I have visited Kolkata many times in the last few decades. Having been domiciled 10,000 miles away for over 20 years, for better or worse, it still is Kolkata — changed yet unmistakable! No more is it the Calcutta, reminiscent of British pomp and circumstance that I left a few years after Desmond Doig’s nostalgic Artist’s Impressions hit the scene! Although Kolkata prides itself of abundant artistic talent, I have yet to see sketches of the old city rendered with such sensitivity and flair. Desmond Doig was a brilliant writer, artist, and photographer. In those days, his work was featured in the prestigious National Geographic magazine, and for those who knew him professionally, a perfect gentleman! Mention should be made of his book on Mother Theresa, which gave the western world yet another glimpse of Kolkata’s outstanding missionary, thus deftly foisting her selfless image worldwide.
The Statesman then was blessed with indubitable talent, although the Junior Statesman could not survive the fast-changing realties of the market, or effectively position itself for a larger burgeoning mindset. Doig was its anonymous guardian angel. Realities aside, Desmond Doig’s charisma and charm won him many young friends, especially those who wanted to have a say on his juvenile forum. I remember doing a regular cartoon column then Fun with Shyamol, and occasional cover illustrations for the young magazine. Given his warmth and encouragement, one even summed up enough courage (I was barely in final year college then, and timid by nature) to contribute a few short pieces on Mondays for the elder Statesman’s Calcutta Notebook.
The Editor’s offices in those days bore an austere, foreboding look. Even the newspaper building carried an imposing post-Raj elegance, notwithstanding the busy factory-like hum on the lower floors of a daily newspaper tirelessly trying to set the record straight, and presumably setting journalistic standards too in the process!
On and off center
Men like Doig constitute the fond memory of a frenetic city that has undergone sweeping changes. In those days, when there were no flyovers, shopping malls, or the Metro Railway, and tramcars still seemed to welcome a breezy ride along the Maidans… rattling merrily past the stretching green fields that was home to so many of Kolkata’s popular sporting clubs. Not to speak of the Monument (long since renamed Shahid Minar), Eden Gardens, Victoria Memorial, the Planetarium, Calcutta Race Course, and of course, Fort William. My suspicion is: Pleasure co-mingles with pain, and those tramcars even enjoyed the dirt and incessant bustle of Kolkata’s busy streets, much like a cow’s tail tolerates obstinate flies swooping in on its wounds. Inexorably bound by fate to stay within its tracks; draw sustenance from electrified overhead wires; clang ever so gently to erring traffic; its easy pace, where hopping on and off didn’t appear life-threatening; even the unassuming but comfortable wooden seats in second class make Kolkata’s tramcar worthy of restoration. Not just for old times sake, but for living history! Which other Indian city can boast of such an unique, leisurely transport?
Most modern cities are concrete jungles, but it’s only in India that, despite its teeming millions, you see both the unspoken harmony and law of the jungle prevailing. Long live human nature! The Lakes along Southern Avenue that were once a welcome haven from the cacophony and pollution of the city is a sorry portrait of its former self, with ubiquitous water hyacinth, overgrown weeds, submerged and floating refuse. Tell me, have they gotten rid of stray cows from Kolkata’s streets altogether? And, is the Assembly of Dirt closer now to Writer’s Building or to the Governor’s House?
And what about the khataals in Kolkata’s densely populated residential areas, particularly in the north and center? Their odorous offerings exposed to a sun-dried sun would eventually adorn many a wary landlord’s perimeter walls in the form of dung cakes, cooking fuel for the city’s poor. I personally think the ugly posters and brazen graffiti of local political zealots are far more offensive. Despite earnest attempts to steer a recalcitrant population into affordable pay booths created for that purpose, urinating on walls seem to accompany voting rights for many. If politicians and their ilk may with impunity deface those walls, why not the common public? Another instance of poetic justice, you might say, with suppressed ire.
Everything changes eventually
The old cinema halls have taken a beating too. Metro, Lighthouse, New Empire, Minerva, Elite, and Globe have undergone “see” changes (excuse the pun). The Tiger is now a shopping plaza! The famous eating establishments seem weather-beaten too, if not yet assigned to history by the economy’s capricious twists and turns. Remember Firpo’s, the bakery? Beg your pardon, turned into a commercial beehive, for whose benefit? On Chittaranjan Avenue, Chung Wah now hobbles like an old racehorse that had once seen better days. Some of the restaurants like Trinca’s, Blue Fox, Quality, Skyroom, Flury’s, Mocambo, and Moulin Rouge on Park Street (note: it’s a one-way street during office hours) still hang on for dear life. Competition is upstart and unsentimental. Big name hotels too have carved their niche — Taj Bengal, Peerless, Hyatt Regency, Sonar Bangla, you name it.
One thing that was conspicuously absent in Kolkata in those days was any restaurant worth it’s name that served typical Bengali fare — you could spend a whole month’s pay looking for one, 25 years ago! No more now. Now, you have more than a dozen names that mirror the tongue-in-cheek lyricism of the native Bengali — Sholo Anna Baangali, Tero Parban, Bhajo Hari Manna, Esho Bosho Ahare, Oh Calcutta!, and 6 Ballygunge Place (you can google and ogle at them from abroad too)! The gastronomic delights simply would put their names in lights, or is it just me — starved from crossing a cultural desert?
Change of course is inevitable, but difficult to stomach when it actually arrives. India’s, and Kolkata’s especially, rapid overpopulation is a shocker every time you visit the city until, like diabetes, falling hair, or fuel prices, you learn to live with it. Except for true beautification (that’s exactly what I mean), one can only hope they’ll leave the Maidans alone! The last time, did I see visible signs of human encroachment, or is it just my imagination and near-retirement intolerance that’s seeing things? You folks down there know better. Being far away and with imagination as my only crutch, I am and will be resigned to your fair judgment. But, like the tramcar, please stay on track, and for God’s sake, mind those auto rickshaws and mini-buses!
The above article first appeared in The Statesman, Kolkata under “Perspectives” on March 26, 2010. Voice your opinion, vent your wrath, if you think Kolkata is going (or gone) to the dogs!