Tag Archive for 'Kolkata'

Why Salman Rushdie could not set foot in Calcutta

In The Telegraph:

The state machinery swung into action to prevent Salman Rushdie from setting foot in Calcutta today and launched an equally spirited effort to conceal its footprints, accounts from multiple sources and events through the day suggest.

 Hours after it was confirmed that Rushdie would not reach the city, one of the senior-most government officials made a statement at Writers’ Buildings on one condition: his name cannot be revealed.

 The official declared: “The state had no information about Salman Rushdie’s visit. But a rumour spread last evening that the author was supposed to come to the city for a series of programmes. The city police were asked to enquire about this. The Mumbai police confirmed to the city police that Rushdie was not supposed to visit Calcutta today (Wednesday). The city police informed the state home secretary last night.” More:

East Kolkata most vulnerable to climate change: World Bank

From Down To Earth [via @GhoshAmitav):

Click on the image to read "Climate risks and adaptation in Asian coastal megacities: A synthesis report"

Click on the image to read “Climate risks and adaptation in Asian coastal megacities: A synthesis report”

The eastern fringe of Kolkata, the fastest growing part of the city, is expected to be hit the hardest by climate change-induced impacts, and the poor will be affected the most, according to the findings of a World Bank study submitted recently to the West Bengal government.

The study reiterates an earlier prediction by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that exposure would increase in future and that by 2070 Kolkata would lead the list of top ten vulnerable cities of world in terms of population exposure. By 2050, almost 40 per cent of city area and 47 per cent of city’s population—close to 25 million—would be affected as a consequence.

The World Bank study, the first of its kind in India, states that nine wards of the city would be most vulnerable to climatic vagaries—vulnerability being assessed on the basis of topography, land use, infrastructure, social parameters and predictions on natural calamities. Manila, Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok are the other cities where similar studies have been undertaken. More:

Sex in the city: What Durga Pujo does to Kolkata’s hormones

Rajyasree Sen in First Post:

A screen grab from the Wild Stone ad

Remember the Wild Stone deodorant ad? A Bengali bou dressed in a shaada saree-lal paar (a white saree with a red border), forehead emblazoned with red shindoor bumps into a male stranger in her house. The drums pulsate in the background, there are glimpses of the Durga idol or protima, and the lady with flexible morality immediately makes the beast with two backs with the fragrant stranger she’s bumped into.

Cut to Parineeta. Where Saif – playing a landed gentry gent – decides that there can be no better time than the Durga pujo to take his friendship with the very Bengali Parineeta, played by Vidya Balan – up a notch. Once again we are made to see love blossom while Durga Pujo celebrations are in full swing with Sanjay Dutt doing the dhunuchi naach while Saif and Vidya make eyes at each other. Leading to the very Bengali-dressed Vidya Balan make love, not war to the strangely rhythmic beat of the pujor dhol at a wedding afterwards.

Blasphemy, slander, how can these film-types depict such carnal behavior while we Bengalis are praying to the mother?

But are they really that far from the truth? Is Bengal’s pujo really second only to Gujarat’s Dandiya Raas and Garba Nights in whipping up those hormones? More:

Mamata Banerjee personifies populist force in Indian politics

Simon Denyer from Kolkata in The Washington Post:

She spent her life fighting communists but is the biggest obstacle to economic liberalization in India today. She is the leader of a small regional party but wields more power than the prime minister.

Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of the state of West Bengal, is a rising force in Indian politics, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton paid a special visit to Kolkata this month to meet her.

The 57-year-old Banerjee — determined, resolutely populist and hardworking, yet eccentric and intolerant of dissent — holds the balance of power in India’s coalition government and has used that political might to huge effect.

Time after time, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s efforts to introduce economic reforms have foundered because of Baner­jee’s opposition. Time magazine recently listed her among the world’s 100 most influential people, and 25 out of 50 CEOs surveyed by a leading Indian newspaper last week said she was the biggest stumbling block to economic growth.

Banerjee is the personification of a fundamental change that is transforming Indian politics: the declining vote share of the country’s two main political parties and the rising influence of regional parties. More:

Kolkata — The city that got left behind

From The Economist:

A native-born writer, Amit Chaudhuri, says that Calcutta should be compared to world cities like New York and Paris for its rich past and mix of influences. Yet ever since the Suez Canal was built in 1869, boosting trade in Bombay (now Mumbai), people have said the city (now Kolkata) has been going to the dogs. They have been right. Calcutta lost its title as India’s capital a century ago, and its status as the country’s industrial engine in the 1950s. By the early 1970s visitors were making apocalyptic predictions of plagues and starving, rampaging mobs, and by the end of that decade Marxists were in charge. Today Kolkata evokes Havana, beautiful but shabby, the last city to remain largely untouched by India’s 20-year boom. “I love the city, but am ashamed of its condition,” says Sandipan Chakravortty, boss of one of the few units of the giant Tata Group to be based there.

Now West Bengal, the state which Kolkata dominates, has a new government, led by the redoubtable Mamata Banerjee. Her victory in an election last year ended over three decades of Marxist misrule. She insists that she will turn things around in the state. But she is also a figure of national importance, because her Trinamool Congress is a key ally of the Congress Party, which heads the ruling national coalition. Her rise will be a test of two things: whether the bits of India left behind can catch up, and whether a populist who depends largely on a rural base for support can still prove to be a reformer. More:

Our bestial stamp on British cities

The British talent was building cities. The Indian talent is renaming things others built. Aakar Patel in Mint Lounge:

The British talent was building cities. They gave the Chinese Hong Kong and Singapore, they gave the Lankans Colombo, they gave the Burmese Rangoon, they gave the Kenyans Nairobi. To us they gifted Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Bangalore and New Delhi, the five greatest cities of the subcontinent.

The Indian talent is renaming things others built. We gave the world Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Bengaluru.

This put on display our pettiness and our ingratitude, and it also exposed another thing. We squat aggressively on names but we have not been able to create a single city of this quality on our own. The British did not build Surat or Ahmedabad, it is true, and these cities rose whole cloth from the Indian mercantile tradition. But they are quite provincial. Even if commercially independent of English language and colonial architecture, they’re actually giant villages. They have nothing of the metropolis about them. The cities we inherited from the British, it must be admitted, we have run into the ground. No city in India is Hong Kong.

Delhi and Kolkata look as if populated by a race different from the one that built the city. Like Rome overrun by Vandals or—to reach for a more popular allusion—like Planet of the Apes. The symmetry, the order, the Classical lines of Lutyens’ Delhi are the product of another civilization. These neighbourhoods are not designed for the people who now occupy them. Armed with its vaastu shastra and servant quarters, a second-rate civilization is spreading its slum over the creation of a civilized one. More:

P. Lal — 1929-2010

Purushottama Lal, poet and publisher of Calcutta, died on November 3rd, aged 81. In The Economist:

The books published by Purushottama Lal from his house in Lake Gardens, Calcutta (now Kolkata), from 1958 onwards were like no others in the world. Each slim volume of Writers Workshop poetry, fiction or drama—they tended to be slim—was bound in bright handloom cloth, and hand-stitched so tightly that it would open with a creak. The title pages and chapter-heads featured the swirling calligraphy of Professor Lal himself, done with a Sheaffer fountain pen. The type, at least until this century, was handset in a mosquito-infested shed by workers who did not know the language but could recognise the letters; and the galleys were printed on a flatbed treadle machine in the next-door garage of P.K. Aditya, who had kindly moved his car out for the purpose. In this form appeared the early works of Vikram Seth, Dilip Hiro and Anita Desai.

Professor Lal’s business was publishing Indian writers in English. Of the great old works he made masterly translations; new writers he encouraged. When he began, ten years after independence, the practice was controversial. Although English was one of India’s official languages, writers in it were often mocked as colonial remnants, “caged chaffinches and polyglot parrots”. He passionately disagreed. His love of English had begun in boyhood and was crowned with his long tenure at St Xavier’s College in Calcutta, to which his landowning family had come from the Punjab. Mention an English poet—Donne, Swinburne, Keats—and “Profsky”, as all his friends called him, would launch into reciting. Give him a word, and he would burrow joyously into its etymology. He was determined to keep the best English writing alive and well in India. And that meant making space for new creative writers, too. More:

India’s Islamic university students demand lecturers wear burqas

AP reports from Calcutta:

Students at an Islamic university in eastern India have refused to allow a female lecturer to teach unless she wears the burqa, the teacher said.

The student union has told all female students and all eight female lecturers at the small Calcutta campus of Aliah University to wear the burqa.

Sirin Middya, who described herself as a devout Muslim, said she was appointed in March but has not been allowed to teach her classes since she refused to wear the garment.

“The students have threatened us and have put up banners saying those who oppose the burqa rule can go back home,” Ms Middya said. More:

Another report here

Recalling an old school

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray in The Telegraph:

A country’s future cannot but be bright if its citizens prize education so highly as to commit crime for its sake. But one wonders whether qualifications are not bound to be flawed if there’s a backdoor into school and college and a bribe overcomes the hurdle of examinations. No wonder Singapore derecognized Indian medical degrees.

Media reports about my old school prompt both thoughts. Yet — faint ray of light in the engulfing darkness — I know for certain of one recent instance of La Martiniere for Boys admitting only on merit a Bengali child without money or influence. This heartwarming news mitigated to some extent the shock I received 18 years ago when a respected private tutor told me she couldn’t coach my son — not even a teenager then — because she did not take pupils from schools for “moneybags”. Her objection was not ideological. Nor communal though she did identify “moneybags” in ethnic terms. Her point was that scholarship had to take a backseat in institutions so awash with money.

It was a shock because the school I remembered was anything but rich. Most pupils were poor Anglo-Indian boarders supported by the church or private foundations. No shame attached to being a foundationer. That was the purpose of Claude Martin’s philanthropy. The Armenian boys also received help: the school prayer extolled their benefactor, Paul Chater.

The scattering of full-blooded non-Christian fee-paying Indian day scholars who went to school by bus or tram were admitted under gentle government pressure. The art master was the only non-Christian Indian on the staff, and he was not invited to the last British principal’s farewell party. I could understand it when the owner of Park Street’s best restaurant, an old boy from before the Second World War when the school moved to Lucknow, told me he felt no attachment because “they didn’t really want us”. More:

10 of the best train hourneys

From The Guardian:

Siliguri to Darjeeling, India

This steam train used to haul ­overheated expats to the British hill station of Darjeeling, where they would sit out the summer blaze ­before returning to Calcutta. The line is now a World Heritage Site and the stations along the way have been restored to vintage quaintness.

Click on the image for more

O Calcutta!

The fire at Stephen Court was a reminder of how little of the city’s abundant past is left. But walk around the ‘Brit bit’ of the city, Park Street, Free School Street, Sudder Street, New Market, and you also get a sense of why Calcutta is a city of second chances. Mihir S Sharma in The Indian Express:

The waiter looks shocked for only a moment. “Of course, Flurys couldn’t stay shut,” he explains, his gravely courteous manner returning. The old tea-room has been forced into temporary quarters at the Park Hotel, where it perches uncomfortably like an elderly lady forced to move in with a brash nephew. Cramped for space, he begins to turn away to return to the bustling cash register, but looks back to say, his eyes crinkling above high, Anglo-Indian cheekbones: “Holy Week, after all. The people gotta have their hot cross buns, man.” And, sure enough, a group of schoolchildren is standing at the counter sampling the sweet, slightly spicy rolls eaten during the week leading up to Good Friday.

When 100-year-old Stephen Court on Park Street burst into flames last week, more than just Flurys’ routine was disrupted. The dozens of fatalities reminded Indians that complacency and neglect has turned heritage buildings into deathtraps; but, for Calcuttans, it triggered a moment of near-panic. The sight of a devastating fire in the very heart of its faded glory, Park Street, focused attention on what little of its abundant past is left. The gawkers staring at the charred remnants of the building’s top floors kept on looking around too, at Stephen Court’s graceful sisters, as if seeing them for the first time in years. More:

In Calcutta, there is more for money to buy, less to enjoy as a right

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray in The Telegraph:

We were entranced by the legend of the shining brass pole. It was supposed to run top to bottom in the Fire Brigade headquarters so that when the alarm sounded, athletic young firemen saved precious minutes by sliding down its polished surface to leap into waiting tenders — damkal — and rush clanging to the rescue.

Other traffic stopped immediately. Children rushed to see the exciting spectacle of red vehicles with standing men holding on to a horizontal rail, one of them clanging away at the gleaming brass bell. One reason for fantasizing about the service was a man whom we knew only as “Fire Brigade Das Gupta”. He had been in England with an uncle, and living nearby, often gave us a lift to school. I didn’t know his position but his crisp khaki, polished leather and bright brass made him the most smartly kitted out man in our world. I imagined the entire crew to be equally lean and trim, and as nattily turned out, all sliding down that unseen but smooth and shining brass pole.

I had seen them in action. Visiting from Lucknow during the great famine, we were guests in a flat in Entally when the meter box caught fire. The engines were there even as we rushed out under the licking flames. Why do meter boxes of tatty wood and grimy net with festoons of wire and cobweb have to be next to the front door? That’s still the usual place in most middle-class apartment blocks. More:

The falling man

Twenty-four people died in a fire in Kolkata’s landmark building Stephens Court. Nineteen are missing. From The Telegraph:

Burnt, scarred and no stranger to adversity, the city of tinderboxes had seen bigger blazes. Just another fire, it looked initially, with the attendant commotion, people running helter-skelter.

Then, Park Street froze.

Something — no, someone — is tumbling out of one of the high windows. A human body, possibly alive but crashing like deadweight.

A shriek explodes like a siren, then drowns in a chorus of horror-struck voices.

The man hits the ledges on his way down, once, twice, before hitting the ground.

The descent takes only a few seconds, beginning and ending with the abruptness of a whiplash.

Once the shock ebbs, another image bobs up — one we caught on the cold glare of the television screen on September 11, 2001. More:

Also in The Telegraph:

Amit Chaudhuri: ties that bind

Amit Chaudhuri has earned acclaim for his novels about family and belonging. Helena Frith Powell visits him in his home base of Kolkata, the focus of his next work. From The National:

Amit Chaudhuri does not much like travelling. He finds the day before he is set to leave particularly difficult.

“I feel I am neither here nor there,” he says in an interview at the Kolkata home he shares with his wife, 11-year-old daughter and his octogenarian parents. “I am a soul in transit. You would think after 20 or 30 years of travelling it would get better, but it doesn’t.”

Chaudhuri, a youthful-looking 47-year-old with a charming, boyish smile, is the author of five novels, all of which have won literary prizes, a musician in the Indian classical tradition and an academic.

He has been based in Kolkata since 1999 after a childhood spent in Bombay (he refuses to call Indian cities by their new names, “Why should I call it Mumbai just because someone says it is called Mumbai? They might change it again next year”) and student years in London. More:

A way in the world

In The National, a review of A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee:

The novel begins with a cremation. Ritwik, whose name means “priest who officiates at a fire sacrifice”, stands at the mouth of a furnace in a Calcutta crematorium, stripped naked to the waist, clutching a bundle of burning twigs. His mother’s body lies before him. When Ritwik’s father died, just 11 days before his mother, he had refused to perform the last rites Hinduism assigns to eldest sons. (“Endless abracadabra by the phoney priest, pour this on fire, pour that on fire,” he objected.) But he won’t take chances with his mother’s soul. He circles her body seven times, each time singeing her forehead with the twigs. Later, he sets a bowl containing her navel (or, he thinks, “whatever lump of rock or charcoal” the crematorium tout had thought sufficient) afloat on the “stagnant and stench-bound” Ganges.

Ritwik’s concession to ritual is especially self-effacing given the revelation, later in the book, that his mother once broke his ribs. She bruised him repeatedly throughout his childhood, misdirecting her rage at their choiceless coexistence in a cramped flat with a dysfunctional extended family. Her death frees him from having to assume his father’s role as sole provider for his family; the news of her cerebral stroke “burnt out a clearing in his head”, and through that clearing he flees to Oxford on scholarship, to read English literature. More:

Birds of a feather

Gopalkrishna Gandhi in Hindustan Times. Gandhi was the Governor of West Bengal from 2004 to 2009.

My wife Tara is the birds-person in our family. I know next to nothing about the feathered kind. But about a couple of months before we left Kolkata after our five years’ stay in its leafy Raj Bhavan, I made friends with two mynahs.

Or rather, two mynahs flew into my life.

A verandah has edged the governor’s apartment overlooking the mansion’s spectacular south-western garden for as long as the building has stood, some 206 years. This verandah has been enclosed with a tight meshing in an ingenious design to keep the estate’s prolific pigeons out. No pigeon, or any other bird for that matter, could violate the governor’s privacy — nor anoint his person with the siftings of avian blessing.

But Tara and I longed for an unobstructed view of the garden and the trees around it. So we had the ‘cage’ opened through a series of windows. The delectably airy stretch on the first floor, a screen of blue sky and green earth, now became the site for our morning coffee, biscuits and newspapers.

One morning as I was taking in the bitter berry draught and breaking my biscuit in half to dip into the brew, a mynah darted in and stood on the window’s ledge directly in front of me, no more than two feet away. Bobbing his head, going ‘keek-keek-keek’, he made his interest clear. But would he acknowledge it? No way. He cocked his head sideways, upways, every conceivable way, as if looking for something he might have inadvertently left in this public space where his entitlements were no less than mine. More:

A passage in Kolkata

Kolkata’s Park Street is the most iconic road in India. Jaideep Mazumdar in Open:

It is a road like no other. Its origins as ‘Road to Old Burial Grounds’, nearly 250 years ago, were ignoble indeed. Haunted by ‘thugs and rascals’ and used mainly by hearses and carriages carrying the bereaved, this road in Calcutta metamorphosed by the turn of the last century into South Asia’s prime ‘good life’ destination, before hitting turbulence in the late 1960s. Now, it is a ‘sarani’ (lane). Steeped in memories, Park Street’s plebeian present haunts it, and is something the street and its stakeholders desperately want to shake off. Few other streets in the world have perhaps changed character so dramatically over two-and-a-half centuries as Park Street-turned-Mother Teresa Sarani has. Neon signs are still aglow and an empty table would be scarce at all the 25-odd restaurants and pubs there on any evening, but Park Street is no longer the destination it was. It’s just a thoroughfare. Though, to be fair, one that still manages to entice, even if not as forcefully as it used to.

It is a road like no other: it is a corridor that connects British-era Calcutta—with its grand colonial structures—with the more recent and rundown Kolkata. Driving down Park Street from west to east is like witnessing the city’s transition from its magnificent past to its proletarian present: the glittering shop fronts in the grand old mansions slowly give way to smaller establishments in decrepit structures. The fine restaurants make way for pavement food stalls and biryani outlets and, ultimately, the road reaches Park Circus area in which are nestled unsightly slums. More:

Looking backward

The Oberoi Grand, Kolkata. Image: Oberoi Hotels

The Oberoi Grand, Kolkata. Image: Oberoi Hotels

The works of the immensely popular Bengali author Sankar are finally starting to be translated into English. Neel Mukherjee reads his 1962 novel of day-to-day life in a storied Calcutta hotel. In the National: ["Chowringhee" by Sankar]

Few writers anywhere become a household name in their lifetimes to the extent Sankar (real name: Mani Shankar Mukherjee) has done in his native Bengal. The term “household name” is used advisedly: it would be difficult to find an educated family in Bengal that does not possess at least one of the 77-year-old author’s 70-plus books, which include 37 novels, five travelogues, children’s stories, essay collections, devotional works, even two books on Bengali food and gastronomy. Two of his novels Seemabaddha (Company Limited) and Jana Aranya (literally “A Forest of People”, translated as The Middleman) were made into acclaimed films by Satyajit Ray in the 1970s. Chowringhee, arguably his most popular book, published in Bengali in 1962, was his first to be translated into English, in 2007; this year it is available from British publishers for the first time.

Any reckoning with the novel should begin with its first-person narrator, “Shankar”. (In the Bengali original, the author and narrator’s names are spelt identically, allowing for play in the degrees of congruence between the two. The English translation attempts to preserve that somewhat by using variant spellings of what is effectively the same name.) Chowringhee opens with Shankar set adrift by the death of his boss, an unnamed English lawyer, to whom the narrator was clerk. He is rescued from penury by Byron, an Anglo-Indian private investigator, who finds him a job at the Shahjahan, one of Calcutta’s biggest, oldest and most renowned hotels. There Shankar becomes a staff member and an observer of the life that passes daily through (and behind) its doors. More:

India’s Scottish heritage remembered

Victoria Memorial, Calcutta

Victoria Memorial, Calcutta

From the Telegraph, London:

Now, keen to underline its independence from London in foreign affairs, Scotland’s new nationalist government plans to reclaim that forgotten heritage in Calcutta, the capital of British India.

Its first target will be helping to restore the rubble-covered grand staircases and peeling walls of once-magnificent buildings like Duff College, named after Alexander Duff, a Scots missionary and pioneering educationalist who arrived in Calcutta in 1830 after being shipwrecked twice en route. But Holyrood also hopes to remind Indians of the role that Scots played in educating and inspiring some of the sub-continent’s leading independence campaigners.

Many of Calcutta’s most illustrious sons, including Subhas Chandra Bose, the controversial independence movement leader, were educated in Scottish colleges in Calcutta. A Scottish official in the Bengal Civil Service, Allan Octavian Hume, later founded the Indian National Congress which led the country to independence in 1947. More:

Yesterday once more at Trincas

In its 50th year, Mint-Lounge revisits this Kolkata institution with Usha Uthup, who found flame here:

There are Park Street old-timers who maintain that Trincas existed as an unassuming corner deli before the 50 years that the restaurant is currently commemorating. But all agree that it is only in these five decades that Trincas-under the stewardship of two friends, Ellis Joshua and Om Prakash Puri (the Puris continue to run it)-became the original home of live pop music in India, only to fall from grace when the Naxalite movement, the exodus of corporate houses and the Anglo-Indian community from the city, a higher entertainment tax regime and changing cultural morality teamed up to dent its fortunes. “But we never stopped having live music here,” says Shashi Puri who, along with her husband Deepak and son Anand, runs Trincas these days. “Not even for a single day over all these years,” she reiterates.

“Molly was a black beauty from the Middle-East”, J.L. Wadehra, the 69-year-old general manager of Trincas, muses. “And when she sang, there used to be a queue outside the restaurant.” Since 1961, when Molly became Trincas’ first pop performer and its first star, the restaurant has seen a long list of bands and performers stopping by-somebody such as Biddu Appaiah, before he and Carl Douglas became famous with the international smash hit Kung Fu Fighting and much before Disco Deewane and Made In Indiahappened, even taking a cut on his professional fee to perform seven-eight months at Trincas, according to Wadehra. “Some years back, he came back with a troupe from the UK to film at Trincas, where he had started his career with the band Trojans and later as the Lone Trojan,” recalls Wadehra. More:

Filming the real Slumdog Millionaire

Sourav Sarangi recently won eight international awards for his documentary film Bilal, which tells the story of a five-year-old boy who looks after his blind parents in a cramped hut in a poor district of Kolkata. The film-maker describes the journey he and the family have taken with the documentary (watch trailer below). From the Guardian:

I first met Bilal when he was only eight months old. His head was wrapped in bandages after an accident and he was lying on a cot next to my wife. His mother, who was blind, was clinging on to him. After attending to my wife, who had been hospitalised, I looked at the baby. He seemed to smile at me and seemed to nudge his mother as if, in a silent communion in a dark world, he was trying to tell her to talk to me. I was convinced about that. At that point in time, Bilal the film was born.

My friendship with the family grew. As I saw him grow up, what struck me about Bilal was his common sense. Even when he was three years old, the time when we launched the film, he was wise and that is the word I would like to use when describing this remarkable boy.

His Muslim father, Shamim, also blind, had married Jharna, a Hindu who changed her name to Humera Begum after the wedding. That in itself is quite unusual among the poorer communities in India – a Hindu woman marrying a Muslim man and then changing her religion.

Shamim himself is quite a man. He runs a portable phone call centre and, before this film was made, he used to carry a telephone to one of the busiest traffic intersections in Kolkata and sit on the pavement with a table. He has a photographic memory. Even now, he can rattle off 10-digit telephone numbers I told him six months back simply from memory. I am still amazed by this man. More:

See also: http://www.bilal.in/

My name was red

Calcutta in 1977 when the Communists came to power (32 years later, they are still in power) and Kolkata now. Shamik Bag, a U2-loving, bourgeois Kolkatan, born the same year Jyoti Basu was elected chief minister at the head of a Left Front government, looks back at the confusing, decadent years. From Mint-Lounge:

jyotibasuFive years after a stretch of it was renamed, Kolkata’s Park Street is yet to get used to being Mother Teresa Sarani. It’s early into Saturday evening and Park Street is playing true to form: Ladies in miniskirts, long-haired musicians, encyclopaedia sellers, drug pushers, well-fed happy families hand-held by paan-chewing patriarchs, pimps and prostitutes-all ready to mingle seamlessly into the night of food, alcohol, dance, music, money, sex. Park Street doesn’t seem to be in any urgent need of missionary charity yet.

As we turn the corner into Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road, the Park Street cool metamorphoses-volubly and visibly-into chaos. Vehicles piled up behind a tram car that has stopped dead in its wrecked, wretched track; crowds on the road while hawkers rule the pavements, honking, shouting, screaming, jostling-urban paralysis. Luke Kenny, well known as a video jockey till he became better known with Rock On!!, is sitting next to me, I’m at the wheel, there’s Steely Dan playing and air conditioning too-comforts carried over from Park Street. Kenny is back in the city of his birth-we had got together incidentally-and sitting immobile amid the anarchy of the street, he opportunely lets one slip in: “You think the Communists have been good for Calcutta?” More:

A walk in Calcutta

Somini Sengupta in the New York Times:

Calcutta Coffee House / Photo: lecercle

Calcutta Coffee House / Photo: lecercle

I left Calcutta when I was small and promptly forgot what I knew, such is the thick velvet curtain the immigrant child draws over memory. Every few summers, when my family returned for holidays, I would be escorted from one relative’s house to another, scolded for being too thin, and force-fed heaps of sweets. On Park Street, I would be invariably accosted by a hungry, barefoot child. The only thing more confounding than going to Calcutta was coming home to suburban Southern California; how do you explain the city of dreadful night (Rudyard Kipling’s phrase, not mine) to friends who had spent the summer listening to Olivia Newton-John?

In the last four years, over several reporting trips there, the city has revealed itself to me slowly, opening one sleepy eye at a time. Calcutta today is as parochial as it is modern. It lives in the past as much as it lets its past decay. India’s first global city, it is littered with the remains of many worlds: the rickshaws that the Chinese brought; an Armenian cemetery; dollops of jazz left by Americans in the war years.

It is as much a walker’s city as a talker’s: It has great eavesdropping potential, even if you understand only English, and it is perfectly acceptable to start up a conversation with strangers, whether about the rain or Shakespeare. More:

Satyajit Ray’s world

On his 88th birth anniversary, a rare interview with the late Satyajit Ray by Shyam Benegal in Mint Lounge

rayHe was not a radical artist who shocked or startled audiences into his world. Satyajit Ray’s greatest achievement was his celebration of the commonplace with lyricism and humanity. The pioneer of a new wave of realistic cinema in India, he is the most recognized Indian director in the world. In 1981, film-maker Shyam Benegal, an ardent fan of Ray, directed a memorable, now rare, documentary on the Oscar-winning director. In an extended interview, Ray talked in detail about his relationship with his mother, how he became a film-maker, and why he didn’t believe in gimmicks. To commemorate the auteur’s 88th birth anniversary, we reproduce excerpts from the interview :

What are some of the most vivid memories of growing up in Calcutta?
I was born in a place called Garpar Road in a huge building that housed a printing and block-making press, which my grandfather had started. I was born there in 1921 and I spent the first six years of my life in that place. I think the most favourite memory from that time is spending my afternoons at the press.
There used to be a compositing department where I used to walk in. They had a process camera which used to fascinate me a great deal. I would take little drawings with me, and doodles, and tell the block-making chaps to make a block of them for Sandesh, a children’s magazine which my grandfather edited. Another memory is the smell of turpentine in the press. Once, when I was in advertising, I had to go to a press, which also smelled just the same. Immediately, all the memories of Garpar came rushing back.

Clash of the titans

In Tehelka, Shantanu Guha Ray looks at the deteriorating relationship between Shah Rukh Khan and Sourav Ganguly and says this is the reason why Shah Rukh dropped the word Kolkata from his Knight Riders’ team.

souravA FORTNIGHT AGO, as he stepped onto the tarmac of Mumbai airport after his meeting with Shah Rukh Khan, Sourav Ganguly picked up his Blackberry and whispered “I do not trust anyone, really, I do not trust anyone!” The former Indian skipper, on a high barely a month before because of his involvement in the selection of the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) team and the cheer leaders, had a premonition of what would happen once the team landed in Cape Town for the trial matches before the start of the second edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL). A week before the crucial meeting at Mannat, home of KKR owner and Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan, Ganguly had skirmished with coach John Buchanan over the latter’s multiple captaincy theory and had set Kolkata afire by first disagreeing with, and then agreeing to the format.


The city of extremes

Edited by novelist Amit Chaudhuri, Memory’s Gold is a lavishly produced volume, an anthology from a wide range of writers. A review in Mint Lounge:

bookAt last, an anthology of writings on Kolkata, and not a moment too soon. Edited by novelist Amit Chaudhuri, Memory’s Gold is a lavishly produced volume into which love and labour seem to have gone in equal measure. From the cover photograph of a rooftop under darkening skies to the elegant Venetian typeface, the look and feel of the book affords quiet pleasure. But with that also comes apprehension. It is so easy to get this kind of book wrong. Cities, and especially a city like Kolkata, are contrary beasts: they do not take kindly to being reduced to a set of exhibits. Then there is the added nuisance of your average Coffee House aantel (an intellectual) who can be counted upon to pounce on the slightest infraction of fact or judgement.

Happily, the collection strikes the right notes from the beginning. In his lucid and thoughtful introduction, Chaudhuri positions himself as an outsider who did not grow up or go to school in the city, and who therefore did not pass as “an authentic member of the community” of a city “that lives and writes through its friendships”. Perhaps it is this distance which allows Chaudhuri to anthologize from a wide range of writers and not favour any one coterie, always a danger in books of this kind. Of the 55 pieces in the book, roughly half were written originally in English, starting with the tongue-in-cheek Henry Meredith Parker on the Bengal Civil Service and ending with an Indlish novelist who debuted this year.


Along the banks of a river, the India of old

A river cruise on the Hooghly, past Calcutta, reveals the country at its most rural, without a postcard or T-shirt in sight. From the New York Times:

cruiseHowrah Station in Calcutta was packed with travelers as I arrived to catch the 3:30 p.m. train to Jangipur. Passengers and porters charged in all directions, some carrying their suitcases or cloth bundles in their hands, some with their baggage on their heads. One man with a chair; another with a stepladder. At my feet, someone was charging his cellphone on the station’s electricity supply. Our train drew up, and the man next to me suddenly threw himself head first through an open window. With his feet waggling, he was stuck until a friend pushed him through. Luckily, I had reserved seats, so I was able to enter through the door and then settle in for the five-hour journey through eastern India.

A few weeks earlier, I had booked a river cruise on the Hooghly, a tributary of the Ganges that runs south through West Bengal, past Calcutta and out to the Bay of Bengal. I was one of 14 travelers – 13 Britons and one American – who had signed up with Assam Bengal Navigation with the hope of seeing India at its most rural. (I was there in late June, well before the recent attacks in Mumbai, a horrific event that should sadden anyone who loves India as I do.)

It was monsoon season, which promised drenching rains every afternoon, but none of us seemed to mind, and I had come prepared: a raincoat, an umbrella and waterproof shoes were all in my luggage. Plus, the Hooghly is navigable only when summer rains swell its banks.


Mumbai: The city I love

The novelist Amit Chaudhuri finds it impossible to think about his childhood home without a quickening of excitement and pleasure. But this week’s terror attacks have highlighted the other side of Mumbai – a society riven by poverty and despair. From the Guardian:

David Levene

Children playing in the rubbish of a shanty town at Nariman Point, just down the beach from the city

My parents moved to Bombay from Calcutta in 1965, when I was an infant – they stayed at the Taj for two weeks while the company found them a flat. This was the beginning of Calcutta’s decline, companies and professionals fleeing labour trouble, and relocating at this optimistic seaside metropolis in western India. It was a charmed life – from at least two of the flats we lived in when my father was finance director and then chief executive of Britannia Biscuits, flats in Malabar Hill and Cuffe Parade, the city’s two richest localities, you could see a skyline that, with its lissom, tall buildings (Bombay is the only Indian city to have had an obsessive romance with the vertical, the skyscraper), approximated Manhattan in some ways; in its sunniness, its palm trees, its disguised but obvious carnality, it echoed what we knew of California from films; and the gothic buildings were remnants of the old history that had first brought together these seven fishing islands.

From different windows and balconies in those two flats, at different points of my life until 1982, when my father retired, the dome of the Taj (the “old” Taj, as it came to be known after the arrival of its neighbour, the Taj Intercontinental) was visible, grey, as seemingly and deceptively stationary as a low cloud. Like Calcutta, and unlike Delhi, with its Moghul and Sultanate lineage, Bombay had no really great historical or religious monuments; its landmarks, in keeping with the fact that it was the progeny of an almost innocent-seeming colonial modernity, were secular ones – hotels; cinema halls, such as the Eros, the Regal, the Metro; grand, untidy railway stations such as the Victoria Terminus. To call the Taj the “old” Taj was to deliberately indulge in a flagrant misnomer, and a reminder of Bombay’s willingness to rewrite history in terms of the urban, the kitschy, the comic: it was as if the “real” Taj Mahal in Agra had never existed except in those most incredible of objects – school textbooks.


A pilgrimage to Calcutta recalls Armenian history

More than 250 Armenians with Calcutta roots went to the Indian city for the 300th anniversary of the oldest church there. Leonard M. Apcar in International Herald Tribune:

Restored graves at Holy Trinity Chapel, an Armenian church and cemetery built in 1867, in the Tangra district of Calcutta. (Leonard M. Apcar/IHT)

Restored graves at Holy Trinity Chapel, an Armenian church and cemetery built in 1867, in the Tangra district of Calcutta. (Leonard M. Apcar/IHT)

Before there were call centers and Indian conglomerates, before the East India Co. or the British Raj, there were Armenians who made their way to India to trade and to escape religious persecution from the Turks and, later, Persians.

Entrepreneurial and devout Christians, but familiar with the Islamic ways of Mughal emperors, Armenians arrived in northeast India in the early 1600s, some 60 years before British adventurers became established traders here. They acquired gems, spices and silks, and brought them back to Armenian enclaves in Persia such as Isfahan.

Eventually, some Persian Armenians – including my ancestors – left and set up their own businesses and communities here, landing first on India’s western flank in Surat and nearby Bombay, the present-day Mumbai, and then moving to the river banks in northeast India that led to Calcutta’s founding as a sprawling manufacturing and port city.


The idea of cities

In a cover story on urban areas around Southasia, Himal looks “at the idea of cities as an active collective impulse that is ever evolving.” Below, a sample:

Lahore: By Raza Rumi

I spent my early years in a Model Town colonial bungalow, which was originally the creation of a Hindu doctor who had to leave the city at Partition. This was an age when birds were an integral feature of Lahori skies, and the seasons played out their glory. As the name suggests, Model Town was an ‘ideal’ suburb, created during the Raj by the advanced citizenry on the idea of ‘cooperative urban life’. Established in 1922, Model Town was the fruition of advocate Diwan Khem Chand’s unshakeable belief in the values of self help, self responsibility and democracy, loosely the principles of cooperative societies. This was the reason why Model Town was established as, and still is, a ‘cooperative society’. What fewer people know is that these values of cooperation were first popularised by George Jacob Holyoake, a 19th-century English social reformer responsible for the cooperative movement. Incidentally, Holyoake was also infamous for the distinction of having invented the phrase ‘secularism’, for which he was the last citizen to be convicted for blasphemy in England.

Kabul: By Anne Feenstra

Kabul is a city of dramatic contrasts. In the streets, shiny black-windowed limousines drive immediately alongside scruffy pushcarts with wobbly wheels. On the sidewalks, one-legged beggars hold out hands to well-dressed business men in sharp, knitted suits and gleaming shoes. Perhaps little of this is particularly exceptional in urban areas around the world, including in Southasia. Perhaps more to the point in the Afghan context would be the contrast in the inner city between Western female diplomats being driven around in armoured vehicles, and the local ladies who are fully covered in azure burqas.

Galle: By Richard Boyle

Galle’s location at the southwestern tip of Sri Lanka, with only the Antarctic across more than 5000 miles of ocean, ensured the prominence of the port during the early history of navigation. Not surprisingly, it became the natural focal point at the southernmost part of the Silk Routes that connected Asia with the Mediterranean. Galle also provided a relatively equidistant location for Arab and Chinese ships to converge and trade, thus avoiding much longer voyages. It had a fine natural harbour protected to the southeast by an elevated headland and to the northwest by a flat peninsula, although there were submerged rocks and the harbour was not protected from the southwest monsoon.

Dhaka: By Zafar Sobhan

Dhaka today is utterly unrecognisable as the sleepy, charming, tranquil town it was even half a century ago. There is something thoroughly startling about this transmutation from a genteel and sedate town of tree-lined avenues, ponds, canals and spacious bungalows set amidst overgrown gardens – to this present incarnation as a dizzying metropolis of 12 million people, blaring automobiles and block after block of unpainted concrete apartments, as far as the eye can see. But the difference is more than merely in the physical transformation; it is also one of tone and feel. Dhaka today is a high-octane megacity, where life is fast and furious (except for the traffic, which remains slow and torpid), where anger and violence simmer beneath the surface.