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Oh! Calcutta~I

The contradictory responses of appreciation and disenchantment about the city of Calcutta were not much different even in the eighteenth century. Various surviving documents tell us that there were at least fifteen travellers to Calcutta in the 18th century, of them three were non- Englishmen and two were women


Irecall, way back in 1997,during an informal conversation with me, Calcutta was described as a city of “charming chaos” by the eminent Oxford University Professor of English, John Carey. Prof Carey was describing his visit to Calcutta around the early 1990s. Prof Carey probably would have agreed with Rudyard Kipling’s lines about Calcutta,

Thus, the mid-day halt of Charnock-more’s the pity! Grew a city. As the fungus sprouts chaotic from its bed So, it spread-Chance-directed, chance-erected, laid and built On the silt-Palace, byre, hovel poverty and pride-Side by side, And, above the packed and pestilential town Death looked down… ( A Tale of Two Cities)

Furthermore, inThe City of Dreadful Night, published in 1899, Kipling’s description of Calcutta bears the classic stampof the triumphant colonizer’s gaze. After all, it is the optics that initially determine the responses and the reception

“Let us take our hats off to Calcutta, the many-sided, the smoky, the magnificent, as we drive in over Hugli Bridge in the dawn of a still February morning. We have left India behind at Howrah station, and now we enter foreign parts. No, not wholly foreign. Say rather too familiar…” Why this is London! This is the docks. This is Imperial. This is worth coming across India to see!” … Then a distinctly wicked idea takes possession of the mind. What a divine-what a heavenly place to loot! … adorned, docked, wharfed, fronted and reclaimed by Englishmen, existing only because England lives and dependent for its life on England!”

The contradictory responses of appreciation and disenchantment about the city of Calcutta were not much different even in the eighteenth century. Various surviving documents tell us that there were at least fifteen travellers to Calcutta in the 18th century, of them three were non- Englishmen and two were women. Jemima Kindersley’s travelogue titled “Letters from the Island of Tenerife, Brazil, the Cape of Good Hope and the East Indies” was published in London in 1777. It is generally regarded as the first book on India written by a British woman traveller. Jemima Kindersley was not impressed by the layout of Calcutta either-” it is as awkward a place as can be conceived; and so irregular, that it looks as if all the houses had been thrown up in the air, and fallen down by accident as they now stand; people keep constantly building; and everyone who can procure a piece of ground to build a house upon, consults his own taste and convenience, without any regard to the beauty and regularity to the town…all the English part of the town, which is the largest, is a confusion of very superb and very shabby houses, dead walls, straw huts, warehouses, and I know not what”.

In post-independence, postcolonial India, writers both local and global, have evinced their fascination and frustration in interpreting the city of Calcutta, its culture and its people. This write-up brings into focus the responses of the local and global writers as they negotiate with the impact that Calcutta registers. Nostalgia, romantic ruminations, repulsion, arrogance of ignorance, disdain, superiority complex, imperial gaze, narcissistic surmises are all part of these writings. Most of the texts referred to here, define a city that still bears tangible and intangible relics of a European heritage, manifest in its colonial architecture and culture, from books to food, from Shakespeare to bread and cakes, represented sometimes proudly, sometimes indifferently, historically imposed on it by the East India Company and the British Empire.

A very recent book on Kolkata that reached me some months back was Sundeep Bhutoria’s Calcuttascape Musings of a Globetrotter, published in 2020. Interestingly the Foreword of the book was written by Kunal Basu in 2013, seven years before the book was published. Kunal Basu’s foreword refers to the mixed responses to Kolkata, the city as it was in colonial times and the way the city has evolved in the post-independence period and presently, the way it is regarded by the cultured elite, in the era of globalization. So, Basu observes, “There are those who complain that Kolkata has lost its cosmopolitan charm. A city known through centuries for culture and commerce has, perhaps, turned inwards to define itself in terms less ambitious than before. Disgruntled Kolkatans are known to despair of a kind of provincialism in thought and spirit, and a reluctance to experiment and innovate. More than anything, it seems to point at the tragic absence of people who pride themselves in crossing boundaries and opening doors rather than shutting them purely for the sake of self-preservation….”

Interestingly, in the foreword to the first edition of his book Calcutta, published in 1971, Geoffrey Moorhouse wrote: ‘In a sense, the story of Calcutta is the story of India … It is the story of how and why Empire was created and what happened when Empire finished … The imperial residue of Calcutta, a generation after Empire ended, is both a monstrous and a marvellous city. Journalism and television have given us a rough idea of the monstrosities but none at all of the marvels. I can only hope to define the first more clearly and to persuade anyone interested that the second is to be found there too’. Some may recall the sense of outrage when the then Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, had stated in 1985, that Calcutta is a dying city. As far as I know, this dismissive statement was made around the time, the French cultural travel writer Dominique Lapierre’s City of Joy was published. Lapierre’s book created an empathetic illusion of celebratory vibes, about Calcutta being a unique city, as it was a city with a heart.

Interestingly again, in The City of Joy, Lapierre directly referred to the phrase “dying city” as he disparagingly wrote about the overpopulated and polluted city of Calcutta. He observed, “… Calcutta had become one of the biggest urban disasters in the world ~ a city consumed with decay in which thousands of houses and many new buildings, sometimes ten floors high or even higher, threatened at any moment to crack and collapse. With their crumbling facades, tottering roofs, and walls eaten up with tropical vegetation, some neighbourhoods looked as if they had just been bombed. A rash of posters, publicity and political slogans, and advertisement billboards painted on the walls, defied all efforts at renovation. In the absence of an adequate garbage collection service, eighteen hundred tons of refuse accumulated daily in the streets, attracting a host of flies, mosquitoes, rats, cockroaches, and other creatures…In short, Calcutta was “a dying city”.”

However, references to Calcutta, by Guntur Grass in his novel TheFlounder published in 1977, and its English translation published in 1978, stand alone in its vituperative expressions of dark humour and disdain, as the traveller Vasco da Gama ruminates, “Why not a poem about a pile of shit that God dropped and named Calcutta…How it swarms, stinks, lives, and gets bigger and bigger.”. Elsewhere too the narrator’s tone does not change as Calcutta is described, “But Calcutta, this crumbling, scabby, swarming city, this city that eats itsown excrement, has decided to be cheerful. It wants its misery-and misery can be photographed wherever you go-to be terrifyingly beautiful: thedecay plastered with advertising posters, the cracked pavement, the beadsof sweat adding up to nine million souls”.

It is small wonder that Grass would sum up his impressions of the city of Calcutta characteristically, “There are no separate slums, or bustees, in Calcutta. The whole city is one bustee, or slum, and neither the middle nor the upper classes can segregate themselves from it.”

In 1997, almost twenty years after the outburst of exasperation by Guntur Grass, in Amitav Ghosh’s novel Calcutta Chromosome, the city of Calcutta is attributed an aura of elusive mystery and an inexplicable enduring quality that defied verbalization. The loudspeakers in the auditorium, amplified the earnest voice which stated, “Every city has its secrets… but Calcutta whose vocation is excess, has so many that is more secret than any other. Elsewhere, by the workings of paradox, secrets live in the telling; they whisper life into humdrum street corners and dreary alleyways; into the rubbish- strewn rears of windowless tenements and blackened floors of oil-bathed workshops. But here in our city where all law, natural and human, is held in capricious suspension, that which is hidden has no need of words to give it life…”

Again, Krishna Dutta’s wellresearched book on the history of the city, titled, Calcutta a cultural and literary history is undoubtedly a riveting narrative that documents the evolution of the city from its early beginnings to the era of globalization. Published in 2003, the foreword to Dutta’s book written by Anita Desai, who had been a resident of Calcutta for a few years harps on a similar response of attraction and disillusionment, noticed in the reactions of the writers referred to so far. Desai remarked, “If it had once been “the graveyard of the British Empire”, it was now the graveyard of the ideals and dreams of an independent and renewed India. (To be concluded)