Jenny April 14, 2013

Kolkata. The city is like a book so rich with content that an endless number of chapters will not suffice. There is the old Kolkata (which the British, who had troubles pronouncing the native names of India’s cities, named “Calcutta” but since 2001 goes by the name Kolkata again), there is the even-older Kolkata (where, in 1690, a representative of the East India Company laid the foundation of the coming empire when he bought the right to trade freely from the local Moghul ruler for 3000 rupees annually), and there is contemporary Kolkata. All seem to coexist in one way or the other: there are crumbling buildings and new ones side by side, there are people who dream about the past and those who gaze at the horizon, and there are those who seem content with being in the present.

Last year, it was one hundred years since the capital of India, then under British rule, was moved from Kolkata to Delhi in 1912. The whole administration moved along, leaving the old colonial buildings empty. Today, they remain an architectural memory of bygone times. The idea of Kolkata as the center of India seems unthinkable today, when gravity has shifted to cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.

There is of course the wide streets of the former colonial city center (the British, wanting to shield themselves of from the local residents, erupted grandiose projects in the middle of the city but left the rest much untouched, resulting in a skewed relationship between the center and its surrounding parts). But the really captivating parts of Kolkata are elsewhere: on the side streets, down by the water, along the railway tracks and in the street corners. Here is a fraction, a tiny fraction, of that city.

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Kalighat in southern Kolkata is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. Most come to the area to visit the temple dedicated to Kali, the mother/destroyer deity that is a symbol of Kolkata, or to know more about Kalighat painting.

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There is a wealth of old, majestic buildings in Kolkata, especially in the northern parts of the city. Areas like Sovabazar and Jorasanko are filled with them.

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There is a true multicultural side to Kolkata: probably no other Indian city has such a rich cultural heritage. A walk around the Borabazar neighborhood takes you, within less than an hour, to these places: a tiny Chinese temple, a Zoroastrian temple, a synagogue, an Armenian church, a Catholic church, countless Hindu mandirs, Muslim mosques, the gathering place for Kolkata’s Shiite community and a combined Buddhist school, clinic and guesthouse.

Among the city’s past inhabitants (because many of these communities have now shrunk in numbers and influence) are Babylonian Jews who immigrated from Baghdad in the 18th century, Armenians who arrived as far back as the 11th century, Chinese who came to work as tanners, hawkers and plantation workers, and a large number of migrants from poor, rural Indian states like Bihar and Orissa (these are still very present in Kolkata).

The 19th century was a time of big changes. After the 1857 revolt, British rule over India changed markedly and went to become more harsh and imposing. Little tolerance was given to local traditions and English was introduced to a larger segment of the people at this time, along with Western education. While the process challenged old notions of caste and authority, it also introduced new forms of stratification into Indian society, along class or occupational lines.

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The city continues to be one of economic polarity. Many, many of Kolkata’s residents live in poverty – indeed, this is what the city came to be associated with to people all over the world. In 1947, at the partition of India, Kolkata received more than one million refugees, more or less overnight. Many were Hindus from the eastern parts of Bengal (while Muslims who lived in the part of Bengal that came under Indian jurisdiction fled to East Pakistan, today’s Bangladesh), who came with nothing and settled in the city. The partition of India represents the largest migration of people in contemporary history; the number human lives across the continent that were unsettled by the political decision is impossible to even try and comprehend. A few decades later, in 1971, Kolkata opened its doors once again, when ten million refugees fled the war in Bangladesh for safety (but desolation) in India.

Today, millions of people live in Kolkata’s poorest, informal areas, known as bustees. The English word “slum” is often used, but, as Jeremy Seabrook, the author of a great book on Kolkata’s poor, People Without History, points out, the concept was originally used to describe the poorest areas of 19th century Britain, quite different from today’s Indian “slums”, which often function as self-sustaining units where everything from trash collection to informal banking and community services are run, in whatever manner possible, by the inhabitants themselves.

At least 30 percent of Kolkata’s residents live in bustees, and struggle daily to get by. This means working with whatever is there: producing cheap articles in cramped factories, selling merchandise on the sidewalk, collecting garbage to find things that are possible to sell or re-use. The same author, Jeremy Seabrook, describes poverty in a way I find very true:

“Poverty is not a static. It is not even a condition. It is a busy scavenger, always changing its shape, ingenious at devising new ways of robbing people of what little they possess.”

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While certainly imposing, poverty is not the only marker of people’s identity. There is lots of hardship, but much to be inspired by as well. The fact that so many people live either in tiny make-shift houses or on the streets means that something is always happening, everywhere, and you are never without company.

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The Communist Party of India (Marxist) ruled Kolkata for 34 years, longer than they have been in power anywhere else in the country. In the 2011 elections they lost for the first time in decades, but lots of graffiti and artwork testifies to their popularity.

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Maybe nothing is more symbolical of Kolkata than the Howrah Bridge. The bridge, which is one of the largest of its kind in the world, was opened in 1943 and links Kolkata with Howrah, the twin city on the other side of the Hoogly River. Like any landmark, it has been featured in many fictional works: the 1958 Parash Pathar by legendary director Satyajit Ray, Roland Joffé’s City of Joy from 1992 and many contemporary Hindi, Tamil and Bengali movies. More pedestrians than cars cross the bridge each day, many making their way to the huge train station on the Howrah side. Onlooking the bridge on the Kolkata side is the Mullick Ghat market, one of the largest wholesale flower markets in Asia. It wakes up early, really early – five or six in the morning, while other parts of the city are still empty.

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There is so much more to say about the city. About its old-age coffee shops, where the purpose of life is simple: to engage in adda, the Bengali word for smalltalk, conversation. Or the cultural heritage of the city, with its novelists, baul artists, comedians and village theater performers. The loveliest bookstore. Or the street food. The street food! Chinese dumplings, grilled wholewheat bread with potato and chili, oily green beans the Bangla way. But for this time, you will have to google all of that. There are lots of people who have written extensively and great about these things (like the people over at Calcutta Walks, or, if you want a proper book rather than Google hits, Lina Fruzzetti who in Calcutta Conversations does adda with interesting characters in the city). I will leave you instead with this short quote, from a 2005 Hindustan Times column (quoted here):

“If there is anything that Calcutta has in abundance, it is soul.”