I departed Kolkata on May 8th. As I left India and Kolkata, I thought of two things: Rabindranath Tagore, and Kolkata’s livelihood. Tagore’s birthday is celebrated between May 7th and 9th. This year marked his 152nd. Tagore is Bengal’s Renaissance man—the first Nobel Prize winner in Asia. The writer, painter, composer, and public intellectual gave life to Bengal and India through his poems and essays at the turn of the century. There is no figure whose influence on any culture compares to Tagore’s influence on Bengalis. Perhaps Shakespeare comes close. Tagore’s legacy is carried on in every part of Bengali culture. His songs are sung by every class, his poems and paintings can be found on streets and in galleries.
On his birthday as I was reading some quotations of his, I came across one which struck a resonant chord with my particular position in that moment:
“So in the streets of Calcutta I sometimes imagine myself a foreigner, and only then do I discover how much is to be seen, which is lost so long as its full value in attention is not paid. It is the hunger to really see which drives people to travel to strange places.”
I was, of course, a foreigner for my entire time in Calcutta. The guide on the Jane Jacobs walk I went on last Sunday talked about how he prefers not just showing the city as a guide, but seeing it for himself too. The intentionality with which I viewed Kolkata painted my perception of it with both awe and criticism. As the months in Kolkata came to a close I became to feel less of a foreigner—to the city, at least. I came and I saw. I continued to see, but I also merged into life there with an electric flow.
Some may claim Kolkata to be dead. But I claim it to be alive-or at least having some sort of energy and power to breathe life into individuals who are dying—not physically, but spiritually. The city reenergized my tired mind and kicked me back into life when I came to see. No doubt, Tagore is correct—it was my hunger to see that drove me to this strange place that is sometimes awful and other times awe-full.
* * *
I sat in the front of the Ambassador taxi cab with a water bottle and notebook between my knees. We crawled up Gariahat Road and through Park Circus. It was rush hour and the traffic was packed. I peacefully waited in the front passenger seat, left arm out the window, watching things like Birla Mandir, Park Circus Maidan, and other landmarks pass for the last time in a while. Sujoy and Vinayak rode in the rear seat, quietly at first. Vinayak had this running joke that for the last 24 hours, he would say annoyingly specific things like “That’s the last time you’ll ever eat breakfast in that chair reading The Telegraph while I stand over you waving a cricket bat .” We pulled up aside another taxi on Gariahat Road, and as the drivers bickered he said, “This is the last time you’ll be sitting on Gariahat in the back of a taxi hearing two drivers fight in Bengali.”
“Somehow I’m not so sure that’s true.” I responded, with glazed eyes and a smirk.
* * *
I have every intention of returning to Bengal—to Kolkata. This city was my “first.” The first time I have ever really experienced urban life and independence, and it came at a perfect time when I was itching to get into a dense, intense city. I had recently been reading a lot of economic development and urban studies literature which prepared me to confront India and Kolkata from a perspective considering development, economies, and history. After spending three and half months in the city, experiencing its busy streets, congested traffic, raw livelihood, structural violence, and raging commerce, I was excited to read Calcutta: Two Years in the City by Amit Chaudhuri but found his memoir patronizing and presumptuous. Speaking to Chaudhuri confirmed this about his take on the city and the life there. As one of the elite journalistic class and only a part-time resident, Chaudhuri views Kolkata as the death of Calcutta.
Chaudhuri talked about a need for engagement with the past as a way to bring on a living history. He feels that Bengalis have put persons like Rabindranath Tagore on a pedestal and refused to interact with his works in a modern way, instead preserving his works as if holy and sacred. I agree with his criticism of over-attached preservation of tradition rather than interaction with living art. Nonetheless , new art and subject for art is still present in the city.
His memoir is filled with nostalgia for a Calcutta that existed only in his mind and the minds of the young elite of the 1970s and 1980s. Like others I encountered during my stay, Chaudhuri was nostalgic for something that never really existed: a Calcutta that was at peace with its imperial past and encouraged in its new freedom to move forward. Those with that nostalgia forget the struggles of those forgotten times. This is true around the world. They never recognize their rose-colored glasses and instead blame everything on this “new generation.” That is a discussion for another time, though.
Kolkata is not a dying city. Parts of Calcutta are dead and parts of Kolkata are dying. But the city is not dying or dead. Surely, Calcutta has been in some sort of decline ever since the British moved the center of the Raj to Delhi in 1912. Businesses have left. The young are not moving to Kolkata like they could be. History and art seem somewhat stagnant. The booms are in Bangalore and Chennai and Mumbai. Delhi and Kolkata are still the busts.
I think that is going to change soon. Kolkata’s population still lives. It still works. The city has an undeniable flow. Life is challenging, but perfectly so. The challenge of Kolkata and its deep history are going to start drawing people back. As the young, affluent class grows bored of Bangalore start-ups & silicone and Mumbai glitz & glam, people will find things to love again in Kolkata—a city made for people, by people. Kolkata’s time will come again. Affluent, entrepreneurial young people in the western hemisphere are moving back into cities like Kolkata. It will happen there too with a few shifts in the business and political winds. Kolkata is not dead. It is in need of pruning and maturing.
* * *
As we passed Park Circus Wednesday evening, I sat in the front seat, watching the city roll by for the last time on this visit. Sujoy pointed out the places he used to play tennis and cricket as a young man and where his high school was. We rolled into the older, central Kolkata, passing busy streets of mosques, temples, and markets. The sounds of car horns, rumbles of trucks, rattles of the tram, loud calls of the chaiwallas and fat Bengali women, filled my ears while diesel, shit, and chickens filled my nostrils. That’s life in Kolkata: the liveliest dead city on earth.
Amidst the forced smorgasbord of senses ranging from pleasurable and offense, suddenly one voice stood out. Sujoy’s impeccable English and James Earl Jones pitch resonated inside the cab like a narrator’s track over a documentary.
“Calcutta when it was the seat of the British Raj was poised to become one of the greatest cities in the world: Rich with high culture and folk culture; full of commerce and life and opportunity. Since 1912, and since independence, Kolkata has declined. The growth is not here and people have slowed down.
“The culture is still rich here with imperial hangover and the Bengali obsession with Tagore and his legacy. Always there has been great poverty and inequality. We lag behind India in our infrastructure, living standards, and health.