Sunday, November 18, 2012

The 'would have been ROYAL' city

I have been hearing a lot about this city named 'Calcutta' since childhood. My grandparents had stayed there for quite some time, my mother was born there, some of my mother's cousins are born, brought up & settled there. They all can speak very fluent Bengali, some have married to Bengalis etc. etc. I had heard all praises about the city & that Royal-ness was there in my grand father's blood till his last breath, though it is only now that I am able to relate the Royal-ness.

My first interaction with a Bengali was with a colleague of mine sometime back, she was very sweet & I always used to ask her, "are all Bengalis are as sweet as you? Is it because they eat a lot of Roshogullas?", and she used to just laugh, her laugh was as sweet also. I knew tits & bits of the language, the traditions & so on since then.

Having been married to a Bengali, I guess it can't happen that you don't visit Calcutta or Kolkata because there will be many relatives there even if the person you married to doesn't have any roots from there. It is famously said, "One can take a Bengali out of Bengal but never Bengal out of a Bengali", I am sure it is true for a majority of Bengalis even now. First time I visited Kolkata was for work & I disliked the city to the core. I took a flight so I did not have to see the black+yellow taxis all around in my first sight of the city but such a sight was not very far from the airport as well. It was in 2007 & having seen almost 6-7 years of good wide roads & cross-roads in Ahmedabad, it was a very depressing sight to travel through the narrow packed roads. I did not have any preconceived notions about the city but I did not like it at all, I must say. The one thing that I got very impressed with in that visit was the schools St. James & Our Lady Queen of Mission. I had visited many schools in almost all the metros with a team for a large scale project related to how children think & understand, and among all the schools in all the metros that I visited, the children in these schools had a point of view of their own on each concept in each of the subjects Maths, English & Science that we had tested them in. It was indeed very impressive!

Second time I went there was for a family visit but by then I already had this big amount of dislike for the city already. During that visit, I realized things were just worse than before in every parameter.

Third time I went there was again for a family visit. This time I thought of observing the city & things around with an open mind. We had a chance to go around the city which did not happen in the last two visits. Starting with the Howrah Bridge, when you enter the bridge, visualize yourself as the only one on the bridge, the best colour possible of the water in the Hugli, road side neat & clean, no random boats etc. floating on the river etc. Imagine how ROYAL it would have been in those days with the bridge, the city spread out on the river bank, the railway station almost built with a palace-like look giving an extremely royal feeling from the bridge. The names of the streets like Park Street, buildings like Writer's Building, the lush green Race Course, the designs on the lamp posts, the names - Eden Gardens, the Victoria Memorial, the chariots outside this memorial - breath-taking, but unfortunately only if you imagine the old times of all these. Not in the current times. But now I know why people like Calcutta so much. Everything is so old there around the city, many buildings in the city seem like they can fall any time soon, with no scope to extend the roads sideways, everything very poorly maintained, the traffic can stop if the tram stops in the middle of the cross-roads due to electricity failure & the traffic can come to a stand-still. People so lethargic & non-energetic, absolutely no enthusiasm to move forward but very happy just because they had Tagore & Bose & Pal from Bengal who were such great Indians, always thinking about them with no clue on what is the present & what is the future going to be with no Tagore or Bose or Pal around anymore. No doubt one can never forget the Tagore, Bose & Pal. If you happen to visit the Cellular jail in Andaman, 1 in each 6-7 names in the list of freedom fighters who had served their jail term there were Bengali names. But now, there is a lunch time for just about any small shop there & no matter how much you want to buy, they won't sell because it would be their nap time after the lunch. At any time, you can be at the Howrah Bridge just about half a km from the railway station & can miss the train. The black+yellow taxi driver doesn't bother to try to get you there even if he can, he just does not hurry, such low levels of enthusiasm can be found only there I guess!

But not all is the people's fault there I guess. Most of the credit possibly for the shift from the extreme Royal-ness to extreme backward-ness can be attributed to many reasons - the city being the British India capital, the ruling then & since then till now also may be. But sad, very sad indeed that the city could have been something else altogether! Somehow, the place could not just adapt to the new times.

I read this line in the Victoria Memorial museum, "No other city in India had benefitted so much from the British rule & no other city had to pay the price either."