March 4, 2008

Oh Calcutta!

How much change would 14 years warrant?

In the parlance of Hindi cinema, 14 years means a long time. When it comes to people, 14 years could just about everything. If you were to talk about technology then 14 years could mean a lot. If you think of cities that you visit after a long time, a decade and a half could mean an entirely new landscape. I stay in a city that barely existed five years ago! So imagine my surprise when I visited Kolkata after 14 years this weekend and found that the only thing that changed was the name. Once it was Calcutta and the only thing that reminds you of that 'past' is the restaurant whose name inspires this post.

When someone says a city has character they mean that many moons later it would age like a person. That is so true for Calcutta. The city adds a few wrinkles and strands of grey but beneath all that remains the same.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

For one it's nice as there are very few places left in India that are connected with the past in a sense so unique. The city’s buildings come across like weary stage actors who continue to amble along their lines. The streets, the buildings seem to be responding on cues and putting up a show for visitors. That might not be a bad thing but in Calcutta’s case it seems (to me) like somewhere down the line Calcutta lost the plot. How else do you explain things like people still using 25 and 50 paise! The official parking charges for cars is Rs. 6.25 per hour! They wanted to phase-out taxi's more than 15 years old some 10 years ago. Guess what? Ten years later the taxis are almost 25 years old and still crisscrossing the city.

I was there on a weekend and perhaps that’s why one of the taxi drivers told me it was easy moving around. He complained that the people don't allow the government to do anything. He wasn't complaining about the people. He meant that it was rare that the government wants to do something and whenever such an opportunity arises the people gang up. The chaos on the streets is visible from a concoction of taxis, private vehicles, trams, buses and two wheelers making it a free for all play. Yet it continues to be the city of joy.

So what makes Calcutta so unique?

The people?

The culture?

The government?


I think it’s a combination of things. I don't mind our obsession with the past and trying too hard to stick to it. I suggest that if you want to do that then accept that and prepare. Restore the streets, buildings and other things that dot your city's landscape; make it look new old! Many Calcutta buildings are beautiful and I'm not talking about the Victoria Memorial. Like Bombay, Calcutta represents the British legacy more than any other place. These cities were largely the creation of colonial might and one look at buildings such as The Bible Society of India, Government College of Art and Craft, YMCA reveals more than a hundred books. Wouldn’t it be prudent to preserve this in a better way than the auto pilot mode it seems to be functioning on?

The way things are Calcutta doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon. The builders of new India- DLF, MGF and the ilk are threatening to come in but as of now they have been restricted to the outskirts so don’t rush that trip. Thankfully the famous Calcutta traffic jams would keep a check on their entry. 20 years ago you got stuck in traffic jams highlighted by Ambassadors and hand-pulled rickshaws. Today the traffic jams are still there and so are the Ambassadors!

1 Responses to “Oh Calcutta!”

  • I like your take on Cal.

    After reading your blog, suddendly, I am interested in this city.

    Seems to be a city stuck in a time warp, of sorts, but the passage of time being visible.

    Oh! so romantic!!
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