Kolkata: City of Sorrow

The great outdoors stink, meanwhile the Bengalis are happy excelling indoors

ByAnand Ranganathan
Kolkata: City of Sorrow
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India wallows in shit and Kolkata is still its capital. It is a city best suited for the metamorphosed Gregor Samsa, a million crumbling horrors to emerge from and hide in, and an equal number of gutters to call home. The eyes burn. They burn from all the brutality there is to witness. Kolkata is Joe’s Citadel, but worse. It is an inspiration for the Mad Max franchise. The eyes burn and then they close in anguish. How can an Indian withstand so much carnage and yet walk the streets unconcerned? How is it even possible for millions to go about their daily lives as if nothing is amiss? Or are they ghosts in a post-apocalyptic world, living out their cursed reincarnation?

Any other Indian city and the pain would be less. Kanpur comes close, and so do Mumbai and Delhi; but Kolkata, and the pain is unbearable. The city was special, the city was dear; the city was grand. Devoid of the anger at those who built it – of their culture, snootiness, racism, bigotry, elitism, exclusivity – devoid of this excuse, this key bunch that is tied to every Indian’s pallu, the city was a marvel of human enterprise. All great cities are, because they bring together two things otherwise to be enjoyed separately – creativity that is exhibited publicly and one that is done so in private. One feeds off the other, making the city greater still. When the British left, our anger – at their elitism and exclusivity – stomped, whether state-organised or spontaneous, on the former. Quickly, the latter cowered behind closed doors. India is great, perhaps without equal, but it is great behind closed doors. Its greatness is to be found in its philosophy and scriptures or its dance-forms, or in the brilliance of its individuals. Publicly, India wallows in shit. And because public and private excellence were so cruelly separated, because the greatness could no longer be looked at, only read in books or watched inside theatres, the city and its people succumbed to the ego. The artist walks the streets of Kolkata and what does he experience? The same as what a scientist experiences, or a musician, or a writer, or a danseuse. There is nothing on show that can inspire, that can make you feel honoured to belong to a fraternity, a brotherhood – there is nothing to make you at once proud and jealous, to smash your ego. Ordinary cities encourage in their dwellers a false sense of triumph and contentment. Great cities show them where they stand among their peers; great cities propel them to greatness.

A decaying building is beautiful; a ruin even more so, for it brings History alive; the eyes search for a reason for the ruin – and it may be that they never find the answer, but at least the eyes search. In Varanasi, as in Lucknow, the eyes find and are becalmed by ruins. But not in Kolkata. A ruin is beautiful so long as we let it be, leave it alone, respect death, for then a ruin becomes a cup-cake for the senses. Its return to dust must be unhindered and untouched. In Kolkata the ruins hurt the most, much more than the brutal and senseless modern non-architecture that is on display. Half of middle-class Delhi is glorified slum; Mumbai a little more than half. But our eyes have accepted this travesty. We are a poor country and along with material poverty must come the poverty of mind, the thoughtlessness that goes in creating new buildings bereft of architectural beauty; evolution of extreme functionality; selection by way of tender. In Kolkata, the ruins have been disturbed. It is as though our revenge on a way of life wasn’t quite satiated at watching it die alone in a corner; we had to exhume it. And now, having exhumed it, added our mediocrity and architectural mindlessness to it, we watch it drag its feet through the city streets like a zombie.

The old buildings of Kolkata cry silently at this vandalism but no one cares, no one mourns. The Bengalis are all indoors, excelling at the things they normally excel at – food, culture, music, textiles, literature, science, art; the renaissance is hiding under a bed with unequal legs on an uneven floor inside a concrete matchbox with ill-shaped windows barred with repulsive ironmongery through which one views bunched up cables and illegal wires running from streetlamp to streetlamp on a hastily painted steel and cement flyover whose numbered pillars exhibit smiles of the leaders who allowed all this to happen right under their noses. Gone are the exquisite ledges, the elegant columns, the louvered windows, the airy balconies, the graceful verandas, the neat ironmongery, the thoughtful mashing together of colonial and art-deco and Asian styles. And in the night, like an ugly replica of an under-construction Eiffel Tower, the red & white floodlight pylons of Eden Gardens loom over the city centre. The cranes of Alang.

In Gurudev’s house, Jorasanko, one of the rooms has an imitation red stone floor. The workers must have been in a hurry for dozens of bubbles have erupted underneath the linoleum; children try to squeeze and shift them. The tree trunks have been painted white and blue. The lawns have not been weeded. The gutters have not been cleaned. The curtains show layers of grime, like tree rings – welcoming another year. Outside the room where Gurudev breathed his last, an operation theatre scene is on display. Enclosed in Pyrex, it shows green toy-doctors operating on the dying man who once penned the most exquisite verse. The label on the case thanks the doctor who gifted this crude toy set to the Museum.

Overlooking Nejati’s house on Elgin Road is a giant glass and concrete container, lacking, like all containers, any design. It contains shops and restaurants. Netaji’s house is beautiful; it is not quite colonial and not quite art-deco or Indian. But the crude signboard above the entrance announcing the 75th anniversary of his great escape decidedly is; and the tilework, recently done – the tiles still wrapped in plastic sticker – promises to exhume the house, like thousands before it. There is no escape. Indian workmanship is a rash without cure. But ignore it, ignore what the eyes see and follow your nose and you will end up, at the end of Elgin Lane, to a quaint single storey house that serves the best Bengali food there is on offer. Excellence is inside; it is indoors. We are a word of mouth civilisation; eyes no longer register wonder and awe.

In the second book of his India Trilogy, Naipaul, having visited Vijayanagara, examines this very question – of mediocrity in our workmanship. His thesis, that waves of invasions hacked away a generation of excellence leading to skill-stunted progeny, seems too lazy, more so as post-medieval Indian workmanship, now buttressed with Mughal and Western influence was equally resplendent. But someone if not Naipaul has to explain this tsunami of ordinariness that has engulfed our cities. Additionally, someone has to explain our abject indifference to it.

In a recent interview the writer Amit Chaudhuri, a resident of Kolkata and the flagbearer of CAL, Calcutta Architectural Legacies, a movement to save the city’s heritage, put forth his argument for the city’s decline from the time when Kolkata was unique, in that it spoke a language “of the cosmopolitan, of the modern” and not, in the writer’s words, the language of identity politics. “The middle class exodus which had begun with industry leaving in the sixties had turned into every middle class family having somebody going elsewhere and priming themselves to go elsewhere. It led to the Bengali middle class’s disengagement with the city and led to the waning of this language. It led to a vacuum. It led to an absence. Something that was there was no longer there. And once that something was gone all that was left was the chaos and the shells of habitations…In the houses there were ageing people. And then there were these local gangs which were appropriated by politics which were growing. And there was a particular kind of patronage that was peculiar to the left; like keeping sick companies alive. There was a whole ethos going and they also created this cadre-based politics. Political patronage has now been extended and entrenched in an extreme way by the Trinamool Congress which is spelling doom for the city.”

But why blame just the politicians? The Left may have kept the sick companies alive, as says Chaudhuri, and Trinamool may spell doom for the city, but there is something else, the real reason for why a city was murdered. Kolkata is no exception. The Left or the Trinamool have never come near Chennai or Mumbai or Delhi or Varanasi. No, it is something else. And it is this, that we as a people have reached the nadir of urban evolution, where all what matters is functionality; we think there is pride to be had in reading philosophy, doing science, composing music, practising dance-forms, while wallowing in shit. We have deliberately murdered the joy of the public so we enjoy the birth of the private.

Is there a solution? There cannot be, not unless our cities are sanitised of this vandalism street by street or built afresh. And here, too, we come out red-faced. If Corbusier were alive today he would refuse to venture into Chandigarh, the city he designed. Visual pleasure, the joy of seeking inspiration from public art, public spaces, public buildings, is for us vestigial. India works, day and night it slaves, and for what – to collect its moments of pleasure that must be enjoyed later in private.The current socialist government under the leadership of Narendra Modi is no different from its predecessors. It was Garibi Hatao earlier, it is Smart City now. A thousand ways to fool a people and if you are nearing the end of the list, we have some more. The Centre is going to disburse a princely sum of 16 million dollars to turn each selected city into a smart one. Sixteen million dollars over a period of five years. A single carriage flyover costs more.

Smart City is a plan destined for failure, for the simple reason that, as one commentator puts it, the problem with Indian cities is not that they are ‘unsmart’ but that they are dysfunctional. Add nauseating architecture and debasing workmanship to the mix and we might as well return to the cave. As for Kolkata, it does not feature in the list of the 98 selected cities that are to be made smart.

I am angry. Angry at all those who glorify India and its beauty, who know what we are and what we have become and yet tell the world a different story. I am angry at our government and our leaders for taking us down the path to where India will live and work not from fab but prefab structures. But more than anything I am angry at the Dalrymples of this world for buying into the Incredible Indianisation of our miserable state. I am angry at those who come to Kolkata and gush at its private creativity even as they know in their heart of hearts that great cities and nations aren’t built thus. They are admirers, not friends. And when the city crumbles, you will still find them pondering at a marble statue with tilted heads, thinking already of a lofty last para for their intolerably sugary paeans while being escorted back to their hotels in a hand-drawn rickshaw.

The James Hickey Lane off Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula Sarani, named after the Irishman who started the first newspaper in India, curves ever so gently. The bend is gorgeous; it demonstrates how well planned it was. But the bend is all there is left to admire. The buildings on it crumble to dust, their plaster peeled off, their bricks showing, their slatted windows torn, their ventilators sprouting baby peepul. Beauty is heaving its last breaths, as a mongoose scuttles in the open gutter beneath and the aroma of fried luchhis fills the dusty air.

Metro Cinema at Esplanade, built in 1935

LIC Building, Jawaharlal Nehru Road

Opposite Jorasanko Thakur Bari, Gurudev’s ancestral house

Daubed trunks, Jorasanko

Craftsmanship of the shielding lion, Victoria Memorial, architects Emerson and Esch, builders Martin and Mookherjee, commissioners Curzon and Indian Princes

“We will turn Kolkata into London” – Ms Mamata Banerjee, 2011

View from the compound adjacent to the Marble Palace, Muktaram Babu Street

Ironmongery of the gate at the entrance to the compound adjacent to the Marble Palace

Iconic columns are all there is left of a structure that once stood next to the Marble Palace

One of the many thousands of heritage buildings of Kolkata, in a state common to all but a few

Entrance of the James Hickey Lane, off Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula Sarani

A ubiquitous street scene in Kolkata

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