooded with cheap second hand college books. The honking trams are barely surviving against colourful, rash, local public buses. Majestic Chowringee street was spilled with illegal hawkers. It was dirty and crowded with piles of garbage here and there. People chewed paan or gutka and spat everywhere and anywhere. None of this was mentioned in any of the books I read.
Did they write about some other city! No! they wrote about another ERA. They wrote about their association to the city, of their childhood, of their growing up, of their youth and their livelihood. They wrote about the parts of the city they loved and I came to love along with them. To find those parts in my short visit is impossible.
This was ‘The Kolkata’ and not ‘The Calcutta’ that the authors wrote and I read about. But I am not shocked as this is the story of all our cities – Bombay to Mumbai or Madras to Chennai or Delhi to New Delhi. It’s not about changing the name of a city – there are reasons and history to it which is the will of its people and their representatives. It is about changing the identity of a city. The British association can stay but it’s about Indian-ising it our way, the way it would have been if it wouldn’t have been the other way.
In conclusion, it is the magic of writing and reading that can create an entire new city in your head. A city of your own imagination and creation. The magic of all the places you can travel to every time you open a book without ever visiting them and vice versa. Here, I end with words of St. Augustine of Hippo: “The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”