Work, passion, interests and life

The City of Joy, or a dying city?

Posted on: August 11, 2009

 (THIS PIECE WAS WRITTEN IN 1999)
 ‘Come see the World! The Kaleidoscope! See Calcutta!’
                  – A character in Mrinal Sen’s Parushuram

Asia can boast of a number of remarkable cities like Dacca, Colombo and Bangkok beside several others. The pull of these cities have been such that all of them are gradually becoming very densely populated, tottering almost on the brink of demographic disaster. However, there ends the similarity between them. It’s amazing to look at their uniqueness as
most of them are so vastly different from the other one begins to wonder how it
could have happened between cities at close proximity to each other. Take Mumbai
and Bangalore as an example. Both qualify as great, happening cities in their
own right. But look at the cultural differences between the predominant Marathis
in Mumbai and the Kannadigas in Bangalore. Tremendous contrast in spite of an
undeniable national unity binding them.

I’ve had the opportunity to visit and have stayed for at least a short period in most major cities of India — New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chandigarh, Guwahati, Pune, Nagpur and a few more, and also some places in Bhutan. Each of these cities that I have been to have a
distinctiveness and a charm of its own. Yet, in my opinion, none quite equals the mystique associated with Calcutta.

Calcutta has an identity of its own. It retains its own culture, for good or for worse, setting it apart from the glossy westernised cultures of Mumbai or Delhi and some other big cities. Most
interestingly, it always generates extreme emotions in anyone visiting the city. Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The city of dreadful nights’ & Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘A dying city’ acts as a counter to such descriptions of the same city as ‘The city of joy’ by Dominique Lapierre, and ‘Calcutta, My El Dorado’ by Mrinal Sen.

The city of Calcutta was founded by Job Charnock who started as a junior member of the
Council of the Bay of Bengal in 1655. By 1686, Charnock was Governor of the Bay of Bengal based in the settlement of Hooghly. On a monsoon afternoon in August, 1690, Charnock rowed ashore to a swampy village Sutanati. On that day in 1690,Captain Job Charnock founded Calcutta on these three closely placed small villages. The villages soon grew into a city which came to be known as Calcutta. Less than three years later, Charnock was dead. Little did he knew he had sown the seed of a megapolis.

I have lived in this intriguing city for seven long years at a stretch apart from numerous sojourn that I have made, and as such I will endeavour to bring out the city in its different moods and flavour — the joys, hardship, frustration and excitement of living in this city.

Is Calcutta really a city of joy? Let’s see. It is grossly over-populated, the prime reason
being cost of living is the cheapest amongst the Indian metros. So, people from adjoining areas and states flock towards it in droves. These poor people often find employment in the small scale industries like textile mills which have sprung up in the city and thus they manage to eke out a livelihood.

Calcuttans are basically warm people, albeit a bit garrulous at times with some who
profess, quite irritatingly, to be the all-knowing type. If you can overlook
such minor drawbacks and can deftly handle yourself amidst such characters, it
becomes really an irresistible metropolis. Bombs don’t erupt in the same manner
like it does in Delhi, and riots rarely occur like it does in Mumbai. Of course,
political clashes do take place and often innocents too lose their life, but it
hasn’t become anything alarming as yet.

Most Calcuttans believe in the golden adage “simple living, high thinking.” And they practise it. Intellectual Calcuttans have set high standards in art and literature, theatre, academics
etcetra and are recognised even Internationally for their talent. There exists
concern for all sections of society. Concern for the Elderly and the Ladies have
seen an alternative sedate transport system viz Trams still existing when other
cities have long discarded them. Even hand pulled rickshaws still survives. They
exists alongside the Esteems and the Mercedes. Cases of eve-teasing is a rarity.
Concern for children have led to several parks springing up in different parts
of the city. Besides education, children are encouraged to take part in sports
like swimming, take training in table tennis and such activities. There are many swimming
clubs, or clubs where the young can pick up other sports as well.

Calcutta love reading, and this accounts for the fact that Bengali publishing Industry is
the largest regional publishing Industry in the country, even bigger than the
National language Hindi which ranks third, after Malayalam in book-publishing.
The CALCUTTA BOOK FAIR, annually held during the month of January-February every
year is eagerly awaited by book lovers of the city who flock to buy books,
available at a small discount, when the fair is held. The CALCUTTA BOOK FAIR is
the largest book fair, in terms of books sold at a fair, in the whole world.

It’s also interesting that almost all Indians who have won the Nobel Prize have
had strong links with Calcutta. Rabindranath Tagore, Mother Teresa and Amartya
Sen were from the city. Ronald Ross, a foreign national who won Nobel for his
research on Malaria did his study in Calcutta. Physicist C. V. Raman worked for
several years in Calcutta. Besides them, there’re numerous stalwarts in several
fields from the city who have left a mark in their respective fields and are
recognised both nationally and internationally. Calcutta-based personalities
like Rabindranath Tagore(Jana Gana Mana Adhinayaka Jayahe) and Bankim Chandra
Chattopadhyay (Vande Mataram) have penned the Indian National Anthem and Indian
National Song.

The major attractions of Calcutta, particularly for tourists from
other parts of India, are the Underground Railway ( Metro ), Science city,
Alipore Zoo, Victoria Memorial, Indian Museum, Botanical Garden, NICCO park,
Diamond Harbour, Park Street, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tagore’s house at Jorasanko,
Birla Planetorium, Aquarium, Netaji Subash Chandra Bose International Airport,
Ferry ride, Salt Lake Stadium, Howrah Bridge, Vidyasagar setu, Royal Calcutta
Turf Club(RCTC), Royal Calcutta Golf Course (RCGC), Tollygunge Club and numerous
good restaurants. Shahid Minar, a 52 metre tower with 200+ odd steps to reach
the top, is a patriotic spot, and the view of the city from the tower is
enchanting. Sweets of Calcutta like rosogollas and a few other varieties are
famous across the world. For the academic, there’re numerous good libraries like
National library, British council library and others. And premier institutes of
learning and research like Calcutta University, Jadavpur University, Shibpur
Engineering College, S. N. Bose Institute, Presidency College, Indian Institute
of Management, St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta Medical College, Satyajit Ray Film
and Television Institute, Indian Statistical Institute, School of Tropical
Medicine, Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Indian Institute of Chemical
Biology, Academy of Fine Arts and several others. In institutes like Max Mueller
Bhavan, Ramkrishna Mission Institute ( near Golpark ) or Alliance Francaise one
can learn foreign languages as well.

The only irritant for a small town guy like me is the fact that Calcutta is over-populated, and also highly polluted. And those everyday avoidable problems like traffic jams ( good transport system like Mumbai would be a solution ) so often caused by massive rally on various issues sap me of all my energy when I am in the city. Monsoon wreak havoc in Calcutta. The drainage system is abominable, and a slight drizzle causes water-logging.
When there’s a heavy downpour, pedestrian have to wade through knee-deep or even
higher level of water, and on many an occasion, manholes which are left open at
times can result in the death of many a pedestrian during the season.

For art lovers, Calcutta is really a good place. Good writers, poets, filmmakers,
painters, magicians, musicians and theatre directors abound. Cinema houses like
Nandan screen good films from across the world. Dover Lane classical music
concert is an annual event. Other similar cultural functions keep happening
throughout the year and Calcutta Int’l Film Festival is also an annual event.
Several temples and ashrams in the city attract the religious-minded. There’s
Kalighat temple, Belur Math, Dakshineswar, Narendrapur Ramakrishna Mission where
the devotees flock in multitude.

In Calcutta, the difference between the northern and the southern part of the city is tremendous. North Calcutta houses
most of the old buildings and some of these once imposing structures is now in a
dilapidatedstate. Development in South Calcutta has been recent, and the
wealthy segment inhabit these areas. As such, one can view newly high-rise,
impressive buildings in these localities. According to filmmaker Mrinal Sen, who
made a documentary on the city a few years back, “North Calcutta is more
interesting.” Possibly because of the history associated with it.

Calcuttan are crazy about sports. Football and cricket are the two most popular games liked by its people. One interesting divide among Bengalis of Calcutta is the Ghoti (
West Bengal ) and Bangal ( East Bengal ) factor. And a jingoistic streak is
markedly visible during the football match between the two traditional rival
teams, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. When there’s a cricket match, a capacity
crowd of one lakh would fill up the Eden Gardens. Nowhere in the world a cricket
match draws such a massive crowd.

Durga Puja and Kali Puja are famous festivals of Calcutta, and celebrated with tremendous pomp and gaiety. October and November are the festive months.

There are certain things to be cautious about when you’re in the city. Beware of pickpockets! Because of rising unemployment, it has become a regular occurence. I also particularly abhor the bus-burning phenomena which happens whenever there’s a slight fare hike, or an accident leading to some deaths. In such cases, angry Calcuttan mobs will set ablaze a
few buses. Why take your anger on these inanimate objects? There exists other
forms of protest. Catch hold of the erring bus-driver and hand him over to the
police. And let Law decide what punishment ought to be meted out.

There’re quite a few expensive hotels in Calcutta. Grand Hotel, Hotel Hindusthan International, Great Eastern, Taj Bengal, Kenilworth and Park Hotel are some of the expensive ones. There’re numerous hotels for middle-class budget as well. Poor people can
look around for dharmashalas in the city. Calcutta presents a kaleidoscope of
life in varied colours. While the predominant Bengalis are content with
‘maach-bhaat’ ( fish and rice ) the rich and the elite dine in a luxury
hotel/restaurant.

The Calcutta port is the lifeline for almost the whole of
eastern part of the country. It is also the lifeline of Nepal’s supplies.  With
the influx of immigrants, flesh market too have developed in Calcutta.
Sonagachi, a red-light area of Calcutta, is a notorious center of prostitutes
where they can be hired for pleasure. In some ways, Calcutta lacked behind other
Indian metros. Like oppurtunities in IT. Now things seem to be on the right
track. The present ruling Govt. has emphasised that thrust on IT development
would be its priority and lately a number of private engineering colleges have
sprung up to bridge the gap between demand and supply. I foresee Calcutta
becoming a hub of IT activeties in the near future. Moving with the times.
Blending modernity and tradition. And retaining its own unique place and
culture.

 

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