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Oh! Calcutta

 | February 17, 2012

Calcutta, renamed some years ago as Kolkata, is now as jaded as its name itself sounds.

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Oh! Calcutta. This was once a term used as the title of an album cut by a Chicago band, The Lawrence Arms.

But much before the strains from this racy and aggressive record began to mesmerise the music world and rock the imagination of the punk brigade, there was an off-Broadway skit with the same name.

The play had been triggering a huge uproar with its sex scenes, and male and female full frontal nudity. The album was inspired by the Broadway show as well as a comment by Mother Teresa that conditions in Chicago’s south side depressed her more than Calcutta’s grinding poverty.

Calcutta, renamed some years ago as Kolkata, is now as jaded as its name itself sounds. Despite its rich past and its premier position as the Second City of an Empire where the sun never sank, Kolkata was once compared with pulsating New York and romantic Paris.

Kolkata encompassed both the energy of the American city and the allure of the French capital in a way that made Job Charnock’s mid-day halt a fine mix of business and pleasure.

If the Bengali “bhadrolok” (aristocracy) infused a sense of fine living with its charming mannerisms, elegant fashion, exquisite cuisine and great arts, the city’s Marwari or Rajasthani population (the largest outside Rajasthan) pepped up life and living through vibrant trade and commerce.

However, there are some writers who say that Kolkata’s decline began soon after the Suez Canal dramatically shortened the sea route from the West to India in 1869. Bombay, now Mumbai, became the new economic hub.

And, 50 years ago, Kolkata lost its capital status to Lutyens’ New Delhi. In the 1950s, the Bengal metropolis began to run out of its industrial steam.

Kolkata was going to the dogs, screamed commentators in the Press. They were not wrong.

Much like the aging zamindar or landlord in Satyajit Ray’s “Jalsaghar” (Music Room), the city’s native nobility was laidback and lethargic, and spent much of its time talking and thinking about the glorious past. Although the people continued to be mannered and courteous, warm and welcoming, and passionate about music and movies, they lacked the drive to live in a world that was turning ruthlessly competitive.

By the mid-1970s, Kolkata was well and truly deep inside the rut.

Decades of misrule

Long power outages crippled production (jute suffered heavily). Some compared the city’s industrial collapse to Detroit’s. Factories shut down. Many companies packed and moved to Bangalore and Chennai. Unemployment rose, but of course, and crime played havoc with Kolkata’s social fabric. Some of India’s first bank robberies were committed there.

Worse, Naxalbari, a small village in Bengal, spawned Naxalism. Charu Mazumdar and his band of intelligent and highly educated young men began a movement to annihilate the enemies of the state. Poor policemen were the first targets in what was a warped sense of justice.

Soon, a Marxist government came to power and remained in power till last year. It was clearly three decades of misrule.

Now, West Bengal has a new administration, led by Trinamool Congress’ Mamata Banerjee. She has promised to get the state on its feet and going.

However, even as the state is trying to get up, hospital fires with high casualties and baby deaths in hospital wards have been Banerjee’s nightmares.

Equally distressing is West Bengal’s financial mess. The state is trying to raise tax revenues while pleading for debt forgiveness.

West Bengal accounted for a quarter of India’s industrial capital stock in 1950. In 1960, it contributed 13 per cent of the total manufacturing output, and in 2000, the figure was seven per cent.

During the past decade, the state could attract less than two per cent of the foreign direct investment that poured into India.

Banerjee is trying her best to reverse the gloomy situation by urging Indian business houses to invest in West Bengal. But she has an unflattering baggage: in 2008, she stopped Tata from putting up a big car factory in the State. She contended that farmers were being exploited, but many of them were more than willing to sell their rather unproductive plots. Tata and its car went to Gujarat.

Indian business may not forget the episode in a hurry. And, in the meantime, Kolkata can throw up its arms in despair. Oh! Calcutta.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at [email protected]. He is an FMT columnist, who grew up in Calcutta during its best years.


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