A Dying City

A City Falls Apart

Samar Sen

[This article published in The Times of India in 1973 may be of interest in the context of the controversy over dying ‘Calcutta’. In truth Rajiv Gandhi’s derogatory remark was highly criticised by many in Calcutta’s vernacular papers. So Froniter in its April 20, 1985 issue reproduced the TOI article to raise fresh controversy.]

There was a time when one thought it a privilege to grow up in Calcutta, never mind even if the imperial capital had shifted to the glorified secretariat city that is Delhi. People still collect with pride the role that their not-too-elegant city once played in the economic, political and intellectual movements of the country.

Even in the early sixties, when this writer returned on leave to Calcutta after an absence of three years abroad, the stop-over in Delhi was pleasant but marked by an impatience to be back home. The journey from Dum Dum to downtown Calcutta was not roses all the way, squalor and poverty were very much in evidence, but one could believe that Calcutta did not bother to make the approach road from the airport look as impressive as possible, as all cities trading in tourism do.

Things have clanged. Whether you land at Dum Dum or arrive by train at Howrah, or worse still, at Sealdah, your unease grows. You feel that you are returning to a rundown provincial town, which the lucky have left and where the impoverished are falling out among themselves and where no attempt at a facelift, economic or cultural, succeeds. An old bitch gone in the teeth, as Pound would have said.

The basic cause of the decline is said to be economic—though the political factors seem overwhelming. Things began to happen in the thirties, under the surface. The politicians who had taken over the Calcutta Municipal Corporation in the twenties showed what they were and became symbolical of what would afflict India on a vast scale after 1947. Politics was in command, but what kind of politics! The self-seekers at the helm of affairs packed the organisation with their henchmen; they talked about the nation but served themselves and gave wide latitude to corruption and nepotism. But the agitation against the British lent them an air of respectability and most of the failings could be safely blamed on the rapacious British. We would create a new order, once they departed.

The war came. A few bombs fell in Calcutta and even those who were longing for the Japanese to take over fled. Prices were rising. But it was a good time for contractors, pimps and prostitutes, and there was a lot of war time employment. Perhaps the Quit India movement fizzled out because of the temporary benefits that a war raging outside brings. In 1943 came the man-made famine. With feelings of compassion, then revulsion, then indifference, people saw men, women and children die like flies and rot on the streets. Human values began to fall apart.

The picture was relieved by the brief flashes of anger and revolt in 1945, the massive Hindu-Muslim demonstrations in support of the INA and the unique general strike of July 29, 1946, which cut across communal barriers and created a situation, a potentiality for joint action which the Marxists favour. Whoever thought on July 29 that other forces, incited by the fanatics of the Congress and the Muslim League, would change the scene in mid-August? The carnage that occurred was brutal beyond words and showed that the middle-class bhadralok who sang Tagore songs could be as cruel and inhuman as the illiterate men without hope who constitute the majority, whose passions one can understand, though not condone. With the division of the country began a massive influx of refugees from East Bengal, who were left to shift for themselves in the swamps around Calcutta.

Now it is a city beyond redemption. Leave aside the fantastic cost of living. The sewerage and drainage system, devised way back in the last quarter of the 19th century for a small population, has choked up. CMPO, CMDA or no CMPO, CMDA, the streets—even outside the dingy areas where the lower middle class lives with bustees here and there—look like the cut-up limbs of a corpse. Even as recently as last year it took some time for the streets to get flooded but not long to clear. Now the monsoon soon conducts a blitzkrieg. Lights and fans and machines fail much too often, causing severe industrial dislocation and the power poles put up near villages as part of the scheme to electrify 10,000 (or 20,000?) villages are wooden jokes. Transport is a nightmare. Except in the affluent areas, the houses are small and cramped. A vast number of people live in hovels or outdoors, eating, shitting, pissing, loving and quarrelling as a matter of routine. Thousands sleep on the pavements. Some of them who come from the villages think the city is kinder than the countryside, which has hardly any food or shelter to offer.

Jobs are hard to find. A whole generation is doomed to forced idleness and frustration. Mastans or local roughs, who have always been under the protection of the most powerful party, have come to play a sinister role in the politics of the day. They have become so acceptable and therefore so respectable that ministers and generals sometimes preside over functions organised by them with collections extorted from the public. In this situation, when the short-lived militancy of the leftists during their brief spell of power has boomeranged, thousands have been forced out of their homes, while others who have survived police action are languishing in jail. The number of those who have departed forever is a matter of conjecture.

There are many Calcuttas, even within the city proper. Those who live in the centre, built and developed by the British, even those who lived in Ballygunge and further south, have little idea of what goes in Jadavpur, Garia or Tollygunge not to speak of those more congested parts which merge into an ill-planned industrial area, with jute and other mills pockmarking the landscape and soiling the Ganga with their waste. By day, the river looks like a huge, slimy, slow moving python, writhing in pain from indigestion caused by a Gargantuan meal. But at dawn and in the evening twilight it looks at times enchanting, despite its burden of sewage, sullage and silt.

Ballygunge in the south was built by retired government servants, successful lawyers, teachers, doctors, and other professional people. Along with the Lakes it still has charm, and all the vanity associated with the middle class. This is one Calcutta. It draws large crowds from the north, which grow thicker during Puja holidays. Gariahat, the bazaar and shopping centre attracts an increasing number of visitors from the northern parts, the large and once prosperous stores there notwithstanding. You  see any number of beggars. But the average young man and girl look healthier and better dressed than their predecessors did in the thirties and forties. In north Calcutta, however, people look thin and poor. Even the young seem underfed. It is evident that the severe lack of housing and medical care are telling on their health.

Roughly speaking, North Calcutta is the area where the Bengalis, who first came in contact  with the English and prospered as their agents, congregated. It was the centre of the so-called renaissance. In the thirties, it had a charm of its own, with its Siva temples, ganja addicts, and other nondescripts living a life of their own. It is true that most of the physical culture centres, which bred terrorists, were located in the north, but it continued to be the literary, art and drama centre.

Among the well-known men whom this writer came to know in North Calcutta in the early thirties were Jamini Roy, Sisir Badhuri and Sudhin Datta, to mention some of the illustrious dead. The Jorasanko house of the Tagores is situated there. Journals like Kallol, Parichaya, Prabasi and Modern Review nourished in the area, as did some famous families in English and Bengali. (Humphry House, whose, works on Dickens and Hopkins are well known, used to say that he read a particular English daily to acquire a knowledge of Bengali!). People may argue that all this is not exactly north but Calcuttans speak of North and South Calcutta, never of East or West Calcutta, in an unconscious response to the north-south development that has always marked the city, whose waistline is rather thin.

As the number of new rich grew, the intellectuals tended to move towards the south, which was better planned and had greater space. There is a South Calcutta snobbery, next only to the ‘South of Park Street’ complex. Of course, all this is true only of a certain section of the people. For the masses who live in poverty, it means nothing. The misery of their living conditions increases as one approaches the fringes of the city, where the refugees live. Their problem remains unsolved. Some the most volatile elements, some of the best activists and some of the worst are bred in these colonies. By origin middle class, a large number of them try in vain to improve their lot.

If things are in a mess in Calcutta proper, conditions in the Greater Calcutta area, the Calcutta Metropolitan District comprising some 36 municipalities, are even worse.

Statistics do not usually appeal to the human mind, which is unable to take in the significance of figures in terms of squalor and human misery. But for those who care, here are some: density of population in the city proper, 30,500 per square kilometre, or three times that of New York. About half of this area is unsewered. The sewered part, constructed between 1896 and 1905 to serve a population of 600,000 (now over 4 million in the city proper) is almost unserviceable now. In the unsewered parts there are 40,000 service privies dependent on manual clearing. Till a few years ago, whatever could be cleared was cleared before daybreak. Now you see huge soil trucks any time of the day, spreading an odour that is overwhelming. Most of the night soil, 120,000 gallons, and garbage remain uncleared despite the promise to make Calcutta a clean city, a city of gardens.
The water supply is erratic, apart from the salinity of the water. Pipes have silted up, the pumping outfits are worn out and power failures make them in-operative.

Transport : The number of trams and buses has come down over the years while the population has increased. Because the extension of the city has been in the north-south direction, and not concentric, there is little room for development. The Salt Lake areas to the east of the city are waiting for improvement, despite the costly cottage built for Mrs Gandhi last December.

What are the root causes for this decline? Sociologists and economists point out that Calcutta is nobody's city. The dominant industrialists belong elsewhere, as do the majority of the semi-skilled and unskilled working population.

Profits and savings are sent out. Since 1967, the year of the First United Front Ministry, many have been drawing attention to the discrimination to which the eastern region has been and is being subjected by the Centre. Calcutta Port has not been reconstructed and has become derelict. (Would this port alone have been able to tackle the much larger volume of traffic since 1967?) The equalisation of the price of steel, the heavy subsidy on the transport of coal and the licensing policy have deprived the eastern region of its most important advantage, that of location, with the result that Maharashtra has now a big lead over the machine-building and other industries.

West Bengal has to pay high prices for many commodities, e.g., cotton, while the price of jute is not even half of what it should be in terms of the parity prices of the food grains, oils and sugar it buys. In fact, some people think that the status of West Bengal is that of a colony and the capital of a colony cannot prosper. Others, while granting that Calcutta is dominated by non-Bengali vested interests, ask why the Centre, which represents these interests, should be oblivious to the city's decline, though labour here is very cheap and it has many locational advantages. The debate will go on, so will pauperisation.

Calcutta is now a city without hope, a dying city. This, of course, will not be accepted by many. The petty bourgeois, who cannot bear to face reality, will remind you of the soul of their metropolis. True, Calcutta is still different in many ways. Unlike Delhi, which is spreading out in all directions, Calcutta proper is still small and one can travel from Jadavpur to Baghbazar within a short time when it is not raining. This helps exchange of ideas and the intellectuals, doesn't it? There are cheap restaurants and bars, public theatre, the Akademis and all that.

The people are volatile, and do not bother to dine on time : dinner-time depends on when you are back home or when your friends have left after an animated evening. Alcohol quickens the thinking process, to a point, and loosers as the tongue for the whole evening. Politics used to be stormy and killing, and not in the figurative sense alone.

The Naxalites were the last activists to ginger up the people, including the intellectuals. They challenged everybody and everything, and unlike most of the younger set in other parties, were prepared to die.

Some foreigners profess to admire this vast, savage and dirty city, and, indeed, the city still fascinates. Leave out the past on which the semi-literate thrive, the Tagore music and all that. You still have Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Utpal Dutt, Bishnu Dey and a host of others who are delightful to talk to. Satyajit is tall and aloof; Mrinal Sen peripatetic and homely, Bishnu Dey sarcastic but human; Utpal Dutt can conjure up a horde of 'liberation army' men. The films—well, you have seen and admired them. The plays, most of which are derivative and experimental, draw large crowds. There is no end of magazines of all types. Painters are active. In a way the best of our men these days, particularly among the young, are much better than those we saw way back, while the worst are worse.

But can culture flourish in a city whose economy, an essential part of the economy of eastern India, is almost beyond recovery where unemployment is so high and the garbage so dense and horrifying, where living is a nightmare for millions, where the administration is headed and guided by men who strut like peacocks but have the sharp eye of a hawk for power and profit, where the most important left party has been reduced to the status of a whimpering patient, where the police squads can do anything they please, where the public is apathetic and politics, on the surface at least, is a stagnant pool?

The quality of literature, with a few exception, is nothing much to boast of. Prose, the result of mature, rational thinking, has been reduced to confused inversions and unutterable subtleties. Most poetry is repetitive and a weariness of the flesh. Fiction is like Indian whisky, ersatz. The few outspoken writers of the left, in spite of their conscience, anger and compassion, are given to wishful thinking. On such a decaying base how can there be a flourishing superstructure? How long can intellectuals survive and talk about their souls in a decaying city? At best they are but flowers of evil.

CMPO or CMDA or any other alphabetical combination will not be able to find a way out. Most of the money they invest will enrich particular men—contractors, politicians and executives—not the city. Calcutta needs a through political restructuring. Liberals may dream that it will be orderly peaceful, laced with economic progress and phrased in parliamentary language. There are others who believe in a violent overthrow of the entire set up. We, who can do very little with our pens or typewriters, had better wait and see. And dread the time when the city has a tube railway. With an underground rapid transit system, the end for many could be rapid, apocalyptic.

Vol. 49, No.13-16, Oct 2 - 29, 2016