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Sunday, January 1, 2012

Hope Back in Calcutta


By Swapan Dasgupta


There was a time, somewhere in my distant childhood, when the 'season', beginning with Christmas and culminating in the New Year, was centred, not on Goa, but on Calcutta. It was 'burra din', the time when Park Street (now renamed Mother Teresa Sarani) was lit up to resemble Oxford Street in the only other city the elite of Calcutta identified with. It was the time of the Test match at Eden Gardens and the races on New Year’s Day. And it was the time of roasts and plum puddings laced with a dollop of brandy butter. 
Alas, that was before the Reds stepped in and turned Kolkata into a city of gloom. By the time the Left Front was removed last year, the spirit had been squeezed out of the second city of the Empire. Instead, Kolkata became a city with a glorious past and an uncertain future. The reality was symbolized by the imposing buildings in varying stages of dereliction. 
Returning to the city for the ‘season’ this year after more than 15 years, what was striking was the revival of hope. The Tourism Department of the state government had organized a Christmas festival on Park Street which was brightly lit and the restaurants were crowded and buzzing with activity. There was a gaiety that had earlier been missing. On Christmas Day, the temperature was a degree below London. And while the sahibs took out their tweeds and ties, the wags were quick to comment that ‘Didi’ Mamata Banerjee had done one better than the city that she holds as the ideal for Kolkata. 
What came as a bigger eye-opener was how little the conversations in the clubs or ‘athome’ drinks parties focused on either Anna Hazare’s show in Mumbai or the Lokpal debates in Parliament. It is not that West Bengal doesn’t have its share of graft and bureaucratic sloth. It is just that a city that had got back a glimmer of hope was too busy celebrating the likelihood of a better future.
From the perspective of the metros, the elements of hope may be woefully modest and even flaunting in Kolkata is sober by the exacting standards of Delhi and Mumbai. But the point to note is that Kolkata didn’t feel the political acrimony and the gloom-and-doom story that has overwhelmed much of India. 
The young Indian Civil Service recruits were taught in Haileybury that “whatever is true of India the opposite is equally true.” The lesson was worth remembering. Only too often , generalizations are made about India on the strength of a partial reality in Delhi. If Delhi shivers, the rest of India is also thought to be in the midst of a cold wave. 
The more we gauge the Indian reality, the more we realize that the ‘idea of India’ — a phrase so favoured by over-concerned TV anchors — is just another of those expedient myths we love to bandy about. There is undoubtedly an India that exists during war and cricket matches, but the idea varies from place to place and from city to city. This diversity is something that neither the Planning Commission nor the architects of mega welfare schemes have been inclined to accept. 
For the Delhi-based pan-Indian elite, political power emanates from the national capital and filters downwards. The reality, however, is that the country is made up of clusters of regional elites whose aspirations and priorities are very different, and why not? 
A simple Christmas celebration in Kolkata , Navratra in Ahmedabad and Ganesh chaturthi in Mumbai tells us more about the different Indias than all the proceedings of the Delhi-centric National Advisory Council. It tells us that a dysfunctional India doesn’t become a reality when the Centre loses its way. It happens when a paralysed Centre prevents the regions from achieving their true potential by concentrating too much power in Delhi. 
These days the talk is about democratization and accountability. These lofty goals become far more meaningful when Indian federalism becomes what it was intended to be: a Union of states. When Kolkata smiles and Delhi is gloomy, not least because some Bengali politicians are flexing their muscles, you instinctively know that something right is happening, somewhere.Street (now renamed Mother Teresa Sarani) was lit up to resemble Oxford Street in the only other city the elite of Calcutta identified with. It was the time of the Test match at Eden Gardens and the races on New Year’s Day. And it was the time of roasts and plum puddings laced with a dollop of brandy butter. 
Alas, that was before the Reds stepped in and turned Kolkata into a city of gloom. By the time the Left Front was removed last year, the spirit had been squeezed out of the second city of the Empire. Instead, Kolkata became a city with a glorious past and an uncertain future. The reality was symbolized by the imposing buildings in varying stages of dereliction. 
Returning to the city for the ‘season’ this year after more than 15 years, what was striking was the revival of hope. The Tourism Department of the state government had organized a Christmas festival on Park Street which was brightly lit and the restaurants were crowded and buzzing with activity. There was a gaiety that had earlier been missing. On Christmas Day, the temperature was a degree below London. And while the sahibs took out their tweeds and ties, the wags were quick to comment that ‘Didi’ Mamata Banerjee had done one better than the city that she holds as the ideal for Kolkata. 
What came as a bigger eye-opener was how little the conversations in the clubs or ‘athome’ drinks parties focused on either Anna Hazare’s show in Mumbai or the Lokpal debates in Parliament. It is not that West Bengal doesn’t have its share of graft and bureaucratic sloth. It is just that a city that had got back a glimmer of hope was too busy celebrating the likelihood of a better future.
From the perspective of the metros, the elements of hope may be woefully modest and even flaunting in Kolkata is sober by the exacting standards of Delhi and Mumbai. But the point to note is that Kolkata didn’t feel the political acrimony and the gloom-and-doom story that has overwhelmed much of India. 
The young Indian Civil Service recruits were taught in Haileybury that “whatever is true of India the opposite is equally true.” The lesson was worth remembering. Only too often , generalizations are made about India on the strength of a partial reality in Delhi. If Delhi shivers, the rest of India is also thought to be in the midst of a cold wave. 
The more we gauge the Indian reality, the more we realize that the ‘idea of India’ — a phrase so favoured by over-concerned TV anchors — is just another of those expedient myths we love to bandy about. There is undoubtedly an India that exists during war and cricket matches, but the idea varies from place to place and from city to city. This diversity is something that neither the Planning Commission nor the architects of mega welfare schemes have been inclined to accept. 
For the Delhi-based pan-Indian elite, political power emanates from the national capital and filters downwards. The reality, however, is that the country is made up of clusters of regional elites whose aspirations and priorities are very different, and why not? 
A simple Christmas celebration in Kolkata , Navratra in Ahmedabad and Ganesh chaturthi in Mumbai tells us more about the different Indias than all the proceedings of the Delhi-centric National Advisory Council. It tells us that a dysfunctional India doesn’t become a reality when the Centre loses its way. It happens when a paralysed Centre prevents the regions from achieving their true potential by concentrating too much power in Delhi. 
These days the talk is about democratization and accountability. These lofty goals become far more meaningful when Indian federalism becomes what it was intended to be: a Union of states. When Kolkata smiles and Delhi is gloomy, not least because some Bengali politicians are flexing their muscles, you instinctively know that something right is happening, somewhere.

9 comments:

Ashutosh pandey said...

This is a great article Swapan. How you get ideas like this. Your mind is truly fertile

Pankaj K Gupta said...

Very enriching and thoughtprovoking article sir. I always admire your talks and your writings.

Wishing you a very happy new year

Anonymous said...

Glad to hear about Kolkata minus what Left rule symbolised it to be.

Ma Kali's Grace & indomitable Mamata Banerjee really managed to achieve something thought beyond one's reach.

LookEast said...

Nice article.
However there seems to be a technical error in drafting this article, causing entire paragraphs to repeat themselves. Please correct the same.
Thank you.

seadog4227 said...

As with UP and Bihar, there is absolutely no news regarding the new govt. in power in WB- just dead silence. What is the govt. planning, doing, conveying to the people. What are the "Vaampunks" doing in the meantime?
What about grassroots cadre who were directly responsible for so many atrocities, just a few years ago?
Has the TMC shown any ability to govern? Is there a 2nd rung in the TMC? Or are the Vaampunks going to romp home again in the next elections?

Anonymous said...

Swapan Da, I doubt very much has changed in WB. One reads of TMC goons beating up people instead of CPM goons doing the same. 2-3 weeks ago read a news report of a pregnant young woman beaten up by local TMC leader over an argument about parking her car that she lost the baby. And yesterday read about Bangladeshis walking across the border and taking Indian cows by force. Apparently BSF have orders not to shoot at Bangladeshis crossing the borders. Mamata Didi seems as bad or worse than the Communists, is it from the pan into the fire for West Bengal ? Politicians as well as people of WB are hopeless, and I say this with my biggest heros being Bengalis, Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda

Anonymous said...

Anon @11:28 AM makes a very valid point.

Bengalis within India are plain suckers while dealing with Bangladeshis just because they speak the same language. More so the Bangladeshi muslims & the converted Bengali christians among them are virulently hostile towards Indians including Bengali hindus.

Cows are routinely sent for slaughter including pregnant cows from Kerala. The unholy mercenary nexus between Prannoy Roy & his benami companies and certain powerful abattoir business were all exposed threadbare by Maneka Gandhi.

Prannoy Roy's brother in law is toxic communist Prakash Karat who is actually a Keralite malayali. Misleads everyone he came from Rangoon Burma.

Lots of Bangladeshis are spread all over India thanks to fraudulent malpractices of Indian ex-President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. Today many Indian doctors including vegetarian hindus patronise Bangladeshis who come to India in the guise of "medical tourism" for several surgeries & medical treatment. Indian hospitals being run like corporates make profits.

None other than the cardiologist Naresh Trehan recently defended this mercenary motives of Indian doctors & medical institutions.

Such an unscrupulous country like India with absolutely no SYNERGY thumbs its arrogant nose at Russia on Bhagavad Geetha :-((

Anonymous said...

Anon @11:28 AM makes a very valid point.

Bengalis within India are plain suckers while dealing with Bangladeshis just because they speak the same language. More so the Bangladeshi muslims & the converted Bengali christians among them are virulently hostile towards Indians including Bengali hindus.

Cows are routinely sent for slaughter including pregnant cows from Kerala. The unholy mercenary nexus between Prannoy Roy & his benami companies and certain powerful abattoir business were all exposed threadbare by Maneka Gandhi.

Prannoy Roy's brother in law is toxic communist Prakash Karat who is actually a Keralite malayali. Misleads everyone he came from Rangoon Burma.

Lots of Bangladeshis are spread all over India thanks to fraudulent malpractices of Indian ex-President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. Today many Indian doctors including vegetarian hindus patronise Bangladeshis who come to India in the guise of "medical tourism" for several surgeries & medical treatment. Indian hospitals being run like corporates make profits.

None other than the cardiologist Naresh Trehan recently defended this mercenary motives of Indian doctors & medical institutions.

Such an unscrupulous country like India with absolutely no SYNERGY thumbs its arrogant nose at Russia on Bhagavad Geetha :-((

It is only sycophants of Indira Gandhi who are so fond of recalling 1971 & alleged "liberation of Bangladesh".

Only one Indian Armyman rightly summed it up thus:-

" Indira Gandhi took swift decisions no doubt but ALL WRONG DECISIONS".

Anonymous said...

West Bengal was first cursed by Jogendranath Mandal a Dalit Leader when he supported Muslim League to form full pledge Muslims League Govt in West Bengal during pre-independence. Impressed by his secularism Jinnah offered him cabinet ministry post when Pakistan was carved out of India. later cursed by Communist and now TMC..