Friday, April 13, 2007

My city

After having been filled with rage, sadness and despair about Calcutta, my city has suddenly started captivating me. A few days ago driving past a pond I thought that Calcutta must be unique among cities in the world for the large number of ponds, tanks, lakes and water-bodies spread throughout the city. From the Laldighi (opposite the Writers' Buildings) and the Manohar Das Tarag (opposite the Chowringhee-Lindsay Street crossing) in the very heart of the city, to hundreds upon hundreds of small, medium and large water-bodies all over the city, and especially in its fringes.

Though water-bodies are being quietly (illegally) filled up and built on, there is a law in place, there are enforcement authorities, and public and community awareness about protecting these are growing. I would like to think Calcutta shall always have her water-bodies.

I wished I could fly over my city like a bird and have an aerial view of all the water-bodies!

Travelling to some far-flung areas, I realised I had really traversed this city through my life and work: central, north, south, east and west; day, and night. How well I knew this city, and what a feeling of intimacy and satisfaction I feel about that. The city feels like a beautiful green sheet over which my body is spread out in embrace.

Summer in Calcutta can be harsh. Around 20 November last year, I thought - now the pleasant season is here; for 3 months one will enjoy it. Towards the end of February, I was thinking, sadly, about the torrid summer to come. But the summer was late in coming. And even before its shown its fury - the cool north-wester showers and gales are here already, with no delay. How kind and loving nature is, to help us bear the coming 2 months of heat and extreme humidity before the monsoon rains descend.

In the past I have felt that Calcutta was the worst place on earth. I felt it was a maggot-infested carcass. I used to feel I was cursed to be living in Calcutta. I used to say that when people sinned grieviously, they were reborn to live in Calcutta, to pay for their sins. But now I think Calcutta must be the most pleasant, comfortable and gentle place to live in, among all the metro cities in India. It is also perhaps the cleanest, prettiest and most well-maintained city among all the metro cities. While all my rage and despair arose from society, culture and politics, it is my growing sensitivity to NATURE in my city and fond attachment to her common folk that makes me feel this way now. After a very long time, simply being here makes me happy. I feel like a member of a proud, privileged elite.

I cannot but remember the lines of the great 19th century Persian and Urdu poet of India, Mirza Ghalib:

One should be grateful that such a city as Calcutta exists. Where else in the world is there a city so refreshing? To sit in the dust of Calcutta is better than to grace the throne of another dominion. By God, had I not been a family man, with regard for the honor of my wife and children, I would have cut myself free and made my way there. There I would have lived till I died, in that heavenly city, free from all cares. How delightful are its cool breezes, and how pleasant is its water. How excellent are its pure wines and its ripe fruits!

If all the fruits of Paradise lay there outspread before you,
The mangoes of Calcutta still would haunt your memory.

And also :

Ah me, my friend! The mention of Calcutta’s name
Has loosed a shaft that pierces to my very soul.
Its greenery and verdure take away your breath;
Its women’s charms are such that none escapes them whole.

... All freshness and all sweetness are its luscious fruits;
Its mellow wines are pleasing beyond all compare.

Image: Radar image of Calcutta, source - NASA.


Anonymous said...

Didn't know Ghalib was enamoured of Calcutta but his Calcutta must have been very different from our Kolkata.

Not so sure about the beauties of Kolkata as you describe them but one must always be grateful for small mercies.

Holden Caulfield said...

Well, I am not a pessimist - at least not about the city I love.

It is all in our hands. A city is a human construction. We need to give our thoughts shape - a design school (imagine a NID in Calcutta where students are making toys that preserve our paradigm - as opposed to the ones we have now in stores) and a good School of Architecture is long due.

Everytime I see a ugly construction, I wonder if the inhabitants have ever heard of or seen any good photographs of what an edifice can be. Everytime I see terrible road furnitures (e.g., bus-stops, sign posts) I wonder what is Subhas Chakkotty doing in his lungi? Having jhalmuri with his cadre?

Is it not strange that Ahmedabad, a city embedded within the Gujarati entrepreneurship culture, has NID and is a place where architects flock?

Abstract thought needs to be given shape, and we must know how to find an exit from text.

Anonymous said...

Hi Deva, Ghalib was surely being metaphysical?! But yes, since spring last year, I am increasingly enamoured of Calcutta's breezes.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Holden (a pleasant surprise, the name, as I just wrote to a friend about JD Salinger).

I agree everything is in our hands. We can make, we can unmake, we can re-make anew ... Education in aesthetics - is imperative. But we are caught bewteen the crass tastelessness of the affluent, and the dehumanised living of the poor in a divided society.

Design - its not just "physical" design that's required, but "process design" as well. I have written in the past that perhaps no city in the world has as much potential for self-renewal as Calcutta, no city can achieve the kind of transformation of its social + physical landscape as Calcutta.

The key issue is LAND - as much in Calcutta today, as in rural areas (Nandigram, Singur et al). The huge tracts tied up under the Thika Tenancy Act - are in the sight of the greedy promoters and their political patrons. But the wealth that this land represents - is the only source to close the immense social and human development gap that the low-income and poor in the city suffer.

For this vision of a dweller-led and dweller-benefiting redevelopment to be realised, the city requires thousands of grassroots organisers, who do not exist today. A school of "social design", for community empowerment, could have far-reaching impact.

Finally, I agree wholeheartedly about the need for an exit from text, and an embrace of CONTEXT. Its not nice words that we need, but nicer actions, for and with the wretched of the city.

Holden Caulfield said...


I agree the key issue is land. And West Bengal has the highest population density in the country. No politician will ever tell his/ her constituency to make less babies. I don't want to invoke religion.

Once a small child was begging on the street. I bought him some food, and followed him to meet his parents - pavement dwellers. I told them when they themselves cannot live decently why have they brought this kid into this world? Answer - amra gorib.

When we were college students, we used to play this game: whenever we saw a person urinating on a wall, we used to stand behind him (yes, we never located a woman) and hurl expletives or crack jokes and make him stop in between the release. When asked, we got similar answers: gorib manush.

It is strange how people invoke a unrelated criteria (e.g., wealth) to explain another (discipline).

Vivekananda understood this a hundred years ago. Probably that's why he liked Dhrupad.

It is a challenge (and a competition) to remain positive and maintain a healthy optimism. What we can do is more important than what we cannot do. Unfortunately, these china-imported naxalism and marxism has taken the easier route - bhenge dao, ghuriye dao, protest only.

Again, we can turn to Vivekananda - the ultimate protest is creation. The entrepreneur protests against the status quo.

I enjoy reading your posts because they are so positive!

Anonymous said...

Naxalism, Communism - and for that matter, capitalist globalisation - are all concerened with externals. Not with the human being! Genuine change - like Vivekananda felt, or like the whole Sufi philosophy posits, or like the Buddha taught -can only come from within. Thus, if anything is to be built - manush ke god-te hobey (we have to build people). One person's coming to light - its exactly the same process that has to happen with each individual. This is not something mechanical, involving a "mass", its a chemical, organic, inner phenomenon, of the individual.

Of course, there's a place for externals as well. Thus, democracy, human rights, civic amenities etc.

I agree that the entrepreneur creates something new. And hence the profound significance of enterprise, and its acute need in Bengal. We need the democratisation of entrepreneurship, and we need to make an enterprise of democracy. Social stratification, and a class-ist (and caste-ist) society are fundamentally inimical to the development of enterprise. Here in Calcutta, we can see traditional enterprises languishing, because public policy, knowledge and capital - all - disregard the common folk.

Nor would I think much of so-called entrepreneurs, especially those on whom favours are showered by their political patrons. I wait to encounter that entrepreneur whom I can really look up to.

Reading your mention of asking a poor family why they produced a child, I am reminded of a slum woman in Anand Patwardhan's "Bombay - Our City" retorting to a similar question by a policeman with: Why did your mother produce you, you *^&%*?!

A thinking and aesthetically inclined person like you - might like to also learn something about "poverty". Like with any discipline, this too is not like spontaneous combustion!

Recently I was shocked to hear from a student, of liberal / leftist leanings, that she was surprised to find that the poor are not beggars!

Of course, in order to understand "poverty", its very important to study "wealth". Then one might have a different perspective altogether on "overpopulation".

Having a point of view that's a function of one's socio-economic-cultural coordinates - is not a very satisfying situation.

Holden Caulfield said...

your points about inspiration from within are well-taken. In fact, recent entrepreneurship research talks about that only. However, intrinsic motivations - however inspiring they are - have to be connected to the external world - lest that inspiration degenerates into some kind of autism.

That was Rabindranath's goal - reconciliation of the universal spirit in his own individual being.

I take offense with the policeman's retort (as Patwardhan puts it). There is a fundamental difference between that perspective with the kind I tried to convey in my earlier comment. Poverty, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. First, I refuse to accept any person is poor, and then let him/her use that as an excuse to not take control of his/ her own life (at least when they are adults). Respect begets respect. 'Raja sobare dyan maan, se maan apni phire paan'.

Beyond a point, its futile trying to find fault with the 'structure'. I remember feeble jokes about the CPIM government labeling the unbearable heat in May/June as 'kendrer shorojontro'.

The government cannot goad people into taking action. They can only create policies that are conducive to small enterprises. However, the burden to convert that opportunity into something useful lies with the people.

It is also true that the government behaves like a modern day zamindar - disbursing land as if that is their property. 44th Amendment needs to be revoked, and right to property should be made, again, a fundamental right. No government can just disburse land to few private players and claim they have turned around the economy.


Vincent said...

I am extremely pleased to find in your post an aesthetic appreciation for your environment that connects you to the poor and to Nature and to sanity. The worlds of politics are murky. All regimes have been corrupt always, but beauty and kindness have always flourished even under the conqueror's heel.

When we are connected to the soul of the place where we dwell, then we can truly change it, merely by breathing its air in gratitude.

Holden Caulfield said...

Beautiful ... beautiful thoughts, Yves.

Anonymous said...

Hullo Yves, thanks for your eloquent comment. In the same vein, I could do no better than quote Wendell Berry:

"All my dawns cross the horizon
and rise from underfoot.
What I stand for
is what I stand on."

Anonymous said...

I well remember a time once I had sent a comment to one of the posts on your blog, mentioning how much I loved my city. The place where I was born.

Wondering what you must would have thought about me then?

People come and people go, it may be true for the corrupt citizens of this city as well, but it must not be forgotten that the city is here to stay. The city of Joy, showers love to everyone.

There are numerous times that I get frustated out of the hectic life that I have to lead, the best way I get myself out of situations like this is by just standing on my terrace or Howrah Bridge and just feel the pain of people who are suffering a lot more than what I have ever had. People (alike) are there living in the same city.

Anonymous said...

Hi Amul, yes I remember your comment on an early post about Calcutta. Student days are the most glorious, and most luxurious, for the opportunity and circumstances to do do so many things, without the burden of care and responsibility. I'm sure you are off to a good start for a grounded personal relationship with the city and its people-space.