Sandip Roy traces Kolkata’s journey from thriving culture capital to decaying nostalgia capital, and wonders what lies ahead.
A friend is eavesdropping on two young men meeting for what is obviously a date in a coffee shop in South Kolkata. He sends me live updates on Facebook on the topics of discussion as the evening progresses.
Cigarettes. The Bengali poet Joy Goswami. Aabritti, or the art of recitation. Monsoon clouds. The fibre content of sattu and its digestive wonders. (Bengalis have as many words for indigestion as Eskimos have for snow.)
For some, the very idea of a conversation like this encapsulates the cerebral sensibility Kolkata is legendary for. To others it is the epitome of Kolkata pretentiousness, coffee-shop intellectualism that leaves traces no more lasting than the rings coffee cups make on the Formica table tops.
Mumbai might be the financial capital, Delhi the power capital. But Kolkata wants to hold on to its sense of itself as India’s cultural capital. No one else thinks so any more.
“You are from Kolkata?” a famous journalist from Delhi once asked me pityingly. “Have you noticed those weather charts on television screens at airports that tell you the weather in four or five main cities? Kolkata doesn’t even make that list anymore.” He was right. Sometimes it feels like the city that India forgot.
Kolkata wants to hold on to its sense of itself as India’s cultural capital. No one else thinks so any more.
Perhaps out of sense of pity, the journalist paid for lunch.
But Kolkata cannot forget that this is the city that produced Asia’s only Nobel laureate in literature, Rabindranath Tagore, and India’s most internationally famous filmmaker, Satyajit Ray. Tagore was born in 1861. Ray in 1921.
To this day, the birth anniversaries of both are still marked in the city. Film aficionados trek to Ray’s flat, with its cool red cement floor, its potted plants, its shelves bursting with books, and stand quietly in his study before his portrait. “I saw him just once,” a man tells me. “It was at the Academy of Fine Arts. He stood out in the crowd because he was so tall.” He tries to come every year to pay his respects to the master. “It’s very fulfilling, very heart-warming,” says Ray’s son, Sandip, himself a filmmaker. “After the day, though, we are extremely tired.”
It’s also very “heart-warming” to the city’s own imagination of itself. Yet the same anecdote can be read as a warning sign of a city trapped in its own rear-view mirror.
A power capital’s rise and fall is quickly apparent. A finance capital’s rise and fall is easily measured. But a knowledge capital’s decline, as it rests on its laurels, can be harder to track. It can moulder most picturesquely. At some point the cultural capital becomes the nostalgia capital and no one knows the difference.
A finance capital’s rise and fall is easily measured. But a knowledge capital’s decline, as it rests on its laurels, can be harder to track. It can moulder most picturesquely.
The writer Ruchir Joshi memorably calls it “decay tourism”—Kolkata’s allure is best captured in black-and-white photographs, the buildings faded by sun, stained by rain, all in a state of genteel decay. In an essay about Bengal in his book India Shastra, politician and diplomat Shashi Tharoor writes that as business capital and professional talent fled Calcutta, it became a provincial capital with faded delusions of grandeur, the epitome of all the ills of our urban culture—poverty, pollution, pestilence, power cuts, potholes, pavement-dwellers, political violence, paralysed industry.
But we have our nostalgia and no one can take that away.
That city was once a magnet drawing people in from around the world, some armed with handbooks like The East India Vade-mecum; or, Complete Guide to Gentlemen intended for the Civil, Military or Naval Service of the hon. East India Company, which listed the going rates for taking an Indian mistress (about Rs 40 per month, including her servants and a tobacco allowance).
In 1837, Calcutta’s population was about 2,29,700. 1,20,300 were Bengali Hindus and 45,100 were Bengali Muslims. The Portuguese outnumbered the English. The Eurasians outnumbered the Portuguese. The rest included a mix of other Hindus and Muslims, Parsis, Burmese or Maghs, Jews, French, Chinese, Armenians, Arabs. They changed Calcutta as much as Calcutta changed them. Like any good hospitable knowledge capital, Calcutta both drew people in and radiated outwards. For indentured labour it was the point of departure to the far reaches of the British Empire.
Others, like my grandfather, left the city under considerably less duress. My grandfather died the year I was born. I knew him only through his pictures, his heavy study table with its swivel chair and his shelves filled with law books. He went to Cambridge to do his Tripos and came back a barrister. He wrote a textbook on calculus, whose tattered copy survived for decades in my grandmother’s house. We were always told his name was written in golden letters at the Scottish Church School in North Kolkata, though we never checked. But it was a common story at that time, the bright young student venturing far afield for higher education.
But is the rebirth of a knowledge capital all about recreating the academic grandeur of a Presidency College? Is a knowledge capital of the 21st century measured by the same checklist that it was a hundred years ago?
We see a facsimile of that scene repeated over and over again today as young people leave Kolkata for a higher education. But unlike my grandfather, they are not leaving to come back. “I want to study outside Calcutta, and Bangalore is the best choice. It offers more career opportunities,” a medical student, preparing to board a train to Bangalore to take a medical entrance examination, told the local newspaper a few years ago. At that time Bengal had 1,205 medical seats on offer. Karnataka had 4,500 though Bengal was number four in terms of population and Karnataka was number nine.
Presidency College—now University—enticed many Kolkatans who had left the city to come back home to teach. But many of them were gone within a couple of years, pessimistic about the promise of change. “When a great city collectively loses the desire for greatness, its lights dim in more ways than one,” writes Tharoor.
But is the rebirth of a knowledge capital all about recreating the academic grandeur of a Presidency College? Is a knowledge capital of the 21st century measured by the same checklist that it was a hundred years ago? Can a city like Kolkata be reimagined rather than restored?
Bonani and Pradeep Kakkar, founders of the NGO People United for a Better Living in Calcutta (PUBLIC), write in The Telegraph that “[m]uch-maligned Calcutta has been an enigma in that it has fostered deep loyalty and pride despite its ‘nothing works’ status. Even those who have had to leave the city for lack of economic opportunity keep referring to Calcutta as the ‘only real city in India’.”
A 2010 Gallup study listed three factors that give citizens a sense of attachment to their city. Openness—how welcoming and tolerant the city is to different kinds of people. Social opportunities—the opportunities a city provides for people to interact with each other. Aesthetics—the features of a city that make it pleasant or beautiful. “All three,” Pradeep admits, “require politicians to get out of cultural space, something that is quite unlikely.” He adds that if he could wave a magic wand, it would create tax incentives for educational institutions, arts and entertainment enterprises and a credible public arts commission. It would probably not recommend building faux Big Bens.
The problem cities like Kolkata face in trying to resurrect a glorious past is that the only way they know to do it is through the idea of heritage. But they become sites for nostalgia, not urban renewal.
The problem cities like Kolkata face in trying to resurrect a glorious past is that the only way they know to do it is through the idea of heritage. That means the house where someone famous was born. Or a Governor-General’s mansion. But they become sites for nostalgia, not urban renewal.
Kolkata is luckier than some of other knowledge capitals. Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Beirut, Tehran all great cities, have borne the brunt of war and strife. It is surely better to be eaten by termites and silverfish than bombed. But that is small comfort to a city that made it to the bottom of a Times of India survey of India’s best mega cities.
Kolkata will never be the city it once was. The question is, what could it be instead? PUBLIC brought together a group of people to forecast what Calcutta might look like 25 years from now. “The India growth story will spill over into Calcutta,” write the Kakkars. It would mean more infrastructure, perhaps, at the cost of clean air and open space. “The continuing migration of the young to other cities and the market-driven push of the Bengali resident to the outskirts of the city, while making it more cosmopolitan, will weaken Calcutta’s connection with its past…Calcutta will no longer be a cutting edge city or a cultural capital—whether real or imagined.”
It could be just another city.
That is not the end of the world, because out of the debris of that city it might be possible to reinvent itself as place that is interesting in new ways where new does not necessarily mean gleaming malls and humming office parks. “Culture grows like a good fungus alongside the investment and infrastructure, sometimes as a resistance to it,” says Ruchir Joshi. And sometimes, it pops up where you least expect it.
Out of the debris of that city it might be possible to reinvent itself as place that is interesting in new ways where new does not necessarily mean gleaming malls and humming office parks.
Babumani Sardar would not consider himself part of any new renaissance of a knowledge city. He is just an entrepreneur with a dream. But he is trying to live out the dream in Kolkata. Sardar and his wife Dola gave up their pharmaceutical job to launch Kolkata’s very first food truck, Agdum Bagdum. I find Agdum Bagdum parked under a giant billboard for an astrologer, a dark blue food truck with Kolkata scenes painted on its sides.
When the Sardars devised the menu for their food truck, they decided to avoid the mainstays—rolls and chow mien. “We wanted to introduce something new to the market,” says Babumani. “Like risotto rice, mei wei Chinese, burrito wraps, chimichanga, but in Indian taste, not authentic.”
The pride with which he says “not authentic” startles me. It sticks out in a world where many cities like Kolkata, face to face with their own decline, cling to some remembered notion of authenticity with dogged tenacity. Its clubs become sticklers for antiquated jacket-and-tie dress codes. Its traffic signals spout Rabindrasangeet in a mournful loop. It laments the lost sweetness of the rosogolla of a very particular shop in a particular alley.
The pride with which he says “not authentic” startles me. It sticks out in a world where many cities like Kolkata, face to face with their own decline, cling to some remembered notion of authenticity with dogged tenacity.
Babumani beams with pride as he tells me about his wife’s hottest creation, the “kabiraji burger.” The kabiraji cutlet is a sinful remnant from the days of the Raj, a meat or fish patty fried and then covered with a lacy net of quick-fried egg batter that clings to it like a greasy cloud. “Kabiraji is a very famous Bengali dish and the burger is continental,” says Sardar. “The kabiraji burger is selling like hot cakes.”
One should not read too much in a food novelty du jour. But it is a sign of hope that instead of recreating the perfect, and lost, kabiraji cutlet of their grandfathers’ college days, they have reinvented it, using the past to look towards the future.
That’s not to say the deep-fried wonder won’t ever cause indigestion, but then no one claimed that change would be easy to digest in Kolkata.