Fall of the minimum city

Fall of the minimum city

Fall of the minimum city

Calcutta has been Amit Chaudhuri’s abiding preoccupation, going by the number of books he has written on the subject. I was very keen to learn, before reading this book, what new ideas he would rustle up on the subject.

Somehow, I have always remained wary of the volume of critical attention Calcutta has got — good or bad — fictional or non-fictional — because deep down, I have developed a scepticism for the city which I guess is far too preoccupied with its past, remains firmly resistant to change, instead, seeking to bask in the glory that no longer exists. Why did I feel so? In part, there was a feeling that “nothing happens” in the city — compared to the vigour of some other happening cities of India, and of the world.

One can locate a number of spatial and cultural changes in Calcutta in the first half of the 20th century that led to the formation of a significant body of Bengali literature, paintings, plays, films, as well as literary and art criticism on notions of nationalism and modern Bengali identity. But, Calcutta, stuck in a time warp, has never really got past its habit of resting too much on its laurels. “Besides clearly being in decline, it (Calcutta) had the strange air of something that’s been a symbol of the zeitgeist for over a hundred years, and now embodies nothing but its severance from what’s shaping the age.” Thus, today’s Calcutta is “neither moored to its past nor part of a definite future”.

Upon his return to Calcutta in 1999 after 16 years of ‘exile’ in England, and living here permanently since — a place that he says, “was never his home, never will be” — Chaudhuri saw the emerging power of “a newly diasporic population and a suddenly disenfranchised peasantry”. Talk of industrialisation was in the air. But within August 2009 and December 2011, roughly the period of a little over two years that the book spans, Calcutta was in the ferment of a change — Poribartan in Bengali parlance — in the political dispensation, an atmosphere that “felt like there was an unspoken consensus that people would sooner commit suicide than return Left to power”.

The feeling of change was psychedelic more because Chaudhuri rightly notes that the economic decline of Calcutta began in the 80s. But during that time Calcutta’s central paradox, and promise — “that life and the imagination would hover most palpably over decay and dereliction” — ebbed away. The loss of imagination, Calcutta’s élan vital, was the city’s real loss, and according to Chaudhuri, the Left Front government of West Bengal presided over the intellectual and physical death of the city by ushering in a culture of sloth, unionised tyranny and agitpropist politics and by its aversion to globalisation and foreign investment. While New Delhi and Bombay prospered, Calcutta went on a life support system.

What is Calcutta now? It had, to Chaudhuri, become “one of those strategic, deceptively populated overreaches that the wave of globalisation has never quite managed to reach”. And Chaudhuri, deeply insightful, doesn’t lose sight of the Kiplingesque world of the Calcutta upper class, where everybody knows everybody. Calcutta, thus, is a mere enclave for the aspiring class. Many stay in the city condemned, to look after their ageing parents.

Today’s Calcutta — a “tentative” city — “without that enervating legacy of humanism and high culture” is led by “a passionate child of Left politics”, who, like the city she leads, is “without a past”. The leader is no other than Mamata Banerjee, who wanted, notably, to Londonise Calcutta after storm-trooping to power.

Calcutta: Two years in the city
Amit Chaudhuri
Penguin
2013, pp 320
443

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