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            Volume 11 |Issue 13| March 30, 2012 |


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A Glimpse of Kolkata – and India

Shah Husain Imam

It was the day after state elections in India. My holidaying saunter out of the hotel in Kolkata had to be called off as some interesting developments in the regional political landscape of India cast a spell on me.

I stayed put browsing Telegraph, Times of India and Bangla daily Bartaman, hungry for insights into the Congress' drubbing in the UP elections by a resurrected Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of Mulayem Singh Yadav.

Mayavati, the Dalit leader who had quickly become one of the richest and most powerful women politician in India, given to a palatial lifestyle in stark contrast to the poverty of the people she led, took the direct hit of public rejection.

The most high profile loser was Rahul Gandhi in Amethi -- to Akhilesh Yadav (39), son of Mulayem Singh Yadav. One All India dynastic scion received a setback from a less glamorous dynastic progeny in Akhilesh. In fact, out of 14 seats Congress contested for in UP, it just clinched one.

The baton passed to a young man in the race for power at the heartland of Indian politics, Akhilesh becoming Chief Minister of UP. But it was not to be Rahul Gandhi's day, though he logged several more miles by helicopter than Akhilesh could as he had to bike to his meetings.

Highly educated Akhilesh with a passion for IT proved an astute electoral campaigner, his style reflected in the manner he would send his supporters to villages immediately after these had been visited by Rahul. In one Dalit constituency, Rahul's men stayed overnight but ate the food they had carried from home. Akhilesh's men were quick to point a finger to the disconnect.

Another snap-shot came through a newspaper: at a village joint when Rahul and Priyanka approached some people, 4-5 persons quietly left just saying 'mehengey' (high prices).

Rahul promptly and gracefully congratulated the winner and owned up to the debacle. Sonia Gandhi put the poor showing down to wrong choice of candidates.

On such an extraordinary diet of reading I stepped out of the hotel amazed at the highly interesting complicacies of Indian politics to savour a slice of Kolkata life.

The City of Joy of Dominique Lapierre fame (incidentally half of the book's sale proceeds go to Kolkata slum-dwellers) has pavements beamingly friendly, humane and intimate. On top, easy to walk rather blissfully free of obstructive, intrusive hangers-on.

The livelihood options are many and varied ranging from small eateries, tea stalls, masala puffed rice outlets, juice selling outfits, mini South Indian cuisine joints, Italian barber shops, squatting shoe shiners and cobblers, you name it ... Perhaps nowhere in the world shops are squeezed into such small spaces, several nestled on tree trunk cut-outs or narrow strips along nooks and crannies and not a few cul-de-sacs. All are doing brisk business to a regular flow of customers. It is truly a city for all classes of people melting from adjoining states who make a living with a gusto. It really is pursuit of happiness with small simple expectations from life.

Hitch-hiking foreigners are to be seen almost everywhere flip-flopping through the streets and sitting down to a wayside stall sipping tea from tiny clay-pots. Bengali cuisine is tasted by American, Canadian European and Australian tourists with considerable ease and least fuss. Overall, foreigners are attracted to Kolkata for it's modern and liberal in many ways as well as splendidly traditional and inexpensive. Western pensioners with depreciated incomes simply adore the exchange value in Indian rupees a pound-sterling or dollar fetches them.

As for a peek into tradition, I landed at a wrong place by taxi where a business management buff of a friend came to my rescue to lead me to the right place. Before heading for the Indian Institute of Management he had taken me to the ancestral home, now a much-revered memorial of Sri Aurobindo, the Indian freedom fighter, philosopher, yogi, guru and poet. Born in 1872 in Kolkata he died in Pondichery in 1950.

At the other pole is a mundane tradition, a craft handed down through generations to meet a present-day small need that expansive pedicure shops simply fail to do. I have very bad toe nail that when grown bends into the sides of soft tissues of the toe. What a relief it was to sit down on a barber's stool and rid myself of the shearing nail through a 'norun', a centuries-old nail cutter!

On another jaunty note, I bought Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native; George Eliot's Middle-march; George Orwell's 1984 (written in 1949, a treat on totalitarianism); Rudyard Kipling's Kim; and Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations – all in excellent condition for Rs 400 from an old book shop.


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