Friday, June 30, 2006

About Calcutta

In reply to the enquiry about Calcutta, I wrote:

Calcutta is near the Tropics, very flat, alluvial, estuarine plains, close to the delta (where the river Ganga, which begins in the Himalaya mountains and runs through the north Indian plains, flows into the Bay of Bengal, which separates India from Burma and Thailand). It is quite hot through the year. Between December and February, it is cold and dry, the temperature coming down to 10-12 Celsius. There's a very brief spring, when trees start sprouting, flowers start blooming, fragrance of leaves and flowers starts filling the air, birds singing, before the hot summer begins. It gets hotter and hotter, April and May being particularly oppressive, with the temp near 40 C, and very high humidity. Around mid-April, people get a welcome break from the heat spell for a few days with strong wind and rain storms coming for the north west. Then the extreme heat continues. Nights are a bit more pleasant, with breezes from the south. In mid-June, the Monsoon rains from the southwest hit the city. Heavy rain pours through the day. The temperature comes down. Several days of hot, sunny weather and again heavy rain. This goes on till September-October. Then it gradually becomes cooler and drier, until late-November early December when the 'winter' begins, with heavy mist rising at night from the river, the nights cold, the sun gentle and pleasant during the day, the trees leafless. I guess its this time of the year that people like most - though not the many who are homeless, for whom winter nights are an ordeal, for whom the street is a pleasant home at night in summer. And in the peak of summer, people wait for the first rains, which come heralded by the fragrant scent of the earth and cool, moist breezes, heavy dark clouds, the terrifying roar and clap of thunder and flash of lightening.

As a lifelong Calcutta dweller, the city is like an extension of one's self, of one's own body. One is aware of nature and the seasons. I have become increasingly discerning of nature and seasons in the city, the feel of the air and the quality of light at different times, and the impact all this has on the psyche of the city-dweller.

Different fruits, berries and vegetables accompany each time of year, defining what people eat then, in various forms - cooked, pickles, relishes, raw fruits etc. May-July is the time when the best mangoes come - India's unique gift to the world. The hot summer is the time for a range of plentiful fruits with high liquid content - water melon being an example - which help people to stay cool. The hot summer is also the time of the piercing, maddening calls of the cuckoo (also called the brain fever bird I think!).

There's a unique marriage between climate/nature and people in any place! It is said that the climate here in Calcutta makes people lethargic, indolent, not industrious and ambitious, content with little. Nature is also bountiful, with fertile soil and rain, many vegetables and fruits growing through the year, fish in the riverine and pond-filled land. The society is stratified, with the common people bound to the soil and its management and to labour, while the propertied are inclined to leisure and non-manual pursuits, including refined arts. The British East India Company arrived in Calcutta in 1690. In 1772 the city became the capital of British India and remained India's leading city until 1912, when the capital shifted to Delhi. The seat of the British Empire in India, Calcutta was a very important city, economically, commercially, politically. But in the last four decades, the once proud city has been brought to its knees and made bereft. There is great poverty and squalour, unemployment, great exploitation and apathy, but also considerable wealth among a small privileged section. The middle class is squeezed and oppressed from all sides, and its backbone and fibre is largely crushed. The state is ruled with an iron fist by a communist party, which is bankrupt and corrupt in every way, and has been successful in pitting classes against each otherwhile feeding off everyone. There is no political opposition in the horizon.

Recently, a real estate and shopping mall boom has begun, giving some satisfaction to the affluent, amidst a scenario of blight and all-round degradation and hopelessness. Lawlessness, hostility, and getting the best for oneself, in whichever way, preferably foul - defines life in the streets of Calcutta. But cost of living is low, and Calcutta is still an essentially human and intimate city, at a human scale, rather than an impersonal one. The people are friendly and gracious, and the visual landscape is also very handsome in many places.

For a trip to Calcutta down memory lane, go here.

Photo: Achinto

3 comments:

sattvicwarrior said...

what a beautiful and well written post.
thanks for sharing

arsenic said...

Very true![:)]

Anonymous said...

Super color scheme, I like it! Good job. Go on.
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