A tale of several Calcuttas 

Sudipta Datta

A tale of several Calcuttas 
Rich and poor, Hindu and Muslim, joy and anguish, books reveal the many facets of a city of opposites    People of this city are used to the extreme reactions she provokes. One day, she is hailed as a ‘City of Joy’, another day branded a ‘dying ...
Rich and poor, Hindu and Muslim, joy and anguish, books reveal the many facets of a city of opposites   

People of this city are used to the extreme reactions she provokes. One day, she is hailed as a ‘City of Joy’, another day branded a ‘dying city’. Once the capital of British India, the tone was perhaps set by Rudyard Kipling when he compared Calcutta and Simla (incidentally, a hill town Bengalis love to visit) in his 1887 poem, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. Calling Calcutta a “chance-directed, chance-erected” metropolis, that was founded by Job Charnock, Kipling said it was “laid and built on the silt” with “palace, byre, hovel — poverty and pride — side by side” where “above the packed and pestilential town,/Death looked down”; Simla, on the other hand, is termed the “best” for “rule, administration, and the rest.”

But Calcutta has a life and vitality all of its own, and it has drawn people from all over, including those who crossed over from Bangladesh during the 1971 war. Passionate about food and politics, cinema, football and books, and known for their love for ‘adda’, denizens will agree there are at least three names to call their city, Calcutta (for the anglicised), Kolkata (the official name), and Kalkatta (by which every non-Bengali calls her).

Colonial hangover

Ranabir Ray Choudhury traces the evolution of Calcutta from the three villages of Sutanati (where Charnock had landed in 1690), Kalikata and Gobindapur in A City in the Making (2016). “Charnock’s decision to make Calcutta the base of the East India Company’s operation in the Bay [of Bengal] area triggered the evolution of a hitherto nondescript village on the eastern bank of the river Hooghly into a bustling metropolis of the British empire which once came to be described as its ‘second city’,” writes Ray Choudhury. The most important phase of the development work was done in the 19th century under the guidance of the Lottery Committee — the subject of Ray Choudhury’s follow-up book The Shaping of Modern Calcutta (Niyogi Books). The “basic contours of the physical shape in which we find Calcutta today,” he says, “is a direct product of this specific phase of the city’s development, which may be cited as evidence of the lack of any fresh initiative (apart from the work done by the Calcutta Improvement Trust) on its further growth in the 20th century.” Even a serious facelift of the riverfront was taken up only in the last decade or so, with the banks remaining largely unaltered for nearly two centuries.

Does Calcutta/Kolkata then live in the past? The 2008 anthology, Memory’s Gold (Penguin/Viking), edited by Amit Chaudhuri, reveals the many facets of Calcutta with its collections of essays, memoirs, stories and poems. People closely associated with the city from Michael Madhusudhan Dutt and Rabindranath Tagore, to famous visitors Gunter Grass and V.S. Naipaul, and contemporary writers including Sunil Gangopadhyay to Jug Suraiya, write about their association and memories.

Syncretic culture

Perhaps a wider interpretation of the inclusive history of the entire Bengali-speaking people can be found in Ghulam Murshid’s Bengali Culture over a Thousand Years (Niyogi Books), translated into English by Sarbari Sinha in 2018 from the Bengali Hajaar Bochhorer Bangali Sanskriti (2006). Over the 14 chapters, Murshid talks about society and religion, women, music, theatre, and the impact of the West on Bengalis. The original followed his BBC Radio series when he realised that there was no “reliable” book on the various aspects of Bengali culture. He also wanted to look at the history and culture of both Bengali Muslims and Bengali Hindus, covering the “shared destiny of the entire Bengali-speaking people,” who had undergone several break-ups and witnessed largescale violence. In his sweep, he also takes in the rise of the ‘Babu’ or the ‘Bhadralok’, a social class which “saved without any objective, earned money to save, pursued an education to earn, and stole question papers to pass examinations.”

In his 2017 book, The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community (Aleph), Sudeep Chakravarti also writes a social, political and cultural history of Bengalis, looking at both East (now Bangladesh) and West Bengal. Both have been through a lot and were impacted by huge crises like the 1942 Bengal famine, the Tebhaga land movement, Partition, Naxalbari, the Bangladesh liberation war and so forth. Fiction writers from Jhumpa Lahiri ( The Lowland/Penguin) to Neel Mukherjee ( The Lives of Others/Penguin) have woven the radical and reactionary political narratives of the city in their novels; Mahasweta Devi chose to tell her story of a mother and son in the backdrop of the Naxalite movement in Hajar Churashir Maa (Mother of 1084/Karuna Prakashani).

Beyond the ‘bhadralok’

Calcutta/Kolkata/Kalkatta is a city of opposites, where there is space for everyone, rich and poor, Hindu and Muslim, old and new. In Field Notes from a Waterborne Land (HarperCollins), Parimal Bhattacharya goes looking for a Bengal beyond the ‘bhadralok’ and finds refugees and labourers, fishermen, vegetable vendors, farmers and first generation school-goers. He tells the story of deltaic Bengal, a waterborne land, which is still being made and unmade. “Its fertility and accessibility through its rivers and the sea have always drawn people — agriculturists, artisans, merchants, freebooters and colonisers — making it one of the most prosperous and historically significant regions in the subcontinent,” says Bhattacharya. But all that is in the past. A majority of the people now are either tied to subsistence farming or are “transiting all over the country to work in its informal sectors.” Memories of Calcutta, full of nostalgia, are one way of celebrating the city, but the reality is different. Here, battered by cyclones, floods, and the rough hand of history, people are struggling to make ends meet. It’s a story of “untold misery but also of remarkable grit.”

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