Posted by: Tanmoy Chakrabarti | January 11, 2010

Kolkata – a few observations

We were excited to leave Singapore since our next destination was Kolkata, India where our families were awaiting us. We knew that the time in Kolkata would be short and we have to ensure we don’t overexert ourselves but as we boarded the aircraft we were prepared to break the rules.

The Kolkata-Singapore flight reminded me of bus trips to Digha from Esplanade. The flight was full of Bengalis who were excited and loud as always. Everyone in the flight were in some sort of a perpetual hurry – hurry to find their seats, hurry to put their hand bags, hurry to eat and taken care of. Instantly, I had a feeling of Déjà vu that I was flying towards my birthplace.

Mentally, I was prepared to visit a new Kolkata – a Kolkata which has changed, politically and in its attitude. I was eager to see focussed youngsters and confident middle-aged people who have finally said ‘enough is enough’. My enthusiasm was not because I had a brief stay in an advanced city or some out of some sort of sarcasm but because I have always loved my birthplace ahead of any other place in the world and so desperately wanted it to change. My posts about India ends up annoying many of my Indian readers (many of whom have surprisingly chosen to stay outside India) who feel I am an “India-basher” who speaks ill always and I end up inviting harsh comments which are sarcastic, humiliating and bizarre. Having said that, I feel India needs to shape up a lot in order to be considered as the “next big thing in the world” which with our GDP statistics we aspire to become.

To be honest, I also hate to write untoward incidents that I faced in Kolkata in an open public blog but then I feel certain things should not be hidden in the closet as unless they are talked about they would not have any chance to change towards betterment. I am sorry if my post offends anyone but fact of the matter is I had to get these things out of my system since these pain me quite a bit. Perhaps in my next post, I would write about happier things in India.

We reached the Netaji Subhash International Airport, Kolkata at around 10.00 PM India time and boarded the bus towards the lobby. First we were tested for swine flu and following that we proceeded towards the immigration. As we queued up for immigration clearance a typical “Kolkata fight” broke up there. Two persons wanted to start a queue for themselves in the place which is designated for physically challenged. Their logic was since there were no physically challenged persons; they should be allowed to queue up there. The man managing the immigration clearance queues, the police personnel all tried and failed to reason with those two persons. They were shouting on top of their voice provoking a gentleman of my father’s age to react. In return, the gentleman was insulted and asked to shut up. I don’t know how the fight ended since our clearance was finished by then and we proceeded to pick up our luggage.

As we moved to the conveyor belt, we saw the airport staff pulling all the bags off them and throwing them on the ground with utter disdain. Everyone wondered whether this is a new protest in the “city of protests” and rushed towards the heaps of bags on the ground. Following our enquiry we learnt that the conveyor belt cannot run if the bags were on it. When we enquired why are the bags thrown on the ground with such disdain, we were asked in return – how else do we hope it should be done? Finally, after a bit of struggle we were able to find our bags from the heap of bags. There were no customs checking as one of the custom official said, there are too many passengers today. Kolkata International airport does not boast of any proper eatery or a lounge so God save those passengers who need to wait for long at that place.

We were out of the airport and were happy to be greeted by our parents. As we drove down towards our home, we could see the first signs of change in Kolkata. Huge and imposing political cut-outs adorn the streets at every 10-15 meters stretch through-out the city. The cut-out does convey the political change looming ahead but one cannot say it does significantly better for the city’s look or feel.

A few things have certainly changed for better in Kolkata. First, Kolkata’s public transport system has improved significantly. It is heartening to see a conscious effort to phase-out the old rickety buses by new buses. The Kolkata buses do provide better connectivity among different parts of the city and since they are run by fuel causing less pollution it is all the more better. However, more buses does not mean roads are becoming better. Kolkata roads still remain as they used to be and with increasing number of buses the traffic problems have skyrocketed. Kolkata was pioneer in having the first underground railway in India, I feel it is time that Kolkata gets some decent flyovers like Delhi has.

The consumer market boom has touched Kolkata too. Our parents stay in a building which is next to the “biggest retail development in Eastern India” – the South City shopping mall. Malls such as the South City are perpetually busy and even if people are not shopping they give people to get comforted under air-conditioned roofs. In fact, these malls sell a variety of products manufactured and marketed by international companies. This is undoubtedly unique to Kolkata, since 32 years of leftist rule have devoid the city of many things which are “foreign”.

Real estate markets in Kolkata have been booming too. Every other person, I met in the city talks of either owning or plans to own an apartment. These buildings are built in newly developed regions and have opened the real estate market in the city. I am not sure of the exact prices but I am sure they are affordable to many.

While in Kolkata, I was watching an interview of Kolkata’s Mayor (highest ranking officer in Kolkata’s municipal government) who was asked how come the municipality (city council) is giving permission to build so many high-rise buildings when the Kolkata Fire Department is ill-equipped to deal with fires above 10 storeys. The Mayor ducked the question. This is the problem with Kolkata’s apparent growth. I know many readers would point out to me that I am perhaps one of those who would say Kolkata does not grow and now that it is growing, I am the one who is questioning its growth. To some extent this is true but the fact remains that beyond every physical growth of a city, the growth of its people reigns supreme. It is because of the people a country or a city’s development become sustainable. You can have hundred dustbins and public toilets made around the city but if the people are still eager to keep the city dirty, none can stop it from being dirty. Most of us blame the poor for our dirt but in reality it is the middle-class who have contributed the most to Kolkata’s demise. It was the case long back but now the degradation has reached its pinnacle.

Behaviour wise I found Kolkata streets worse than Delhi, which I always thought of to be a rude city. Bengalis are loud people who love to fight but mostly they were considered well behaved with strangers. This time around I felt Kolkata has turned out to be one of the rudest cities. Starting from the fight at the airport, I must have witnessed around 20 fights on Kolkata streets this trip. Generally, in an effort to show-off their changed attitude, I found residents terribly rude to each other. There is a new found aggression among the people on the streets, which is far from being focussed aggression. It is a sort of defiance. It is as if saying – “take it or leave it, we are like this”. Time and again I felt scared on the street to tell a rickshaw driver, not to hit me with the wheels of his rickshaw, because I felt he may respond to me in the ugliest manner. People who are staying in Kolkata and wanting a decent life are facing this every moment. Today’s Kolkata is much ruder and wrongly rude. The one who shouts more is perceived to a winner.

Whatever may be the reason for this apparent rudeness, be it government inaction, show of loyalty towards new found political messiahs, increasing population, it is certainly not helping the city’s image. However, like I said nobody seemed to care as there is a strong sense of defiance among everyone. All of us, the Bengalis of Kolkata love to take pride in all these and discuss gleefully amongst us without even bothering our own home is turning out to be one of the worst places in the earth. One never knows what traumatic experience lies ahead of one. Our visit to the office of West Bengal Motor Vehicles Department was one such experience where the inspector was unnecessarily ridiculing us with the choicest of adjectives because his mood was not right. I felt embarrassed that father was with me. I wonder if senior citizens face such treatment in a city then what kind of city is turning out to be.

This apparent rudeness is reflected in Kolkata’s media too. Following the trend media revolution in India, Kolkata’s television has nearly 20-30 regional channels beamed into every subscriber’s home. Out of those 20-30, nearly 6-7 would be channels that are on astrology, around 8-10 are entertainment channels showing film and music and the rest would be news channel. The definition of entertainment seemed to have changed in Kolkata which was once regarded as the seat of art and culture in India. The news channels have all been politically bought over and it is difficult to understand which one is giving the correct news. I don’t know why it is like that? May be because I grew up in a Kolkata where political system was monopolised completely and perhaps now very rightly the viewer gets the alternative view. Whatever it may be, but news broadcasted in those news channels seemed like creating issues out of apparent non-issues. During my trip, a news channel for continuous 4 days (and 24 hours) discussed how the malfunctioning floodlights in Kolkata’s Eden Gardens have tarnished our reputation completely. It is hard to believe but truth is that all other news was ignored during that period. Among other entertainment television channels, I must admit that just for the sake of fun (or to poke fun) I did sometimes watch trailers of new Bengali films, but the lesser said about them, the better it is.

I enjoyed my stay in Kolkata because my family is there. It is my home. This time the weather was brilliant and I enjoyed the chill. Every Kathi Roll I had, I relished. I enjoyed the Chinese food and I loved the ride on the new Volvo buses. I enjoyed that East Bengal won the derby played when I was there and I loved that India finally took revenge on Sri Lanka in the Eden Gardens. It was brilliant to watch ‘3 idiots’ at Navina for Rupees 70 per ticket (when a ticket at Fame at South City cost 270) and munch Rs 10 pack pop-corn. I enjoyed the raw wit amongst rickshaw pullers and shopkeepers on the streets. More than anything else I enjoyed meeting my family. Though I missed out on meeting some really dear people but still on the whole the trip was not bad.

The state of affairs in the city did not please me though. If this is a transition phase for better things to come, then I wish this phase gets over soon. It is a very ugly transition phase. I felt worried that people of my parent’s age may feel humiliated and frustrated every time they step out on the streets of Kolkata. I want to retire in Kolkata and want to retire in a beautiful Kolkata – not the one that I saw this Christmas. This one looked a bit scary.

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Responses

  1. I do NOT wish to retire in Kolkata, and I have no dreams of any change for the better. I guess that’s enough said!


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