Kolkata or Calcutta is the most generous city in the world. Yes! You read it correctly. No typos there. It is the most accommodating city. It packs more human beings per square foot than most of the cities would do per square mile. Yet, it welcomes more people every day from its own state, the neighbouring states and nearby countries as well. Even Mumbai, my favorite city Mumbai – the Maximum City., saw some silly fights against south Indians in the seventies and some serious ones against the north Indians in the recent years. Not Kolkata. No one is bothered where are you are from and which religion you follow; anyone from anywhere is welcome to come and settle there; you can share the riches or the poverty and the cultural heritage of the city which is overcrowded and reeking of infrastructure.
Mohan Ram and I were on a short visit to the city yesterday and once I woke up after a long nap in the plane, I started to rewind my memories of this great city. The first of them were trivia which I read during school, how the British established their capital there before switching over to Delhi, how the city was the most populous in the world (10 million population even as far as back in 1975), how the south point or is it north point? school had the highest number of students – 9000 of them. Also the greatest film maker from India Satyajit Ray made his feature films there.
I came to the city first in 1989 and I still remember couple of incidents as if it had happened only yesterday. The first was the iconic Howrah Bridge which linked the cities of Howrah and Calcutta. Though renamed after the Nobel Laurate Rabindranath Tagore in 1963, every one called it Howrah Bridge. I settled into a small hotel near burrabazar and the next day the Marxists called for a bandh (shutdown).
In other cities even a total bandh would leave some shops to be opened and you could see some life. Not in Calcutta. The hotel where I stayed, had a restaurant but it was closed and the management asked us find food on our own. I hoped to get some tea and egg rolls (the staple of Calcutta citizens) but there was no sign of commercial life anywhere. The city was deserted and the only sign of life was, children playing cricket and football in the busiest streets, where forget playing a sport, even walking would be difficult on a normal day. After walking for a couple of kilometers I found a medical shop open and bought a tin of Threptin biscuits which is a protein supplement to survive next twenty four hours.
The second was somewhat hilarious. I took a cab to go Howrah station. Few minutes into the drive, a young man flagged the Taxi down. The taxi driver stopped the car and the man asked him something in Bengali. The driver opened the front door and let the man in. He told me something in Bengali which I did not understand. I was wondering how could he let anyone in when I have hired a cab and thought this must have been some emergency. Near All India Radio office, the man got down and offered him two rupees. The driver did not take it and demanded more. The man started yelling by this time and made a ‘take it or leave it offer.’ The driver said ‘no’ and the passenger pocketed the note and walked away. From the driver’s Bengali accent, I could figure out he was a Bihari and asked him, in Hindi, what happened. He told me the man told him he was in a hurry and asked him for a ride but was not ready to pay what was a reasonable fare. I asked him how could he take a passenger when I had hired the taxi paying a full fare. He did not reply. What struck me odd was neither the man who wanted a ride in an already hired taxi nor the driver asked for my consent. What a way to get free rides.
I also took long rides in suburban trains which covered more than hundred kilometers to visit paper mills in some of the loveliest places like Jhargram. Imagine travelling in crowded suburban trains for three hours with bags and huge metering pumps. That was some life which merits a blog of its own. I don’t understand why Bengalis keep names with letter ‘r’ if they are going to pronounce as ‘d’ anyway (Jhadgram, Budman da etc.).
My best days in the city were during my employment with a MNC based in Calcutta in the nineties. The company provided us accommodation in a very upscale apartment which was close to Taj Bengal hotel. I could talk about the city and Bengali movies with my colleagues; most of them were engineers from Jadavpur university and I spent some lovely time with them travelling in Metro trains (the first metro in India) and watching movies in Cinemas which Calcutta was famous for. During the intermission one could sit languidly in leather upholstered sofas, order a beer and Omelette; finish them in a hurry and get back to movie just when it resumed after the break.
My reverie of life and times in Kolkata (yes the name has changed since my last visit which was probably ten years ago) was broken as the plane landed with a thud on the runway. Heavy rains and cool air welcomed us. The airport, the last one I had seen, has changed; this one looked swanky. As we came out for the long drive into the city, I saw the road which is much wider now since I travelled through it last time. But soon I realized the maxim, ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose‘ (the more things change the more they remain the same) is always going to be true in India. Heavy rains from the previous night has flooded and made 40% of the road unusable; few cars were struck and stranded in the waters. So the traffic moved at a snail’s pace till we hit the express way.
But then, Kolkata has changed like every other major city in India. There were many high-rise apartments and hotels all over the city and new ones coming up. The second metro line construction work is going on at full swing. New hotels and new over bridges are adorning the city. The driver also showed us, from a distance, the tallest building coming up in the city which has sixty-two floors. Of course the good old yellow coloured ambassador cars the icons of Calcutta city, just like the Fiat cars of Mumbai are still plying. I also saw a couple cycle rickshaws coming on the wrong side to the traffic flow. Definitely a rare sight anywhere near airport in India.
The Ambassador Car and Cycle Rickshaw – icons of Kolkata.
I was giving a lecture to Mohan Ram about my theory on how Kolkata is the most generous city in the world and soon enough we could see all the shanties near the high-rises. The sights of old Calcutta are still are still there. Under the bridges, for many kilometers we could see cloths hungout for drying. I could not figure out whether this was due to the rains or people normally use them as cloth stand. It looked the entire over bridge system was used as Dhobi ghat. What also struck me was, the bottom of the bridge is covered with grilled gates for miles, so people could not use the place as parking lot or establishing few tea stall or automobile repair shops and most importantly construct living quarters there. There is one difference in India which you can’t fail to observe. We don’t hide anything. When you travel on the elevated express highway from Shanghai airport you would see huge blue coloured tin corrugated sheets erected on either side of the road. This prevents anyone from seeing what lies underneath, the crowds, the shanties and broken drainage systems. Everything is under plain sight in India nothing is hidden.
As we passed Park Circus, I realized, I had not seen any tram so far. I asked the taxi driver if all trams have gone from city transport system. He said there are few still running, more as an heritage line than normal public transport. Kolkata is the last Indian city to have trams and it would be a shame if they become extinct.
The Horse Drawn Tram (Model) and the Electric Tram.
I asked the driver, since the industry is consciously driven out from the city, where all the development is coming from? The organized trade union movement became militant in West Bengal many years ago and most of the industries closed shop as it became unviable to run any industry profitably there. I also asked him if this development is because of trade. I thought for a moment if he would understand what I meant by trade. I need not have. Not only he explained how Kolkata is the center for trade for all the surrounding cities and states in the eastern part of the country, he talked about wholesale and retail commerce and about inflation and price indexes. This is the beauty about Kolkata. You can observe a high level of not only literacy but also the general knowledge on any subject from Renoir movies to retail inflation.
I remembered an article from a travel writer who wrote this about Kolkata taxi drivers. The driver of the taxi which he was travelling took a sharp U turn after missing an exit oblivious to all incoming traffic which you could see in many parts of the world. But what took the writer by surprise was what the taxi driver said afterwards. The writer commented about taking such a violent turn. The driver shot back quoting Earl Stanely Gardner’s Perry Mason novel about unexpected turns in lives. He wrote (the travel writer) he would not have heard this even from a taxi driver in New York (Mr. Gardner is an American Novelist). That’s Kolkata for you.
On our way back, for the first time, I met someone who supported BJP, the current ruling party in India. It was our taxi driver. He said he went to the same college the chief minister graduated from. West Bengal has been a communist bastion for decades till didi Mamta Banerjee threw them out and became a chief minister. In all these years I have not seen anyone even talking about BJP or its leaders forget supporting them. May be there is another change in offing.
It emerged from our meeting with the client that we had to hire a person in Chennai who is fluent in Bengali to have better communication with patients. Mohan Ram asked me, on our way back, is there anything common between Tamil and Bengali so that we could learn the language easlily. I said, as far as I know, there is nothing; but I see some similarities between Tamils and Bengalis. Both think that they are the most intelligent people on the planet earth. Bengalis could claim they have the first and only Nobel laureate from India and Tamils talk about the oldest language in the world and the civilization of many centuries. Till few years back they also had the only Oscar winner from India (Mr. Ray, lifetime achievement award) till A. R. Rehman won it for original music score for Tamil equalizer.
On a more serious note, there are some similarities between Chennai and Kolkata. Both developed into big cities during British Raj. The first horse drawn tram came to Calcutta and the first electric tram was introduced in Madras. The first colleges came to both cities at the same time. Bengalis love their movies and so do the Tamils (difference between the two – some other time). Both are rice and fish eaters though I believe Bengalis eat more of both. I agreed with Mohan Ram that we should learn Bengali which is a sweet language, just like Telegu (Mohan’s mother tongue).
Talking about movies, I don’t know if any other city has a trilogy of movies based about the city. Kolkata has not one but two. Mr. Ray’s Pratidwandi (The Adversary) (1970), Seemabaddha (Company Limited) (1971) and Jana Aranya (The Middleman) (1976) are classics just like Mr. Sen’s The Interview (1971), Calcutta 71 (1972) and Padatik (The Guerilla Fighter) (1973). My favourite is Seemabaddha a movie most of the Yuppies of our generation can connect with. If you are an avid movie buff, I recommend all the movies; if you can’t get them in Netflix or Prime, you definitely can watch them in YouTube.
When City of Joy, Dominique Lapierre’s book got published there were lot of criticism some of them justifiable about the book. Though titled, ‘city of joy,’ the book spoke more about the squalor of the city and inhuman living conditions. But for me this is the most magnanimous city of the world, rich in culture and heritage, where everyone is welcome to make a living, where poverty and opulence coexist. A city of pure joy.
If you are wondering about the two exclamation marks in the title, it is actually inspired from the play, Oh! Calcutta!. I first thought that it was a play about Calcutta. I later understood that it was an avant-garde erotic revue, a very successful one at that, first staged in off-Broadway in 1969 and in West End in 1971.