Being back in Kolkata is like walking in uber-slow-motion, neck-deep through molasses. Everything is so excruciatingly slow. Traffic inches along. People plod. Dust drips onto everything. The city sags in the April heat. Women sit in doorways near the local school, waiting for their children. Or plod, sweating flakes of talcum powder, to the local bank, where officials have, over years, mastered the art of making each transaction last decades. Customers wait, mute and uncomplaining. Everyone waits for everything. For CESC to deal with cable faults (apparently their monitoring systems don’t alert them to these – they find out only once irate customers start calling). For the cable company to deliver the channels it’s supposed to. For electricians, plumbers, carpenters, who arrive days after they were due. Because if you live in this city, you know the secret to survival here: acceptance of one central idea: "eikhaney tho erokom-i hoy" - this is the way things work here.
I didn't grow up in Kolkata, but in Calcutta, a less bonglicised, more cosmopolitan, livelier, more interesting scape. I went to the best school in the universe, had the coolest family on the planet, and spent all my time with the most fun friends ever, in this most astonishing of cities. Calcutta was the celebration of every festival - Diwali and Pujo, Christmas and Eid. Calcutta was the annual book fair, the Dover Lane music festival, English and vernacular theatre. Calcutta was Hari Prasad Chaurasia and Herbie Hancock, Kishore Kumar and Frank Sinatra. Calcutta was winter mornings at the zoo, and tea and contemplation in the monsoon. Calcutta was coffee houses and bars, jazz and blues, the enlightened, liberal left, a city of artists and writers, musicians and movement. Calcutta was the unquestioned cultural centre of the universe.
Of course, “this best of all possible worlds” perspective is easy to maintain in school, with relatively little direct interaction with the outside world. Through the last 14 years, as my connections with other cities have grown, and my time in Calcutta decreased, the fiction has been increasingly harder to maintain. Kolkata has steadily decayed, so that each time I turn around to take a look, it is just a little greyer, a little duller and more provincial, while cities I once abhorred as soul-less cultural vacuums – New Delhi springs to mind – have grown and greened and prospered. The Calcutta of my childhood has vanished, with neither bang nor whimper. Which makes me wonder, did it ever exist, except in my mind?
I left Calcutta in the summer of 1998. In 11 years, I’ve moved around a fair bit, and through it all, at some deeply-buried emotional core, I have always thought of it as “home” – the city I know so well that I could walk around blind-folded, the city I love so fiercely that it brings tears to my eyes. Then, earlier this year, I decided to take a sabbatical in Calcutta. Except that it was Kolkata. And it drove me up the effing wall.
It isn’t just the decay – after all, great cities decay and are reborn. Or the fact that pollution has actually caused weather change – Calcutta no longer sees the violent, refreshing norwesters for which I remember waiting excitedly. It’s so many things that I don’t even know where to begin. The steady un-greening of the city. The complete disdain for traffic rules by ALL SECs (justified by the entirely unreasonable explanation of “everyone does it, this is the only way to survive here”, and by the somewhat more offensive “you won’t understand, these foreign ideas don't work here"). The bottles, cans and plastic bags thrown carelessly from car windows onto streets. The apathy. The make-a-fast-buck mores on display in banners that urge ill-informed students who have failed class XII board exams to “save a year” by enrolling with some seedy college, unrecognized and unaccredited by anyone. The ludicrousness of a government that, attempting to ban the polluting, 2-stroke-engine auto-rickshaws, managed to “stop” only 60 of them, across the city, when autos remained running, in defiance of said rule.
But I think, more than all the physical manifestations, it is the perspective of Calcuttans that is the most worrying. In all civilizations comes a time when paths diverge around one word: change. Those that embrace change move on. Those that don’t, fall back. In Calcutta, change is a distinctly dirty word. Old is gold, none of your new-fangled rubbish for us, thank you very much. Couple with this, the peculiarly Calcuttan lip-curling sneer of disdain for other cities, supported by empty pride in the cultural achievements of previous generations. (And I cringe to think that I was once the poster-child for this kind of thinking.) The rallying cries of “Tagore” and “land reforms” (an achievement in itself, but subversive in the way it draws attention away from how little else has been achieved in three decades of uninterrupted rule by a single party) are alive and strong. And, worst of all, nobody seems to be interested in what goes on elsewhere. For too many people in Kolkata, so sure are they of their superiority that there is no elsewhere worth knowing about.
But all of Calcutta’s claims to fame are dead. Culture? Delhi has book fairs and music festivals. Bombay has Kala Ghoda. New York celebrates every damn thing on the planet. Cosmopolitanism? Count the non-Indian people in other cities, and then let’s talk. Industry? Sure, at one point in the dim past. But now, between the CPI(M) and the Trinamool Congress, any hope of real economic development in the next 30 years has been successfully scotched. Congratulations, West Bengal, you just shot yourself in the foot.
I am a product of a particular Calcutta space-time, and proud of it. I grew up in the most fantastic city in the world. But – and I begin to realize this only now – perhaps that city was fantastic because it was fantasy, a child’s view of a gentle jailer, a fond mother’s insistence that her criminal child is better than anyone else. And even as this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine, there’s no getting around it: Calcutta, your day is done.