Which Party Will Resurrect Kolkata, City of Rum and Revolution?
In poll season, Abir Pal reposes hope in Kolkata’s resilience to bounce back despite years of socio-cultural erosion
Walking around and in conversation with people you notice the change. Incendiary graffiti still blankets Kolkata’s streets though it’s not as witty as before. The visceral distaste of the Bengali for material riches (has thankfully) melted away, but only to be replaced with the viciousness of let’s-get-rich-at-any-cost.
Commuters remain as angry and prickly as ever but the kinship that once prompted the Calcuttan to aid strangers, has given way to the transactional indifference of any urban conglomeration.
A Turn for the Worse
Political discourse, once evolved, is today hallmarked with the crude. The comic has made way for the crass. If one politician talks of “gouging out eyes and chopping hands”, the other threatens “dire consequences” if not voted to power.
Coarse street slang and profanities are de rigueur at public rallies in Bengal and any lingering perception about the genteel, educated politician who stood on an elevated moral dais vis-a-vis his cow-belt counterpart has long been run to the ground.
The average political soldier today no longer concerns himself with Marx (or for that matter with any ideology). Mammon is their God. As a young doctor who recently migrated to Australia told me, “When we were in college it was all right to be apolitical -- no one bothered you. Today, you are with them or against them.”
With such political polarisation, law and order is the worst casualty. Not a day goes by when uniformed policemen are not beaten up, school teachers heckled, old couples robbed at home and pedestrians injured by auto and buses who simply cannot be bothered to follow traffic rules.
resentment and the lumpen on slow simmer for many years are now boiling over.
The scourge of populism has destroyed the unique urban landscape of Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar. Bottled-up aspirations -- clean air and open spaces are being ruthlessly sacrificed at the altar of conspicuous consumption.
“The continuing migration of the young to other cities and the market-driven push of the Bengali resident to the outskirts of the city, while making it more cosmopolitan, will weaken Kolkata’s connection with its past. Its cultural ethos, its tolerance and compassion and its “there-is-life-beyond-work” attitude will be replaced by the matter-of-factness of a metropolis devoid of civic-mindedness”, notes NGO, Public United for Better Living in Calcutta.
Changed, but Still Home
Writer Amit Chaudhuri has chronicled how land-sharks are mindlessly destroying the architectural distinctiveness of my neighbourhood. As the ‘para’ or community living fades away so are these spatial representations of the Bengali upper-middle class professional ethos. What were once wide pavements in leafy south Kolkata have been usurped by hawkers reducing tranquil residential localities to chaotic marketplaces.
Even culture, that redeeming jewel in the Bengali crown, is languishing. Most artists, intellectuals and creative brains all work and reside outside the city.
Kolkata’s cosmopolitan social fabric has begun to fray. You can feel it at the Dover Lane Music festival, at the book fair, while walking along the illuminated promenade beside the Hoogly and even when mingling with the late night clientele at Park Hotel’s Someplace Else which has been hosting mainstay city rock bands for over 20 years.
It is unfair to blame the death of the megapolis solely on the present government. At best, they failed to stem and reverse the malaise that had set in during the 34 years of Communist rule and at the worst they have perpetuated the politicisation, populism and parochialism of the Marxists.
Maybe all is not lost. Kolkata still remains affordable. Housing is
plentiful as is uninterrupted power. Shopping malls proliferate. Schools
continue to be among the best. Commuting distances are manageable. Household
help is plentiful. Healthcare facilities are widely available and it is still
possible even on weekdays to meet up with friends for a drink (or two). In
terms of quality of life, it’s a proposition hard to match.
These elections will once again offer the victor an opportunity to resurrect this city of Old Monk rum and revolution whose resilience has withstood countless premature epitaphs.
(Abir Pal is a journalist and communication professional based in Kolkata)
(This is the concluding part. You can read the first part here.)
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