Monday, October 03, 2005

The Royal Bengal Reincarnation
Oct 3, 2005

In a recent conversation, the phrase “Bengali Mafia” popped up. The phrase immediately stood out of the flow of the sentence. It was an ungainly thought. A misfit. An apologetic adjective. This is, of course, because in the global context, the Bengali Mafia has been as much a reality as the Spanish or Italian stiff upper lip. You can ascribe a lot of epithets, kind and unkind to Bengalis and to Kolkata, but mafia suggests both a militancy and an organization which is antithetical to Bengali culture - a culture which has prided itself on thinking today what the world thinks tomorrow and leaving action to other “lesser” mortals!

Kolkata, as I’ve discovered, is one of those places from which you can “check out any time you want, but you can never leave…”. Kolkata haunts you. Like a lover that you will never ever be able to replace, flawed though he or she may have been. Consider this – a year after moving to London, we move into an address on Goldhurst Terrace, near West Hampstead. An old Jewish area, and an erstwhile Bohemian locality, you cannot ascribe any level of premeditation to our choice of street. And yet, we are sandwiched between Dawn and Eddie who live downstairs and Samira and Chris who live above. Dawn, as it turns out was born in Kolkata and Samira traces her ancestry back to Bangladesh. Do you see what I’m saying about being haunted by Bengal and Kolkata?

It is now customary to the point of cliché to read about how every writer, artist or personality in India and sometimes elsewhere, has a special bond with Kolkata. Recently I was reading one such eulogy penned by Vir Sanghvi, who probably has more Kolkata in his blood than most. Most luminaries can’t get enough of the Kolkata charm and as Mr. Sanghvi puts it “the city with Soul”. That’s not all that these luminaries have in common though. Can you guess what else it is? Yes, indeed, none of them live there. Like thousands of other non-luminaries, such as myself, they have all chosen to deify Kolkata from afar, at best choosing a few weeks during the Pujo days or a few afternoons in December to keep their romance with the city alive.

In the 60s and 70s, Kolkata was the toast of India and a true jewel in an otherwise barren crown. This was the era when Satyajit Ray burnt a fiery furrow through the firmament of world cinema. And along with him, men of the caliber of Mrinal Sen, Bikash Bhattacharrya, Sunil Gangopadhyay and others lit up the cultural milieu. It was the era of Badal Sarkar and Shambhu Mitra. And the revolution wasn’t just on the stage. This, after all was the era of the raw and unfettered revolution of the Naxalbari movement. The blood that was spilt in the movement was as romantic as it was heretic. Lest we forget this was the era when Amitabh Bachchan worked as a clerk in a small office in Kolkata and the time when Mother Teresa steadily but unintentionally built her reputation as the crucible of compassion for the world’s most unwanted. The Tata empire was still built around Tisco and Britannia, Brookebond and ITC ruled their markets from the commercial centre that was Calcutta.

I don’t remember any of this. I was born in the cusp of this revolution, and I was a child in its proudest moment, but I grew up in its hangover. All around me people spoke of Ray and Badal Sarkar and Shambhu Mitra and Amitabh Bachhan as though they were the everyman on the street. I was 15 when Mrs Gandhi was assassinated. It was probably the first significant political event that burst its way into my protected consciousness. What nobody saw at the time was the great void that the city and the Bengali culture had already tumbled into. People were still celebrating the 70s.

I really remember the 80s though. It was a period of slow and inexorable decay. Even as I grew older and bolder. Spread wings and grew horns. Skinned my heart and skinned my knees, Kolkata crumbled around me. Buckling under the political ideology and the economic misadventure that is communism in practice, company after company went west or went south. Literally and figuratively. Bombay was in ascendancy. Almost like the star of Amitabh Bachhan, who touched infinitely more hearts in India then Ray, Bengal’s favourite son, Mumbai spawned a new ostentatious offspring – Bollywood. Those that didn’t go to Mumbai, went to Bangalore. And those that did neither, went south financially. Jutemills on the hooghly became ghost towns and colonial buildings stood like empty cupboards.

Power cuts and traffic jams became an integral part of the lingua franca. There were even Sari’s designed on the “loadshedding”. The Metro railway broke records for the worlds longest running civic project. Its hard to really put a finger on good new artistic or cultural talent that came through in the 80s unless you count Bappi Lahiri. The football on the maidan grew rancid and was shown up horribly by the arrival of international sport on TV around the 82 and 86 world cups. New thinking in the 80s was really down to celebrating the 70s or debating the pros and cons of Jyoti Basu’s communism. Oh and of course the schism between the Bengalis and Marwaris grew because (God forbid!) they wanted to make money! Tollywood as the name itself suggests gave up any semblance of originality or talent. Bangla television, while it appealed in some measure to my grandparents, was as appetizing to me as homework, with soporific coffee table discussions by septuagenarians about state politics or cultural preservation being served up as staple fare. Even now the word “Shakkhatkar” sends shudders down my spine.

Of course at the time, growing up through high school and college we lived and loved Kolkata. We overdosed on deep conversations about Bob Dylan, the resident deity of adda sessions. The Pujo was still a mesmeric phenomenon spanning people, pandals and para-politics across the city. Food was always spicy and succulent; accessible and affordable. Beef tikia by the drains at Kala-bagan or Momos on hospital road. The ultimate freedom of college life. The joys of adulthood without any of its attendant responsibilities. Pride. I really thought this was a city that was a bejeweled corner of the world. Till I saw the rest of the world. College life was scattered across my most cherished memories of Kolkata. And then I left the city.

In the years that followed I learnt some hometruths. Calcutta was historic. Delhi was a thousand years older. Calcutta had lots of young people – Bangalore was younger. Calcutta had smart people who went to the best colleges. Chennai had smarter kids if anything. Calcutta was the seat of music and learning. No, that was the cruelest cut of all. Because art and culture cannot survive without the backing of commerce. And the commerce had all moved to Mumbai, and the art had followed. In the 80s and 90s, much of the new thinking around art, music and movies – good and bad, came from Mumbai, even from Bollywood or its schizophrenic double – parallel cinema. Even the revolutionaries were elsewhere.

This is probably the hardest lesson for the Bengali. Today I understand that London and New York are not just the world’s cultural capitals, they are also global financial centres and this is not a coincidence. greatest writers, poets and musicians have always relied on understanding patrons. Kings, queens, emperors, politicians, religious leaders, capitalists. Bob Dylan said, “You gotta serve somebody” but his Bengali disciples missed that point. Today I get it. Gaudi’s architecture, the Sistine Chapel … they all needed sponsors. By ridding itself all its patrons and turning its back on commerce Kolkata turned its back on itself… all that it was admired for. Every time I went back to Kolkata through the 90s, I saw more decay, degradation, desolation, despair and despondency. As Karuna pointed out on one of the trips we made back together, you didn’t see smiling faces on the street in Kolkata, in the 90s. Life was hard graft. It took a lot of energy to get through each day.

And like an antique in a museum many many people looked upon Kolkata in amusement, affection … attraction even. But only as a curiosity. The Pujo pandal and the good food. The tram in the winter through the maidan, the arguments in the buses and trains, the professorial Bengali who would rather buy books than invest in shares, who would rather make his son a researcher than a businessman. Eternal adda as a means of spiritual progress, in the absence of any economic agenda. These are all the bits of Kolkata which live on as anachronistic artifacts that nobody wants to really embrace in their own lives. And that’s why glorious incantations of Kolkata that speak so vividly about these very insular icons really grate on my gall bladder, because they continuously condemn Kolkata to another generation of lost voices. Voices like mine or probably Mr. Sangvi’s who will remember Kolkata, fondly, whilst sitting somewhere far far away.

But times and tides ebb and flow, and sitting here a thousand miles away, I feel this change in Kolkata’s fortunes. The under-achieving economics has been abandoned, and in their own mysterious ways, the leftist government has been wooing industry with a vengeance. The IT revolution may have lit fires of hope that the even Naxalbari Andolan couldn’t. Progressive Bengalis have all made peace with Marwaris. Sumon may be old hat. But retail is still booming and “Tomakey Chai” may well be an ode to consumer goods. Management Consultants have invaded writers building in a way that Binoy, Badal and Dinesh would have applauded. Inaction and retrogression are becoming the new Taggarts. Property prices have shot up. The spanking new hotels are doing okay. And sitting in London, and Washington DC and in New York, the probashi Bangalis are getting together and talking excitedly about Kolkata’s new future. The Bengali Mafia is rising.

Of course it would be sad it new found progress cost the city its soul. The best loved cities across the world are those which have learnt to beat the drum of progress whilst celebrating the ancient rhymes. So the Barwari Pujo and the Boi Mela must survive, indeed they must be made to flourish in greater prosperity. Ghugni will taste just as good even if it’s more expensive, as long as there’s more income to go around for a second helping for everybody.

I saw a news bulletin today. There’s talk about closing Lyons range – which is almost defunct as a stock exchange and is used essentially for dubious trades intended to provide tax shields for brokers. May be its time to really throw out the old and start afresh. The Naxal’s were right after all. Just years ahead of their time. Wouldn’t you know it!


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