We were at the Jaipur Literature Festival and someone had risen from the audience to share a comment.
“I am so-and-so from Calcutta,” she had begun. It took only that to precipitate the outburst behind me.
I loved it. For years, the mention of Calcutta provokes mostly pity from others as if you were speaking of a widowed aunt. Such a good family. But what a sad life.
It was actually good to feel that the city I grew up in, and then abandoned for many years, was still capable of producing such a strong reaction from someone.
I was reminded of that young woman this week while reading Calcuttan Ruchir Joshi’s angry impassioned open letter to his city after it banned Salman Rushdie from even landing in it.
Calcutta finally completed its downfall from the cultural capital of all Asia to a narrow-minded, spirit-crippled, morally corrupt, goonda-governed provincial town. From being the great city where Rabindranath Tagore wrote ‘where the mind is without fear’ our urban concentration has now become the champion backwater place where the heart is squeezed by fear, paranoia and the over-riding greed for power.
Joshi is not Bengali in a city where Bengali and Calcuttan are often used interchangeably. That makes his anger and sense of betrayal feel even more acute. His identity is truly Calcuttan and it’s that identity that just got punched in the gut.
Mind you, this did not come as a bolt from the blue (coincidentally the colour that Mamata is painting our city) for Joshi. A few weeks ago at another literary festival in the city (yes, Kolkata is so steeped in its sense of exceptionalism it needs two literary festivals almost back-to-back), Joshi was part of a debate on Is Kolkata Still the Cultural Capital?
Joshi argued against the motion. But the debate itself was a draw at that time.
His was not the only voice in protest. “The state government should have welcomed Rushdie and should have made all arrangements for his stay. But what happened had actually demeaned the city’s cultural heritage and Kolkata’s prestige in the world forum,” Mahasweta Devi, 87, and probably our most famous living literary figure told PTI.
But in all these protests there is embedded an assumption of Kolkata’s innate exceptionalism. When a friend was marveling at how Satyajit Ray didn’t let his scandalous affair with his leading lady get in the way of his masterpiece, Charulata, I remember teasing her “Don’t tell me you are saying Calcuttans even do extra marital affairs better!” That was a joke but only sort of. Calcuttans’ delusions of grandeur could easily extend that far.
But I truly don’t know where my city truly figures in the world forum, if anybody thinks about it at all beyond some Ray aficionados in Paris and Berlin. My relationship with my city is a lot more ambiguous. Having grown up in it and then lived away from it for many years, I often feel a stranger in it. When visitors come and say wonderingly “Oh I have heard so much about its culture. What should I see to get a taste of that” I feel at a loss, wondering what to recommend to them. I usually end up taking them to disused cemeteries and mausoleums, hardly the sign of a vibrant city.
It’s no secret that this is a city fallen on hard times. Ranabir Samaddar who heads the Calcutta Research Group told me once about a young man named Serge who came all the way from Sorbonne to tell Bengali students to come out and protest when Parisian students were striking in 1968. “What happened to that age of global restlessness?” wondered Samaddar. “What has happened to Kolkata?”
For years as Calcutta declined as a city, it’s only consolation was to look westwards. “The Bengali being upper nose and upper caste always said at least we are better than Bihar,” said Samaddar. “Now that myth is broken.”
The other day a Bihari taxi driver told me disgustedly, “Look at the roads here. Nitish is building such good roads in Bihar. I will go back there within three years.” I asked him if he knew other people who felt the same. He said he did. He knew many Biharis who were thinking of going back home.
“You will have no one left to drive taxis in Kolkata,” he said. “You Bengalis had better learn fast.”
The only thing Bengalis have learned to do well are adda and opinionating. They are good skills for late night television talk shows but useless for driving rattling old black and yellow Ambassadors.
That is why the Rushdie sting hurts so bad here. It’s all we had – that where-the-mind-is-without-fear cultural capital. Calcuttans’ sense of intellectual exceptionalism, the kind that made that young woman at Jaipur bristle, stems from the pride of a city that has little else in its kitty anymore. Now the emperor has been shown to be without clothes. And we are truly just a backwater obsessed with the price of fish while one of our most famous living authors of Indian origin could not come to the city when it was hosting, of all things, the legendary Kolkata Book Fair.
My friend (and columnist for Firstpost) Rajyasree Sen tweeted about being in the city when a fire broke out in the fair years ago. “The sorrow of not being in Cal for the Book Fair. I remember when it went up in flames. No one cared abt the people, only saving the books.”
That sense of a city that was threadbare in appearance but cared passionately about ideas went up in smoke this week as it pulled the plug on Rushdie. No one, it proved, really cared about books. Even the book fair this time is dominated by giant cutouts of a beaming Mamata.
For a city as snooty as this one, this was not just an embarrassment. Kolkata has become a Surpanakha. That is tragic but the greater tragedy is we sliced our own nose off.
It is unfair to blame the entire city for the machinations of a few. “I don’t think the whole of Calcutta is up in arms about it,” Rahul Bose, the only person associated with Midnight’s Children, to make it to the city told the Kolkata Literary Meet. “It’s always 1% of the population that control the narrative. We just have to keep fighting.”
But has the fight gone out of Calcutta?
Cities do rise from terrible doldrums as Detroit did in the USA. Mo Yan, the new Nobel laureate’s newest book POW! comes out of what its publisher calls a “handloom press” in Calcutta, not London or New York. Pico Iyer, on his first visit to the city for the literary meet, marvelled at all the ads on the walls for classes to improve handwriting.
Just last night I met a man, an émigré from Canada who told me excitedly about a website he was launching that was about the global Calcuttan because he knows so many people around the world who still feel an intellectual connection to the city that goes beyond nostalgia. He was confident that he would have no shortage of content. So I am not ready to write the obituary of my city just yet.
But we probably shouldn’t plan on holding another debate on “Is Kolkata Still the Cultural Capital” anytime soon.
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