Patrice Riemens on Fri, 21 Aug 1998 19:26:56 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Calcutta, or the city 'at the edge of forever'

(This is a - slightly edited - translation of a forthcoming article in the
"Geografenkrant," a Dutch geographical journal)

"We are in the thick of the sprawling city of Calcutta, and I am one of
around ten million people living in this city. This is a city which is
loved and hated. Kipling called it "the city of dreadful night". Lord
Clive, the founder of British India, called it "the most wicked place in
the universe". Nehru called it the city of processions, of political
manifestations", and Guenther Grass called it "God's excrement"; and you,
Reinhard Hauff, you have probably survived the first shock and have
started liking Calcutta."

(Filmaker Mrinal Sen in conversation with his German collegue Reinard
Hauff in the latter's film "10 Days in Calcutta" (1987).


There is a passage in Satjayit Ray's film "Pratidwandi" ("The Adversary",
1970) when the young hero, drowsy and sweating on his way to the upteenth
purposeless job interview, periliously hangs on the platform of an
overcrowded double-decker bus (a "RTX", like in London). Seeing the film
in the early nineties in "Nandan", Calcutta's art house, one mostly
notices that the bus is not overcrowded by any current standard, and that
the broad boulevards of the city are uncongested and spiky clean. Almost
thirty years after the film was shot, RTXs, and their successors, unweldy
double-decker truck combines, have vanished from the streets, and so would
seem the municipal cleaning lorries. The question as to how far urban
dilapidation, Calcutta's hallmark for the past decades, can be pushed
remains unanswered. But then, it is the perfectly wrong one.

This is may be why film and fiction provide the best approach to a city
whose mythical reputation ("Oh Calcutta...") seems to preclude any
necessity to get acquainted with the real thing on locale, as any attempt
to do so looks dicey, pointless, or futile by advance. Thus, a good
introduction to the Calcutta atmosphere is another Satjayit Ray
masterpiece, "Mahanagar" ("The Big City, 1963), where, as the credits
scroll by, the camera focuses on the trolley of a tram-car following its
haphazard course along the disjointed electric line. With a regular
monotony enhanced by a dull tabla beat, a spark or a flame fuses, while on
both sides, the ornated, monumental facades of banks, offices and other
institutions pass by against the background of a brewing thunderstorm.
The reference to Calcutta's fame as "the grandest city built by Europeans
outside Europe" could not be starker.

Which unriddles in one stroke the aura of horror in which Calcutta is held
in the Western mind. It is not so much the - usually exagerated - reports
about abysmal poverty, shocking filthiness, disgraceful overcrowding, and
the complete collapse of the urban infrastructure, not to mention the
near-legendary agonizing destitutes at every street corner (mercifully
whisked of just-in-time to one of Saint Mother Theresa death-camps) which
rattle the senses, but the uncannily familiar cityscape where all European
architectural styles can be found, from Palladian Baroque to pre-post
modern Bauhaus. Knowing this, for Calcutta to have been often described
in terms of a post-nuclear, rather than of a terminally dilapidated
Indian, or "Third World" city, comes no longer as a surprise.

But after having served for more than three decades as Doomsday Urban
capital of the World, Calcutta now gladly has handed on the torch to
younger mega-cities such as Manilla, Sao Paolo or Mexico-City which are
plunging into the accelerating downward spiral of urban immiseration that
comes with the globalazing trends their elites have so blissfuly embraced. 
In India too, the concept of "Brazilianisation" is making furore in the
real of urban developments. This term encapsulates, among other things,
the growing gap between rich and poor, the tendency of the former to go
for conspicuous consumption of "international" goodies and the adoption of
a life-style inspired by television soap-series. It mostly comes to
symbolise the intense desire of the (newly) propertied classes to sever
all links with the poor, whose destitution, jealousy, or even mere
presence, they have come to loath and fear. This is the sort of
developments Calcutta, in her very typical way, is paying lip-service to,
but is not partaking in any substantial measure. Sale of self-contained
condominiums on the road to Dum-Dum airport is a no-goer. The mighty rich
still have themselves conveyed in chaufeured Hindustan "Ambassadors"
("Ambies", in Calcutta parlance), a sparsely redisigned, massively
under-engineered remake of the Morris Oxford of 1957 vintage. (It is
still being manufactured, and even being exported - to London!). Public
utilities like telephone and electricity will fail at any given moment,
and this totally irrespective of neigboorhoud. In fact, a look at the
municipal ground plans learns that there is not one single "ward"
(district) in the city that is is entirely free of "bustees" (slums). 

Calcutta remains for sure the most singular of the five Indian "metros".
This latter term is the appelation of the five largest Indian cities:
Bangalore; Delhi-New Delhi, Mumbai ( ex-Bombay), and "Chennai", the
allegedly more authentic name of Madras (by the same token, Calcutta
should at least be re-spelled "Kolkatah": heaven forbids!). Bangalore is
the cadet of this set. A computer technology driven push -highly
unstable, it would appear - has propelled this former retirement heaven
for high ranking civil and military officers into a chao-dynamic glas,
steel and concrete edge city without proper center., its lush gardens
gone, and its mellow, faintly European climate, thoroughly chocked to
death by the exhausts of innumerable scooters. Bangalore represents the
ideal to which all other metros aspire, but for the fact that they are
terminally weighted down by their culpable past in the
"License-Permit-Quota Raj" of the first fifty "self ustained" years of
Indian independance. This applies to Delhi/New Delhi, which despites its
all-out expansion cis-Jamuna or otherwise, still eludes true urban
character, whereas Madras/Chennai seems satisfied with its status as
capital of the mildly unserious Tamili lands. And where globalisation is
alleged to hold the key to the future, Bombay's - sorry Mumbai's -
delirious claims to a Sassanian certification as "Global City", surely
must stretch credulity to its outer limits...and far beyond.

Calcutta, on the other hand, being in the grips of a near permanent
recession since the late forties, sticks to its by now almost fossile
'second wave" economic activities, and has little truck with the Central
government's policies of "opening up" the Indian economy. The West Bengal
administration may pay some lip service to the wooing of foreign
investors, but for Mr Keith Wilson, CEO of Bata, and the nearest
equivalent of Bill Gates in the world of shoe manufacture, old fashioned
"marxist-leninist" trade unionism is still alife and kicking: the other
day, he was stabbed in the hand while visiting his restive domain in
Batanagar. Meanwhile, but for a few delusive billboard and the stray,
probably disfunctioning cellular phone, globalisation at street level is
yet anywhere to be witnessed. Calcutta still basks in its exceptionalism,
in which a propension for culture and a disinclination for things material
remain paramount values.

The entrance to this reality is again being provided by fiction. Amitav
Ghosh's vaguely SciFi novel "the Calcutta Chromosome" (1997) is a fine mix
of orientalist religion, malaria research in the previous century, and IT
in the next one, but is foremost a peregrination through the arcanes of a
contemporary, yet indefinable Calcutta. French filmaker Nicolas Klotz
took the same approach in "La Nuit Bengali" (1988), his reinterpretation
of Mircea Eliade's novel "Maitreyi". The story is set in the forties, yet
was filmed in full exteriors, with trams, "ambies" and handriksha's moving
in and out of the screen without cinemagoers noticing any anachronism. An
expedient conclusion, already made by anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss
in the late forties, is that time has stood still in Calcutta. In "Les
tristes tropiques", Levi-Strauss details how travels in far-away,
"backward", or "primitive" places, is a dispolacement in time rather than
in distance. In part, this does indeed seem to hold for Calcutta. To
take just one example, Calcutta's tramway system, the last of its sort in
Asia, cannot be described otherwise than as an extensive working transport
museum. To the keen observer, however, the time trip may be rather
described as one leading back to the future, and we willl shortly return
to that.

But presently, another recurrent theme in the Calcutta lore is that of the
mystery. Many writings about Calcutta view the city as an enigma, and
try to prize open its alleged code. This is the line in John Hutnyk's
enquiry into the motives of young, Western "backpackers" to engage in
voluntary work in Calcutta's high-profile charitative sector. "The Rumour
of Calcutta" is for sure an appropriate title, since the city
is.indeed...rumoured, to exist by virtue of "adda", the in no way
pejorative Bengali appelation for gossip. It is remarkable , despite all
that separates them, that both the novelist's personnages, and the
anthropologist's informants talk in terms of a "cypher". "Everyone thinks
that Calcutta is saying something. That it is a message, a sign, and all
we need is to crack the code." One would rather not advise "Suzie",
Hutnyk's informant, to look into Ghosh's novel for an answer. It is there
allright, but the outcome as a notch too reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia
Marquez's ending of "Hundred Years of Solitude" for psychological sanity.
Thus, since we have to do with what one author has elegantly termed "an
enigma enclosed in a mystery" (or the other way round), we are making no
further progress, a realistic Calcutta experience by all means, but this
aside. There always remains, however, a questionning about the
questionners, or to recast our problem: in Calcutta, who is "everybody"?

This points us back to "The Grandest City built by Europeans outside
Europe". Calcutta may be the most European-looking city in India, it is
at the same time the least "Western". This paradox may be explained by
historical developments. There is a shared opinion in Calcutta that
something went grieviously wrong with the city's past: it should never
have taken place. The core question is: why did Calcutta had to
relinquish its primacy? The ever cursed Viceroy (Governor General) Lord
Curzon, after partitioning Bengal in 1905 (it became East Pakistan after
1947, and finally Bangla Desh), had the capital of India moved to Delhi, a
measure implemented in 1912 (whereupon New Delhi was build & finalised by
1927). Economically, the ageing first and second wave industries, and a
silting up harbour were no longer competitive against Bombay and the West
Coast of India by the early seventies. By the 1981 census, Bombay was
also beating its rival on its speciality: masses of people, and had become
India's number one popultaion centre. Calcutta also payed the highest
toll for "Partition" in 1947. As the country was carved up, it lost its
natural hinterland in East Bengal, but had to admit and assimilate
millions of refugees, something that happened again when Bangla Desh was
born amidst gruesome violence in 1971. The consequence of this "injustice
of History" is a pervasive denial reaction, which lends that peculiarly
'surealistic" flavor to working and living in Calcutta. Basically,
Calcutta flaunts its cultural and artistic superiority to the rest of the
nation, and declines to join the pack. The local variant of the communist
party of India (dubbed "Marxist") has been in power for the past
twenty-five years. A myriad of coffee houses, always packed, humm with
discussions about Derrida or the Venice Biennale - or with the purr of
aging gentlemen dozing under their favorite paper, "The Statesman". This
oldest English daily in India is still printed and distributed from its
centrally located palatial premises, sports a scarcely believable staff to
readers ratio of 1 to 1000, beside maintaining an in-house cycle repair
shop, an own laundry, and a company restaurant dishing out quite
creditable Chicken Marengo.

Calcutta's aversion of currently fashionable globalising trends find its
origin in a long history of contraryness. Calcutta was the craddle of the
Indian independance movement, way back in the previous century, and the
opposition against British rule was always several notches more violent
than in the rest of the country. The undisputed historical hero of
Calcutta - Tagore and Lenin sharing a good second place - Subhas Chandra
Bose (aka "Netaji", an epitheton beter left untranslated), considered the
Mahatma a whimp, and liaised with the nazis and the Japanese during WWII.
As the world-wide student protest movement of the late sixties took a true
revolutionnary turn in Calcutta (traffic constables were ruthlessly shot
from their platforms), the international business community called it a
day. The last "managing agencies", holding companies of sorts born out of
the left-overs of the East India Company, which were in British hands were
sold of to Marwari businessmen, while the Central governemnt in New Delhi
choose to turn its back on Calcutta, branding it as a "dying city".
Calcutta's negative image may well be even stronger in India, where it is
based on alleged facts, than outside, where it is mainly folkloric.

But in the meanwhile the international community, and especially the then
fledgeling but fast expanding "development industry" caught up with the
ground level realities in Calcutta. It did not like what it saw, and
serious concern arose about "the city which looked predestined to be the
first to go down under the weight of its own misery" (Geoffrey Moorhouse).
An international panel of town planners was send on locale. They reported
back that " they have not seen human degradation on a comparable scale in
any city of the world. This is the matter of one of the greatest urban
concentration in existence rapidly approaching the point of breakdown..."
The most worrying part was a possible "domino effect" among other large
world cities: "If the final breakdown is to take place, it would be a
disaster for mankind of a more sinister sort than any disaster of flood
and famine. It would be a confession of failure..." (Frederic Thomas,
quoting a report from the end-sixties). The calamitous tune was set and
apocalypse was the keynote. But by 1971 the newly created "Calcutta
Municipal Development Authority" (CMDA), banked up with near dicatorial
powers and high-spirited expertise from the Ford Foundation, embarked on a
massive and truly ambitious restructuration programme. Twnty-five years
later, progress has been substantial, whether in the field of sanitation,
drinking water supply, basic food distribution, primary health care,
schools and public transportation. Taken as a whole, slums in Calcutta,
pace Pilkarna ("City of Joy") of cinematic fame, are in beter shape than
their equivalents in Bombay or in other Indian cities, was it only because
the government is prevented from not caring about them. Contrarily to the
other metros whose governing bodies are mostly harbouring wet dreams about
a techno-cybernetic future, where the "problem" of poverty has somehow
been solved (presumably by doing away with the poor), Calcutta has never
denied the existence of destitution in its midst. It has even taken the
title of Lapierre's book and Joffe's film as a title to fame cum touristic
manifesto. And even Mother Theresa has by now been annexed into the
official iconography of the city.

But what about a little Calcutta experience? Best is to leave the
material deprivation, of people, animals, buildings, public places, and
public transport alone, and to open one's ears to the rumour of the city.
Which goes in many tongues. While Bombay goes wild in an orgy of
"Maharashrtra-isation", and wishes to abolish English, the very language
of globalisation it pretends to embrace - even changing its own name into
the unwieldy "Mumbai" in the process - Calcutta holds to its own, bizare
linguistic protocols. Over half the inhabitants don"t even speak the
supposedly local lingo. Bengali may be the language of culture and
politics, and culture and politics are paramount in Calcutta, but serious
business is conducted in other tongues. Bengali (also known as "the
French of India") is first and foremost the language of the "Bhadralok"
the local equivalent of the Polish 'slatsha" (i.e. a plethoric,
impoverished, and ineffective gentry). Members of that class, even when
fallen on hard times, are not reputed to gladly engage in such ghastly
occupations as running businesses, or plain wage-earning. Marwari, a
caste of business people hailing from far away Rajasthan, speak a Hindi of
sorts. They own between them nearly all companies making a profit (the
West Bengal government "operate" the remainder, hundreds upon hundreds of
so-called 'sick units", turning out any kind of produce in the jute,
transport, or manufacture sectors, including that of "Indian Made Foreign
Liquor"). Managers, professionals and traders generally speak English.
Artisans, riksha-pulers, and other "coolies" speak the language of the
neigbouring states where they come from, generally Orissa or Bihar. While
these "vernaculars" are on the rise in other parts of India, often as
result of regional and/or religious fundamentalist fervour, English
remains Calcutta's lingua franca of sorts, where it even has proletarian
roots, especially among the slowly vanishing caste of "Anglo-Indians", so
touchingly portrayed in Aparna Sen's film "36, Chowringhee Lane" (1991).

Calcutta's cosmopolitan substrate may be historic, it nevertheless remains
very real. Strolling in the old center of town, one may so encounter an
Armenian quarter, a couple of synagogues, or even a Greek Orthodox church.
The latter towers above Kalighat tram depot (opposite Mother Theresa most
famous "mourroir", obligingly mentioned as exit destination in Kalighat
Underground Station). Its parish consists of less than ten souls, but
the Greek government decided to endow it lavishly a few years ago: it has
been comprehensively restaured and equipped with all modern worship
amenities (There are also 20.000 Greek Orthodox christians in the tribal
belt arounfd Arambol, 80 miles north of Calcutta, the avatars of a
somewhat excentric missionary effort in the late twenties. They too
benefit from the gentle, if somewhat haphazard, ministration of the State
Church governing body in far-away Athens). Calcutta's Chinese district -
the only real Chinatown in India - is alas a shadow of its former self.
There is one temple left, a few traditional shops, two soja-sauce
factories, and the ghost palace "Nanking", once one of the pooshest
establishments East of Suez. The India-China war of 1962 and the rhetoric
excesses of Maoism did a lot of damage to the community, which scattered
all over the subcontinent (it seems that India's best Chinese restaurants
is now to be found in a small town in Gujarat). Nowadays, the Calcutta
Chinese, still some 30.000 in number, have regrouped in Tangra, a drab
industrial district to the East of the city. This environment of heavilly
polluting tanneries is quite in line with Calcutta's horrendous reputation
of ecological collapse, but behind high walls or in the deep recesses of
factories built as miniature fortresses, wealthy famillies inhabit true
Ming palaces. And culinary afficionados have now for long found their way
through muddy and unwelcoming blind alleys, where authentic Chinese fare
is served behind unprepossessing facades - at five star hotels rates.

All this cannot hide that Calcutta's contemporary fame remains firmly
encapsuled in the term decay. Decay in Calcutta is as pervasive as it is
indefinable. It seemd to be so much engrained in the nature of the city,
that the authors of the only - and very commendable - Western travel guide
on Calcutta have elevated it into an "art form" (Insight Guides, 1992).
But then tourism to Calcutta is next impossible to accomodate in any known
category, save may be the extremist, post-modern ones like "ultimate" or
"ultra-hip". The trickle of "ordinary" tourists is of course
substantially augmented by the inflow of charity visitors. Beside the
occasional VVIp flown in for a "significant" encounter with Mother Theresa
(Lady Di was one of the last, and now both are dead, Calcutta's PR
industry is somewhat in a cleft stick), there will be hundreds of young
Western volunterrs at any given time busying themselves at the Little
Sisters of Charity's establishments or in Dr Jack Preger's street clinic.
Outsiders and "profesionals" are contemptuous of these activities. But
the fact is that Calcutta must be one of the last places in the so-called
developing world where idealistic but inexperienced youth from the North
can get to something, now that "development aid" has turned into a huge
inward-looking closed shop bureaucracy.

Charity volunteers share a small, centrally located district of the "White
Town" with the floatsam of India-going scene for which Calcutta" main
attraction is its tolerance and the ever-availability of affordable and
firrst-rate 'substances". Sudder Street is the main artery of this
fully-contained backpackers ghetto, where the hospitality trade bears
names such as "Blue Sky" (cafe); "Rambo" (beer-bar); "Paragon", "Maria" or
"Modern Lodge" (hotels). This latter establishment - home base to
Hutnyk's "participant observation" research drive - is the most famaous of
them all, and even maintains a full-fledged web-site. More often than not
Indian customers are unwelcome in these guest-houses so that the
Westerners can enjoy a "home away from home", escape the crowds outside to
be among themselves and generally relax according to their own life-style
between two days of hard toil amongst the poorest of the poor. Save for
the walk or shared taxi trip to their occupations, the temporary
inhabitants of this remarkable little district maintain next to no linkage
with the rest of the city as a whole.

And this results in the stray "foreign tourist" having the run of a city
of 14 million inhabitants almost to her/himself: but for the
above-mentionned "travellers", there live less "mzungus" in Calcutta that
in your average Tanzanian district headquarters. In order to penetrate
to some extent Calcutta's fascinating specificity a longer stay is however
a prerequisite. Besides securing appropriate quarters - Sudder Street
area will definitely not fit the bill - it is important to flush out the
mist of catastrophism in one's head. Calcutta itself has abandonned this
inclination long time ago, if ever it seriously had it at all: a few years
back there were huge municipal bill-boards over road intersections with
the slogan "Calcutta is for Ever!". Before long, the accidental tourist
will come to share Frederic Thomas's assertion that to-day's Calcutta is,
in the words of Kipling, "a city above pretense". It mainly denotes an
attitude among citizens and authorities which is closer to realism than to
fatalism. And which might well point us a possible road within what some
authors have already called "modernity beyond repair". That is the only
pragmatic approach to the global metropolitan crisis in an age that is, as
a whole, increasingly taking the character istics of the "Third World" as
we knew it. In this fast approaching future, there might be an
alternative to "Brazil" after all. It is called "Bengalisation".

Literature and URLs:

Geoofrey Moorhouse's classic: 'Calcutta', London/Basingstoke, Penguin 1971
Paul Vattin et all 'Calcutta': Insight Guides: Singapore, 1992.
Ashok Mitra Calcutta Diary: Calcutta, 1985 circa
John Hutnyk The Rumour of Calcutta: London, Zed, 1996;
Frederic Thomas Elegies on a City beyond Pretense: New York, EastGate,
Amitav Ghosh's The Calcutta Chromosome: New York, Avon Books, 1997.

Wired tout court:
Check out the "official site of West Bengal" at: first. Don"t forget to look at "links"
Enjoy Trevor's Fisher's hilarious "backpacker tourist" site after that: 
The Statesman (daily):
John Hutnyk's site (great on Bhangra music also!): was at uni Manchester,
but apparently gone 404!

(translated by patrice Riemens)
(3985 w)
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