31 January 2012

On Calcutta, occasioned by a first trip to Bengal

Even though Calcutta is more a notional place than an actual city, it’s interesting visiting it. It’s a place you’d want to go back to.

I mean, of course it has its drawbacks. Its jams are incredibly infuriating, so much so that even bus drivers shut down the motor and get down to stroll by the road as hapless passengers fume. It’s incredibly crowded, so much so that at times you’re literally pushed off the pavements. More than that and anything else, it’s full of Bengalis. I know that sounds incredibly ridiculous, but for a person geared to academic thought in Departments of Bongali-English the very idea of a place exclusively Bengali is a sort of a nightmare. Calcutta, full of Bengalis, was at first sight precisely that.

But still, a place to go back to again and again. There’s something charming about that place, something quaint and engaging which grips your attention and calls you to itself. I know I give that sort of charm in some way or the other to almost every blessed place I come across, but Calcutta seems to have an inherent, intrinsic magnetic quality about itself, an air of timelessness which still conveys decay; as if the past was trying to live up to the future and failing – and, knowing so, still trying.

That’s the impression I made while walking in some parts of it on the last day of my very short stay. Too little time to make definite lasting impressions, I know, but the queer thing about going to a notional place is that you’ve already imagined it and made some views about it. Of course, one creates notions about all sorts of places beforehand, but when it comes to such notional places as Calcutta, preconception is too inevitable to resist. One reads of its anglicised splendours in Victorian and Edwardian account, of the trade which consolidated an empire, a port which made Hindustan India. Simultaneously, one hears of its decay, of its falling in into itself, of a dead city stuck in the past, refusing to move. Remnants of the Raj all over, struggling to keep up with more contemporary neighbours, paint and plaster coated and recoated and still the damp air undoing all effort, blurring past and present, the very air holding the city back.

Things have changed, of course, and fortunately too one may assume. Calcutta exists no more, but like a spirit that lingers on, a memory that never dies, Calcutta impregnates Kolkata. It looks at you in its crowds, in the narrow streets cutting towering heaps of old brick; in trams which give you change in paisa, on rickshaws which remind you of times when man was cheap and class all. Calcutta is in many senses an originator, cradle of the Indian bourgeoisies, fount of much of what we have consolidated as urban and middle-class. Visiting Kolkata, one cannot but see Calcutta, and seeing Calcutta, one cannot but see the past, a past which combines and rushes with the force of history into the present; seeks, determines and dominates what we see and how. I suppose this is a matter of intensely subjective sensibility, but being so, being place without the tangibility of space, Calcutta is too hard to resist.

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