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Kolkata must reclaim its place

More than three hundred years ago Kolkata was promoted by a band of adventurous British traders with a vision to make it a competitive business centre on the eastern bank of the Bhagirathi.

A K GHOSH | Kolkata |

Is Kolkata burdened with the enigma of despair? Is it a great urban disaster?At least the graffiti on the walls of the city will lead one to believe there is no hope. What troubles the lovers of Kolkata most is that the questions can be answered spontaneously in the negative. Hopes apart, every discussion about the city of joy tends to become a sentimental journey into the past. Inevitably a confrontation with the rot eating into the vitals of the city is like being a victim of one’s own hubris.

For a hardcore Kolkatan, harshly chastised by the relentless reality around him, the virtuous delights of organising an unorganised system is a distant dream. He is cocooned in a defunct time -machine that neither takes him forward nor lets him bask contentedly in the days of yore. In a way, he is trapped in a city which he loves and is unable to lift the malaise that has robbed it of its vibrance.

So why is Kolkata so special amidst all its traffic jam, bandhs, michhil, adda,et al? Even an individual being part of the swarm of dusty citizens hurrying towards Sealdah and Howrah stations in the afternoon will proudly proclaim that it is difficult to find another city whose name one can associate with six Nobel Prize winners.

However, the throbbing crowds do hardly suggest that it is a dying city, as Rajiv Gandhi would have us believe. Also, the reference of Daniel Moynihan, former US Ambassador to India, to Kolkata as a necropolis was thought to be uncharitable. In spite of its feeble economic structure, Kolkata has been trudging along the path of survival with stoic persistence. The city recently brimmed with the mystic puja spirit, the melody of the conch shells. And soon all will be back home celebrating Christmas and welcoming the new year with the same joy, fervour and enthusiasm. Whether we call it Kolkata or Calcutta, the city still haunts every body’s mind. It remains a collage of multi-hued, multitextured events, an abode of eminent intellectuals.

More than three hundred years ago Kolkata was promoted by a band of adventurous British traders with a vision to make it a competitive business centre on the eastern bank of the Bhagirathi. Because of the untiring efforts of merchants of the East India Company, the town developed into a great metropolis with a vast confluence of both seaborne and inland trades of the country.

When the traders became the rulers of the country it was the same Calcutta which again came in strategic focus. It was not without reason that the city remained as the citadel of British imperial power in the Indian subcontinent for well over a century and a half. Even after 1912, when the capital was shifted to Delhi, Calcutta continued to enjoy a preferential status from the British Indian government.

The development of Calcutta during the British Raj has to be viewed in terms of its strategic role in the management of both politics and economics. To play this role the sustained development and creation of supportive infrastructure facilities was a basic pre-requisite and Calcutta rose to the occasion.

At the same time, 19th century Calcutta, faced with the domination of the West, was looking for a definition of selfidentification. The aim of thinkers like Bankimchandra, Bhudev Mukherjee, Vivekananda and Rabindranath was to rescue their fellow countrymen from a state of mind where they were longing to hear if they were superior in any way to the most civilized nations. Bankimchandra identified the crucial difference between European and Indian attitudes to knowledge and action

While the European belief that Nature could be conquered led to a better life on earth, the Indian view that Nature was unconquerable was the source of all misery. Vivekananda strongly believed in the superiority of Indians in their spiritualism. Tagore’s vision of Indian history led to a rich fulfillment in spite of conflicts, sufferings and even invasion. And, we must not disown Rammohan’s letter, datelined Calcutta, to Lord Amherst, urging him to brush aside the decision on ”a new Sanskrit school in Calcutta” and instead allocate all the money to “Instruct the natives of India in mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry, anatomy and other useful sciences.“

We must be proud of the Bengali Renaissance – or the ”Politics of Young Bengal”, as Pearychand Mitra called it in 1877 – started by Henry Derozio, whom Susobhan Sarkar calls the “Calcutta Eurasian of Portuguese Indian ancestry“. Ascetics like Sri Chaitanya, Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Aurobindo did never join forces with politicians to champion the cause of Bengali, but what they said and did, informed Bengali literature – and syncretic culture – with the result that the language which held it all spread far and wide.

A whole corpus of literature grew around Sri Chaitanya Deb’s Vaishnavism, drawing Bengalis and Oriyas, Manipuris and others close together. Non-Bengalis also started learning the language just to go through Ramakrishna’s Kathamrita, and Bankimchandra, Saratchandra and Rabindranath in original. The English writings of Vivekananda and Aurobindo served to bridge European and Bengali culture. Religious thoughts and practices also emanated in the city and had profound resonance across the globe. Other than the great spiritual thinkers like Rammohan Roy, Keshav Chandra Sen, Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and Aurobindo, the lesser known who came to the city include Angarika Dharmapala and Nichidatsu Fujii. The profound spiritual legacy has been an integral element of Kolkata’s culture.

Kolkata is a miniature of the whole world. Every race is represented, and every culture can be traced here. A walk through its streets is an experience. The city teaches lessons of constant sharing with those poorer than oneself, tolerance towards all beliefs and castes, respect for strangers, true charity for the beggars, the deformed, the lepers. This is the city where Mother Teresa had visualized God among the millions.

Kolkata today is a living, thinking, struggling, idealistic city. Its people are still concerned with something other than making money, spending money and hoarding money. It remains one of the most aware, sensitive, intelligent and intellectual cities of the world. Abanindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore broke paths to establish modern Indian art in Kolkata.

Even though the time when Gokhale said, “What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow”, is long gone, there is reason to find the muchvaunted Bengali arrogance at a low key. Even though we are twice in receipt of the Nobel Prize in Economics, the city has reason to weep for having slipped into obsolescence. We see only the tip of hope in the quagmire that threatens to devour the city’s vitality. The hiatus between the idea and its translation into reality still appears to be unbridgeable. Its laid-back culture is now eating into the youngest rung of its populace. School-goers now plan their careers away from the city.

Kolkata needs to shrug off its persecution complex and take charge of its destiny. The glorious intellectual isolation must end. Instead of basking in past glory, the city ought to author an inspiring future which appeals to common logic. Perhaps the hope lies in Kolkata’s growing cosmopolitanism.

The writer is former Associate Professor, Dept of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata, and is presently associated with Rabindra Bharati University.