Sunday, September 28, 2008

Calcutta is dead…

Long live Calcutta!

It’s something I want to write about each time I go to Calcutta; quite often these days, with my mother staying there alone (entirely her call, we are fairly dutiful children) and requiring attention from time to time: the decay and gradual death of a once great city.

And while I’m sure enough people with a better sense of fatalistic poetry have written on Calcutta over the years, that shouldn’t stop me from keying in my thoughts. And this has nothing to do with Singur and Nandigram. That’s totally incidental.

Now, because I don’t have a set idea about how I want to go about this, let me start at the very beginning (a very good place to start) – when I get out of the 1962-model airport and on to a rickety, noisy Ambassador. Honking. Non-stop. Honking. Fast-swerving cars. Honking. Bumper to bumper traffic. Honking. Abuses. Honking. The smell of petrol (or is it diesel?).

All this in ancient Ambassadors with torn seats with the stuffing flowing out. I love Ambassadors, make no mistake about it, but I like them when they are in their full glory, as these were approximately 20 years ago.

The next thing that hits you – as you reconcile to the fact that the 15-kilometre distance home is going to take around an hour-and-a-half and the honking will continue all the way through – are the number of advertisement hoardings in the city.

For a city – and a part of the country - that is down on its luck as far as industry is concerned, you would be amazed at the number of hoardings all around. Words. Words in different colours, sizes, fonts, languages – including English written in Bangla and Hindi written in Bangla and all other permutations and combinations – scream at you sending you into a claustrophobic haze. You don’t even feel like lighting up the cigarette. And people – semi-nude women (more cleavage in Calcutta ads than in any other part of the country) and semi-nude men (more undie ads than in any other part of the country as well).

The city has been screaming for space for years now, and whatever little space there is has been taken over by these hoardings. Even on water – little water bodies, lakes along the route have hoardings stuck on poles stuck in the lake-bed.

The space is further reduced by a spate of flyovers that have come up in recent times. Necessary. But evil. Because they have been built on roads, which are just about wide enough to function as roads. So the flyovers go parallel to the roads – like a second storey. The entire road is covered. And because of the lack of space, the roads were in the first place built just outside the boundary walls of houses. So the flyovers now run just outside the windows of these houses.

Then we come to the city during the rains. And not say anything.

And then we come to the condition of the houses – residential as well as commercial. And not say anything.

And then we come to the busses. And not say anything.

The pollution in the air. Silence.

The administration. More silence.

Mamata Banerjee. Deathly quiet now. We’re in mourning.

Bad cinema. Bad literature. Bad language on the streets. Uncouth people.

Now, I’m a true-blue Calcutta boy, who has steadfastly refused to hear anything bad said about Calcutta for years now – 11 years; since I moved out to Delhi. But it’s come to a stage where in conversations I tend to take the lead in criticising the city.

But now even that seems pointless. The city is dead. Completely. Even the addas and bookstreets don’t seem interesting anymore. Durga Pujo is a drag. It’s all over. Well past its sell-by date, hurried along by every single Calcuttan, and not just the politicians.

Note: No photos. Tried. None of them succeeded in establishing what I wanted to.