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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Big town delusions, small town truths

[An article on Calcutta I wrote for an anniversary edition of the Times of India, Kolkata edition, April 2, 2010]

In sheer size, Kolkata has grown exponentially; at the same time,
its horizons have shrunk. If it is to be all that it thinks of itself as,
it must progress well beyond the reality of nostalgia as its biggest
industry, bandhs as its greatest success story, and beyond the
present opportunistic economy

By Swapan Dasgupta

While channel-surfing one lazy evening, I came across Karan Johar in
conversation with the lovely Bipasha Basu. Speaking about her childhood and early years, the Bong belle mentioned that she had grown up in Calcutta (as it was then called and what I am most comfortable calling it), blah, blah.

“A real small town girl,” retorted Karan, wallowing in his own cleverness. Bipasha looked a bit bewildered. A small town called Kolkata? Either Karan was an air-head par excellence or one of the canniest observers of contemporary India.

The celebrity Mumbaikar’s condescension towards this corner of eastern India reminded me of the time in 1972 when, as a wide-eyed 16-year old, I boarded the Rajdhani Express to Delhi and St Stephen’s College. Let alone any feeling of inadequacy in the Capital of India, the handful of us who wisely fled the academic chaos of Calcutta secretly harboured a sense of superiority. Compared to our classmates from Patna and Jaipur, not to mention the public school types from Doon and Ajmer, we knew that we had seen the bright lights of big city life — which they clearly had not.

What is more, we had also imbibed a good enough dose of the pseudo stuff to warrant that cultivated intense appearance - mainly to impress the girls. We knew the pronunciation of Camus and could, without even the hint of a concealed snigger, call something a Kafkaesque experience. We had even seen subtitled Japanese and French films.

Nostalgia is a bourgeoning cottage industry in today’s Kolkata. When Stephen Court became an inferno, the probashi Calcuttans exchanged stories of languid afternoons in Flury’s (where there was a waiter in the mid-1970s who was the spitting image of Brezhnev) and boozy lunches at Peter Cat. The more ancient among us looked back wistfully at the time when the Armenian College rugby team literally used to pulverize the opposition. Where are they now?

One after another, the landmarks of old Kolkata have disappeared. My parents spoke of the demolition of the Senate building of Calcutta University. I saw the grand front façade of Bengal Club being replaced by the Metro Rail headquarters, a building of incredible ugliness. In 1969, there was the ceremonial removal of all the grand bronze statues of the icons of the British Raj. With special glee, the United Front Government of the day kept the de-installation of Lord Curzon till the verylast. The grandest of all the Viceroys and, ironically, the man who protested most against the transfer of the capital to Delhi in 1911, was being made to watch the winners rewrite the past in their own image.

The banishment of the imperial bronzes symbolised the end of gracious Kolkata. In 1970, Firpo’s and its Long Bar was turned into a market for the rag trade; the charming flea pit of Tiger cinema has gone; there is no Skyroom for fine dining, with its unspecified dress code, courteous service and an unchanging art-deco interior; and Sir Biren Mookerjee’s grand mansion on Harrington Street (the prehistoric name of Ho Chi Minh Sarani) and even Statesman House on Chowringhee Square sit in anticipation of the demolition man. If the levellers had had their way in 1969, the memorial to the Old Queen would have probably been renamed too, just as the Ochterlony Monument was.

Cities change and none more so than those that live through profound historical flux. There is precious little left of the Kolkata of my youth that can be passed on to another generation. That, perhaps, was only to be expected. Indians are particularly insensitive to history; they move on. Calcutta too has moved on, to a new Kolkata, to the marginalisation of the old North Kolkata, to the over-congestion of the once spacious expansion south of Park Street, to the creation of suburbs that stretch to Baruipur and beyond; and to the creation of a spanking New Town in Rajarhat.

In sheer size, Kolkata has grown exponentially. At the same time, its horizons have shrunk. Calcutta may not be the archetypal small town — a term we still associate with Bhubaneswar, Jamshedpur, Ranchi and Durgapur. But it is definitely a provincial town--vibrant, but provincial

As with most things, there is an obvious economic explanation attached to the change in status.With the exception of tea, the old industries that sustained Kolkata have either died or are in terminal decline. Jute belongs to history; light engineering was devastated by the crippling power shortages of the 1980s and 1990s; and other heavy manufacturing was done in by the mindlessness of labour militancy. Kolkata has received the crumbs of IT; politics quashed the emergence of a hub for automobiles; and financial services never recovered from the flight of capital that began in the 1970s.

Kolkata merely leads the way in the number of successful bandhs.

The city is experiencing an unending crisis of opportunities. Life is good for those with an inherited house and an assured modest income. The trappings of the erstwhile big city are still in place: decent schools, good medical support, agreeable clubs with reasonably-priced food and drink, domestic help and friendly neighbourhoods. But this is offset by a collapse of future prospects.

The tell-tale signs of an improvised, jugaar economy stare at the visitor. The ubiquitous hawkers are everywhere, selling everything from cheap electronic imports from China to everyday clothes at unbelievably low prices. For the itinerant vendor who comes into the city each day from places as afar as Burdwan, trade is a facet of the subsistence economy. He competes against settled retailers, leveraging the absence of overheads and taxes to competitive advantage. Both the hawker and the small retailer are, however, confronted with a common challenge: the size of the overall cake doesn’t seem to be getting any bigger.

It’s no longer a problem confined to the people who, in happier circumstances, would have sustained an organized services sector. The growing impoverishment of the abhijat middle classes has resulted in need-based Bengali entrepreneurship. Initially, there were the fast-food outlets run by venerable mashimas and the younger son in two ground floor rooms or even a garage. The more ambitious ones have converted charming old houses into small restaurants. The successful ones even have valet parking and accept Visa cards.

In the past year, the leveraging of prime real estate for extra income has taken another turn.Kolkata today boasts of innumerable ‘guest houses’ located inside middle-class homes. They cater for a wide range of people, from the travelling mid-level executive who would have otherwise stayed in a grotty C-class hotel to the overseas Bengali ‘doing’ Calcutta with his family. I would argue that these guesthouses have not merely appropriated a share of traditional hotel occupancy, they have in fact nurtured a new market for themselves.

The emergence of a new breed of bhadralok restaurateurs and hoteliers has been propelled by the quest for opportunities in a stagnant economy. In a fight for survival amid adversity, many Bengalis have had to reinvent themselves, eschew their inherited lordliness and abhorrence of commerce and assume new roles.

The reinvention was overdue. A curious feature of the economic stagnation of West Bengal is that it has affected the ethnic Bengalis in Kolkata far more than their Hindi-speaking counterparts. The
evidence of this is largely anecdotal. The managers of Kolkata’s five-star hotels have all pointed out that most of their prized clientele happened to be vegetarian and that the city is emerging as a major centre of innovative, multi-cuisine vegetarianism.

Whether the relative prosperity of Kolkata’s large non-Bengali elite owes to their businesses outside the state (tea in Assam and mining in Orissa and Jharkhand come readily to mind) awaits empirical verification but it does suggest an intriguing quirkiness to the story of economic stagnation.

The Bengali bhadrolok has traditionallybeen peripatetic -the Bong traveller is a figure of endearment and ridicule in most of India’s tourist spots - seeking opportunities wherever they presented themselves. The British were forever complaining of the ubiquitous babu who had planted himself in clerical jobs throughout the land. However, the establishment of a Bengali diaspora both within and outside India was complemented by a pulsating and vibrant Kolkata which was both home and the fountainhead of culture.

Today, Bengalis seem to be doing much, much better outside the home state. This has created a strange disequilibrium which has translated itself into the blunting of cultural dynamism. Culture always needs an economic surplus to sustain and patronise it. The artists of Kolkata have, for example, prospered on the evolution of a lucrative Indian art market in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. Unfortunately, Bengali writers, poets and playwrights have had no such luck, their language defining the limits of marketability.

The net consequence has been a steady erosion of cultural dynamism
verging on debasement. You have only to see some of the more recent Tollywood productions or the Bangla serials on TV to realise the scale of cultural decline.

The self-assured, arrogant Calcutta of the past has died. It has been replaced by the Kolkata of genteel decay, by brashness and a gritty struggle for sheer survival. The city’s future now depends onits ability to confront the present and recover a lost inheritance. It’s cholbey na to the present and zindabad to the quest for another (elusive) utopia.

This poor, big, small town.

Times of India (Kolkata edition), April 2, 2010


Anonymous said...

Very well written Swapanda !

" Tollywood productions & cultural decline "..could not agree with you more.

The Kolakata I like to remember is full of warmth , elegance & simplicity.

Anonymous said...

I have been to Calcutta couple of times. Yes it has the old world charm, some of the new areas are cool(city centre etc), but sheer collapsed infrastructure, traffic jams, ugly(empty) trams follow you everywhere.
But there is no way it can be retrieved, with a bangladeshi population hovering around 25-35%, there is no way W. Bengal can be redeemed, its decline will be much faster than other states.

As for the fire on Park Street I am fairly certain it could be the work of jehadis. Bangalore, Kolkata..there seems to be a pattern. Recently some of them were caught who wanted to torch ONGC building. Zeenews saying jehadis told to indulge in arson before getting promotion to doing bomb blasts. Strangely no media, BJP looking at this angle.

Anonymous said...

I am a south Indian originally from Coimbatore. Among my friends and acquaintances Bombay despite years of Shiv Sena has the reputation of being cosmopolitan and welcoming of outsiders, even Delhi is viewed favorably despite its heavy Punjabi-Bhaiyya overtones, and Bangalore and Hyderabad are favored destinations. But the mention of Culcutta's name generates no excitement. It is viewed as a run-down, antiquated Bengali city; interesting to go on a sight-seeing tour of the Raj relics maybe but otherwise of not much significance. Jyoti Basu succeeded in making Culcutta a provincial town. If Bal Thackeray wants to do to Bombay likewise, he needs to learn from the late comrade. Being a regional-chauvinist doesn't work; he has to become a communist fascist.

Suhel Banerjee said...

Superb! The best piece on Kolkata I have come across in a long time. Will share this one with my bangali and obangali friends. For different reasons of course.

Anonymous said...

I am also a south indian but brought up in Kolkata.

Despite all its manmade drawbacks I somehow feel at home only in Kolkata . Potentially it has something which I have no word to capture.

I hope phoenix like Kolkata resurrects Herself !

Though relatives from Bombay , Tamil Nadu etc had nothing nice to say about Kolkata , I still find all vegetables , fruits , puffed rice to roasted groundnuts ,singharas , ubiquitous crows , plants & trees to dedicated Homeopathy doctors of Kolkata the BEST !!

Btw , I would want its tramcars with the green patch for commuters to be restored.

Internet Hindu said...

Blame it on the government of the proletariat. Same story down south in 'God's own country'.

Internet Hindu said...

Didigiri promises to be even more 'for the people' than commiegiri. God save the people.

Holden Caulfield said...

the problmem is... the truthiness of these opinion pieces are difficult to judge. your write-up can potentially be self-fulfilling. bengalis suffer from a strange melancholy from the time of rabindranath, when shringara rasa overwhelmed the veera rasa of vivekananda. most of these nostalgic type articles on kolkata are written by bengalis.

Holden Caulfield said...

oops.. forgot to add that karan johar needs a good sesion with me on the history of indian cities.. and how a group of fishermen's villages became his small town mumbai that gives him his awful accent

Sachin said...

Please read this column.In this, the author has written about the fate of Liverpool in UK. We are on the verge of starting on the same
curve as the west, where free market reforms give rise to a over
centralized welfare state. We have the opportunity to avoid this.

Anonymous said...

Agreed communists are alleged atheists etc etc.

In the sixties & seventies , at least educational institutions in Kolkata were not taking bribes. Whereas bribes amounting to whopping lakhs was the norm in Tamil Nadu then & now.

Such stultifying faux godmen/godwomen also were sort of absent.

With competent leadership West Bengal could have achieved immensely. It had the potential. Both intellectual & natural resources.

May be , because I grew up there , I have a soft corner for Kolkata.

idlethoughts said...


It is very disheartening to hear of what has happened to Kolkata. My sojourn in Kolkata spanned across 2 years from 2008 - 10. First time when I stepped there, I saw hoardings that read " Kolkata - City of Joy".
It took me 3 months to appreciate how beautiful the city is.
I personally feel that Kolkata has not lost its charm at all.

Anonymous said...

Where Abdul Kalams to Sunil Gavaskars , Murli Manohar Joshis to Narendra Modis , Vilasraos , Chavans , Yediyurappas , Hema Malinis to Vivek Oberois ,SM Krishnas to Sachin Tendulkars robotlike worship self pimping 'godmen' conjuring up watches , gold chains , promising eternal wrinkles free complexion to utopias with kriyas & hyperventilation, one would never see say an INDRAJIT GUPTA or any sane Calcutta Bengali behaving so stupidly.

Whenever I point out the idiocy of worshipping faux godmen & many such ridiculous superstitions my friends immediately respond " ...brought up drinking waters of Bengal...hence this scepticism...".

Isn't that a compliment for Kolkata?

Anonymous said...

In my south indian family circle , a person's worth is adjudged solely on the basis of his/her professional qualifications , bank balance & tangible assets.

My late brother was written off as 'good for nothing' being "only B.Com that too III division". His vibrant sense of humour , his mastery of music untaught , his penchant for reading , his sheer GOODNESS all were overlooked.

Suddenly he died in his late thirties .

The so called relatives gathered to condole robotically. Obviously not out of love but fear of earning Pitru Devthas wrath ;)

They were struck dumb as even one incense stick was not demanded of them for the funeral services that followed.

Nobody knew he had such good genuine friends ALL of them BENGALIS. His colleagues. Not affluent but working at same level. They came , carried even the bier to the hearse & were present throught till the ashes were collected. Their tears were REAL. So was their profound grief.

After a fortnight they gave a plaque on which were written such glowing heartwarming tributes to my brother.

Tithiparna said...


With due respect to you, I would like to voice my own opinion about this blog post.

Earlier, we Bengalis were universally hated for our jingoism, our intellectual pretensions and our flaunting of our Bengali heros - Netaji, Tagore, Ray and others. While that trait was undoubtedly annoying, these days we seemed to have acquired a new trait - that of going overboard in self-criticism. "You have only to see some of the more recent Tollywood productions or the Bangla serials on TV to realize the scale of cultural decline." - well, going by the declining standards of Hindi serials (compare today's K-serials with the Humlogs and Buniyaads of yore) I would much like to believe that the decline is a pan-Indian phenomenon, that is if we would take mainstream films and TV serials as the only yardsticks of "culture".

Recently, I read another such blog (!.html&task=default&blogs=1&Itemid=99999999&contentid=61909&main_category=13&contentid=61909&blogs=1&contentid=61909), where the author has gone to the extent of comparing the quality of twitter and facebook scribbles of the new age Bengali with that of his non-Bengali counterpart!

Not that I am claiming that Calcutta and Bengal are in great shapes, but I wonder how such posts actually help fix the decline.

While it is important that we assess ourselves and improve, blog posts like these only serve to deflate the morale of any young, motivated person (Bengali or otherwise), who stays in Calcutta, loves the city and is making a positive contribution to the city through his or her hard work. There are many such people; to know only one of them, Ms. Manjir Chatterjee (about whom I learnt only recently and am taking the liberty to write about without her permission), I would request you to go through the links below:

Or, you may choose to read about Mr. Indranil Bhattacharya, here:

I wonder why these stories hardly ever find place in our local mainstream media. While many from the young generation are daring to dream big despite Bandhs and other odds, it is unfortunate that some people are determined to point out only the darker side of the city.

You would probably appreciate the fact that cynicism and a low self-esteem are not the best gifts to give to the new generation or for that matter to anyone. For heaven's sake, please do say something inspiring. With your way with words, you do owe it to us. Else, of course, we take the sensible path of staying positive by refusing to listen to all the doomsayers and continuing with our own work.

Tithiparna Sengupta.

Holden Caulfield said...

Dear Tithiparna,

Very nicely written. It is difficult to write balanced articles these days.

Regarding your observation:

Not that I am claiming that Calcutta and Bengal are in great shapes, but I wonder how such posts actually help fix the decline.

Well, fixing the decline is not the point, basking in nostalgia is.

Best wishes.

Sid said...


While I appreciate some of your points, I feel some other views need to be stated here, too.

1."..we Bengalis were universally hated for our jingoism,.." - I do not think so. Wherever we are hated, we are hated because of our inability of mixing with others or adjusting to cultures different to ours. A culturally confident man would go to Durgapuja and Dussera both. This is not to say that every Indian has a universal love for us or our culture, but most are reasonable when they treat an outsider as an outcast when the outsider shows no interest in the local affairs. Being a Bengali, I stayed in multiple places in India and although I had my share of derogatory comments about my ethnicity (mostly from Northies), I guess it is very hard to find a single community in India that does not have a unreasonable bigotry about another community.

2. Self-criticism is necessary when a false complicity has set in. The links that you have provided should be highlighted, but it is necessary to keep in mind that these are the minorities. There is a scope to re-build the entire Bengal. There are not enough people to do that. Given today's work culture (even employees in private enterprises do not work) in Bengal, the continuous loss of wealth (entrepreneurship is not heard much in Bengal), the rapid decline of culture (how many people read books or checkout a good play in Kolkata, compare this number to the number of people go to theater in Mumbai or how many books sold a month in Bangalore), a continuous inflow of violence in politics and it's intellectual backing - none of these would result into self-congratulation. There are many reasons for self-criticism. There is nothing wrong with being a Bengali or having Bengali culture, but everything has gone wrong with Bengal. The recovery is nowhere to be seen. Between didi and Bhattacharya, unions and illegal Bangaldeshis, Maoists and incompetent cops, the situation is not reminiscent of a model state. Self-criticism is not easy, but desperate situations call for desperate measures.

Anonymous said...

Although, I should not generalize things. However, in my life I have interacted with more than 100 highly educated Bengalis. A few habits (true for majority), of them which I believe have contributed more than enough for decline of Kolkata are as follows
1> It is very difficult to talk with a bengali about literature and not hear Tagore word in less than a few nanosecond. As if literature starts and end with Tagore. I was told he is so good that it is impossible to not talk about him. If all an educated Bengali can quote about literature is Tagore is not it an insult to Bengali authors themselves?

This tendency of over idolizing is
their in each and every sphere. I am yet to find a Bengali who does not like Saurabh ganguli, Satyajit Ray or to say a few Bengali icon all of us know. Why every attack on them is an attack on them?
In any confident society, while idols exist there are enough number of people who wants to break the idol. Why this is missing from Bengal? Ask yourself why Tagore degraded from Pan-Indian icon to a Bengali icon? Why it is ok to talk rubbish about Gandhi but the moment you point out historic fact about JANA GANA, you are dubbed anti-Bengal?
2> Work culture in Kolkata: Why it is ok to have strike every 10th day in Kolkata? Why it is ok to shut down industries, traffic, airport etc at the whim of different parties. The trend was started and proudly followed by moronic CPM. TC was very fast to catch it. However, it is funny to talk with upper middle class Bengal and get out with the impression that it is TC which is anti-progress. Ask yourself why talk of labor union in IT sector first started in Kolkata?
3> Too much of Anti-Americanism: Majority of Bengali, I have interacted with they hate US like anything, however they have not much issue with China. However, the ironic part most of them who hate US so much, want either to settle in US or send their kids there.

Holden Caulfield said...

I don't what should the length of this comment in response to the most recent blabber.

1. ... It is very difficult to talk with a bengali about literature and not hear Tagore word in less than a few nanosecond. As if literature starts and end with Tagore. I was told he is so good that it is impossible to not talk about him. If all an educated Bengali can quote about literature is Tagore is not it an insult to Bengali authors themselves?

This tendency of over idolizing is
their in each and every sphere. I am yet to find a Bengali who does not like Saurabh ganguli, Satyajit Ray or to say a few Bengali icon all of us know. Why every attack on them is an attack on them?
... Ask yourself why Tagore degraded from Pan-Indian icon to a Bengali icon? Why it is ok to talk rubbish about Gandhi but the moment you point out historic fact about JANA GANA, you are dubbed anti-Bengal?

Well, the answer is simple. Bengalis worship Tagore and Satyajit Ray because T and SR have earned it by their work. If they have done great work it is no Bengalis fault. Not only Bengalis, many people diasgree with Gandhi's methods of blackmail. Read the Gandhi-Tagore debates and Tagore's viewpoint of "non-cooperation" tactics. There's no need to indulge in regional identities. Gandhi said some very stupid things and got away with them. Jews should commit collective suicide for "effect" - what crap. Thousands of Balinese died in the puputan with no "effect" on the Dutch.

2. Kolkata is not only for Bengalis. So anything that happens in Kolkata should not be identified with Bengali psyche. About strikes: well, ask Citu's Mr. Pandhe who will organzie strikes in Kolkata while companies shift their bases to his city Pune. Ask Mr. Karat why is he obsessed with anti-americanism. The reason why people in WB say TC is anti-progress is because they have no vision at all. they are anti-CPIM, and that's how they get the voters' blessings. there's an urgent need for clarity in thinking. TC is on the side of the new ultra-lefists and the sissy champagne liberals. Ask the JNU type scatterbrains what new property right systems they can design in the Maoist belt.

3. I don't think so. My daughter was born in the US but we have retained her Indian citizenship. I dont want to get into nasty regionalism. But I have seen plenty of gults who are six month pregnant and taking the flight to the US to deliver their babies there. At least Bengalis aren't that desperate.

So stop your bengali obsession, take a look at yourself in the mirror, contribute if you can, but don't spread rumors. Bengalis are the most critical about themselves. You cannot beat them in cynicism. What they are not good at is shrewd politics practiced by the Tamil Nadu cadre.

And if you can, enjoy rabindrasangeet. Dumb "cosmopolitans" cannot understand them; listen to mohan singh khangura, one of the best in this genre). For jazz and blues: listen to Amyt and D for Brother.

ravinder said...

Dear Swapanda,
I am an Uttranchali. To people like me Kolkatta, looks like a missed opportunity. If only we had a strong economic base there, the north east could have found its natural economic heart in Kolkatta. Without this most important function getting fulfiled, everything else (with or without nostalgic value) is just .... a failure of imagination.

Damn these commies and secular sold outs.

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