Book: Grand Delusions: A Short of Biography of Kolkata
Author: Indrajit Hazra
Some years ago, when the sectarian outfit Amra Bangali started smearing tar on English and Hindi signage in the city, demanding Bengali exclusivity and a greater homeland, the Kolkata-based Bengali news media vehemently disapproved. Bereft of mass or intellectual support, the fringe outfit has been on the sick bed.
Deservedly so. Kolkata, after all, has been an urban decanter: the only metropolis in eastern and central India, Kolkata has been a second home to lakhs of migrants from the hard-up Hindi heartland. Unlike other cities, economic migrants haven’t faced organised racism and part of Kolkata’s unwritten success story is the narrative of the poor Bihari migrant regaining home and livelihood in India’s third and among the world’s 20 largest cities.
Without any cry for a pushback, over a million political refugees from East Pakistan and later, Bangladesh, got drafted into the city’s core. They occupied every vacant space; introduced an air of breathless anarchy to the streets and football stadiums; faithfully kept their communist benefactors in power, and through feisty spirit, recharged Kolkata’s socio-cultural cross-stitch. True to its creative spirit, the city turned their admirable fight-back into literature and films, even as recent as the riveting 2010 film, Sthaniyo Sambaad.
Beyond recent additions like malls, flyovers, parks, riverside walks, restaurants, luxury hotels and the skyscraper swathe of futuristic urbania that is Rajarhat-New Town, recent attempts at the resuscitation of long-ignored heritage and centuries-old buildings reflect a city of the sensitive, sensory imagination. Beyond its failings — there are many — Kolkata needs to be imagined beyond doomsday prophesying.
Even recently, thousands have protest-marched against perceived wrongs like the 2007 killings in rural Nandigram and the death of Muslim computer professional Rizwanur Rahman. Ground zero for multiple socio-political experiments, the entrenched years of communist conditioning possibly made Kolkata among India’s least acquisitive cities — here, the neighbour’s flashy new second car is unlikely to seduce; understandably, globalisation’s homogeneous gloss has found less purchase here.
Much of the above remains unaccounted for in journalist-author Indrajit Hazra’s Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata. Part memoir, part journalism, Hazra says that the “Kolkata of the 1980s” is occupying his head-space. He finds prophetic former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s 1985 comment of Kolkata being a “dying city”. Almost three decades later, it seems laughable. A 2014 survey by Cushman & Wakefield found the city’s central business district recording India’s highest rental growth, while Assocham’s 2013 findings recorded a 19 per cent job growth in Kolkata as against a two per cent decline nationally. Retail and real estate industries too, have reported happy tidings. Forget error-prone surveys, but it’ll be rare to find employable youth playing carrom on weekday afternoons, though adda — the Bengali thirst for long impromptu discussions — remains a persistent evening pursuit.
Hazra seems undecided on qualifying Kolkata — it’s variously a city-town, village, urbane and swinging city and pretend-metropolis. He isn’t as confused about necessary action. To be a 21st century city, apart from the gated communities of Salt Lake, Lake Town, Rajarhat and Eastern Bypass, “all of Kolkata would have to be yanked out by its roots and rebuilt”, he prescribes. Now imagine the stunning heritage of the Jewish, Armenian, Marwari, Chinese, Greek and Portuguese communities, besides the preponderant British and local hybrid styles, and north Kolkata’s time-transporting bylanes, going under Hazra’s revivalist hammer.
While the author’s personal experiences from the “loadshedding” days (an endangered occurrence now) of the ’80s, his account of the city’s north-south divide and his trail through Kolkata’s food paths make for engaging reading (as opposed to the lethargic portrayal of Park Street), there is little fresh information here.
A former resident forced to leave for Delhi and better opportunities, Hazra is caught between weakness and contempt for Kolkata. Some of his gripes ring true, yet he’s afflicted by the constant need for delusion or derision. Often, they seem like nitpicking — Beleghata’s Gandhi Bhavan is “alarmingly” well-maintained; a ferry ride is pleasant but “bound by the schedule”; and Park Street is pointlessly summarised as “our Petits Champs-Elysees”, “our Ungorgeous Princes Street”. Intriguingly, the chapter on Bengali cinema (he does mention its aesthetic revival) begins with the viewing experience of a Hindi-dubbed south Indian semi-porn flick at his family-run Chhaya cinema, when Bakita Byaktigato, which is representative of Bengali cinema’s new-age refinement, could have been showing at a nearby multiplex.
It isn’t the error of misrepresenting Satyajit Ray’s iconic villain Maganlal Meghraj as Hemraj, but by calling a band Crosswindz though it became Krosswindz well over a decade ago — possibly around when he left — Hazra unwittingly underlines the required revisiting of the Kolkata story. Between the C and K — the Calcutta of his ’80s and the Kolkata of ’14 — lies the gap.