I write to you from rainy Calcutta, where the Bangla is lyrical, the people hospitable and the roads despicable. This was once the British Raj's flagship city, centre of an empire where the sun never set, now it is India's forgotten mega city. These days with double figure growth within sight, India has concentrated on its financial hubs of Bombay and Bangalore. Bombay representing the face India wishes to put forward to the world, modern, fast paced and a culture modelled on the west. Bangalore is the IT and outsourcing capital of the world, this is the city that kick started India's raise to economic superstardom. These two cites could be seen as a microcosm of India's search for sustainable growth, which they hope will see them rival China for Asian dominance. But all of that leaves Calcutta in a rather unusual place; it is essentially a mega city without direction. India's march from developing to developed seems to have given everyone a role to play, everyone that is except, Calcutta.
Economics aside, Calcutta has much to offer. I have been here frequently and every time I am greeted with the same scenes and people, the beggars, the dirt and a very Dhaka like atmosphere. Yet this time it is more or less the same, but for a few differences. Many vestiges of its British past have quietly been demolished, replaced with shopping malls and brand name shops. There is a sense of a city that has moved on from wallowing in its glorious past, wishing to put forward a new more progressive image. One could say it came half a century too late, but for Bengal and Calcutta it is a step in the right direction. As the city searches for a new identity, the past is still never far from sight. Some great British houses and monuments still catch the eye, the only element that has changed is that sheer number of them. Breaking down buildings may seem a rather superficial way to move forward, somewhat like plastic surgery to change one's appearance. Yet no matter how superficial it is, for the city to have real purpose in Indian growth it must convince the rest of the nation that it is part of the new India, not the old one.
What I like best about the city are its people. Now everyone knows a million and one jokes about Bengalis, their personalities and their traits, but let's be honest, it is in fact the simple stereotype we have put on ourselves. The people are genuinely courteous and soft-spoken, everyone from the taxi driver to the house DJ seem to exude charm and warmth. What's more they all speak at least three languages, which makes for pleasant conversation. The other day on a 10 minute journey to my hotel, I spoke to the cab driver in three languages about Bangladesh, cricket and football madness in West Bengal. That is the beauty of the ironically named city of joy. This interchange of languages makes the city easy to manouevre and as I have witnessed, made it a haven for western travellers. With the languages in Calcutta come the religious and cultural diversities, which are both colourful and vibrant.
The only way to describe the Calcutta experience is to read the newspapers, this must be the only city in the world where cricket and every aspect of the game makes the front pages, day after day. Since my arrival the headlines have been dominated by the Cricket Association Of Bengal's presidential elections. No I did not stutter, the headlines have been hogged by the elections of a cricket association. The day after the results every single newspaper in Calcutta, every single one of them had the results of the elections as their major headline. The Hindustan Times had three articles about sport on the front page! Followed by a little piece on some war in the Middle East, God knows how that made the front page. The Telegraph, Times of India and The Indian express all dedicated their entire front pages to the election, and on The Telegraph they even had excerpts from John Wright's autobiography about his time as manager of the Indian cricket team. War In Lebanon, that's peanuts, compared to sport in Bengal.
Calcutta is more than just languages and sport; it is India's real melting pot. There are varied ethnicities from the Nepalese to the Chinese to the Tibetan. The city is full of different types of faces, and even more cultures, even the food has morphed. Traditional Nepali dishes can now be found almost everywhere catering to their huge numbers. Aside from them the city also has a large Chinese contingent and their food has entered the Bengali mainstream cooking as well. This is one aspect of their change that they would like to promote, in a country where religion and cultures clash almost daily, Calcutta stands out as a neutral city where all races and creeds are all treated equally. This may be their way up, it is doubtful they will ever be an economic hub in India. The city's poverty problems and the slums are all well documented, and without long term government spending they will not disappear overnight. Yet they may catch the eye of the nation with their tolerance of people from all over. Although the situation in Gujrat is bound by different circumstances they would do well to see how Calcutta has managed to integrate its many peoples and cultures.
It is that integration which has made a rather bland city a haven for western travellers, hoping to taste the complete Indian experience. The city is flooded with travellers from all parts of the world hoping to experience all they want from India in a single city. It could be described as a supermarket, where on every isle there is a different part of India to taste. What's more, Calcutta has evolved with this tourist boom, there are nightclubs, umpteen bars and discos all catered for the foreigners. With these monuments of western leisure they wipe out just a little bit more of that stuffy British image. Bombay moved the tide and opened itself to “westernisation”, in a small way the city of joy is trying to do the same. Now all it needs is a solid economic foundation, and sooner rather than later Calcutta could be the darling of India again. Till then it is the metropolis without purpose, it may be moving in the right direction, but without purpose, direction means nothing.
(R) thedailystar.net 2006