Kolkata: the City of Joy and Protest

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Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2010. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.

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asbtract: On the flight from Mumbai to Kolkata the CEO of the airline, Kingfisher, personally welcomed us to the cabin. He looked positively swashbuckling on the video, surpassing the proverbial British original. He has indeed the wealth to support such flaunting. The airline is just a part of his personal empire that includes India’s best selling beer of the same name. As a super rich he is part of the small group produced by the free enterprise system that has largely replaced India’s earlier socialism. Only in our destination, Kolkata (Bengal), the statists (Communists) still held on to power. Their rule is said to compound the proverbial poverty of the place. It seemed paradoxical that economic struggle was the emblematic story in Kolkata which had been the birthplace of the intellectual and cultural resurgence of modern India, while in Mumbai, its long-time commercial center, communal strife was far more the subject of conversation.

Art and Politics

In the evening that I arrived in Kolkata, the musician A.R. Rahman was giving a concert in the city’s Salt Lake Stadium. “He is our double Oscar winner,” the receptionist at my hotel said with obvious pride. “More than one hundred thousand people are expected to attend the concert.” Dubbed India’s Mozart, the multi-talented Rahman excels in Hindustani and Carnatic music, as well as Western classics.

Presently, the din of another kind of music attracted me to a night club on the other side of the lobby. In a long and narrow room a rock band was playing. A group of prosperous young Kolkatans were vigorously shaking their arms above their heads to the beat. Soon the band broke “for a smoke.” The room next door was full of smokers. Its doors were open and the smoke whirled into the lobby of the “non-smoking” hotel. The lobby was dimly lit, its floor was shiny black and slick. A tourist from the West complained that she might slip and hurt herself. The doorman sympathized: “this hotel should make up its mind: is it a night club or a hotel?”

Next morning, the local newspaper confirmed the huge turn out at Rahman’s concert. Its lead article reported that the singer “held the city in awe.” Among those awed were the Chief Minister of the State of Bengal and his main rival, India’s Railway Minister. Rahman “was very important in the past election,” the newspaper said, but the two rival politicians did not attend the concert. “They did not want to be seen together,” the article explained.

“Kolkata is called the city of Joy and protest,” our tour guide said. In nearby street-corner rallies which we were now seeing the Congress Party had hoisted its banners. The rival Marxist Party’s hammer and sickles  were stamped on many walls . Several buses filled with its supporters passed by on their way to a large rally site. “They are bussed to the city from the rural areas,” the guide said. “They come because this is their chance for a free tour of the big city.” The Communists have ruled Bengal for the last 30 years. The Party began as a champion of peasants’ rights. It has won elections, which are held every five years, with the crucial support of farmers.

As we drove through the old bazaar, our guide pointed to a large house and, on the opposite side of the street, a large poster of several actors and musicians. “That house is typical of an old zamindar’s home and that poster is of Jantra,” he said. During the British colonial rule, “the puppet Indian princes enforced their tax levies on the peasants through the zamindars,” he said. The Zamindari (land-owning) system of land tenure was abolished in India in 1951 and hereditary ownership rights were removed from the large land holdings. Jantra, a whole-night outdoor theatrical performance that moves from village to village is a major event in the life of villagers.

The group that most shows the influence of Britain’s presence in Kolkata is “the middle class,” our guide said. I asked him how the middle class was defined. He thought for a few minutes and said, “for example, they eat at a restaurant not far from your hotel, called Kwality.” That day I went to Kwality for lunch. It was big and crowded. It was also elaborately organized. There was a manager who stood near the entrance. There were section supervisors at intervals in the long corridor between two rows of tables. They each had an assistant. Finally, there were waiters.

I was seated next to a couple. They were friendly and we began a pleasant conversation. The woman asked me questions, including the inevitable ones about where I was from and what I did. Her husband was in export-import business with the Far East. When I asked him how he thought Kol had changed since the departure of the British, he responded curtly that it was now “too congested.” His wife was more comfortable speaking English. She said that they were soon going to the United States because their “green cards” for permanent residency there required yearly visit for renewal. When I was ordering my lunch, she took out her cell phone. She spoke on it for a few minutes and then handed me the phone. “It is my daughter from Ohio,” she told me. I was taken aback. I said hello to the daughter and exchanged brief pleasantries. She sounded equally surprised. “Is my father bothering you?” she now asked. I laughed and told her that from personal experience I knew how daughters felt embarrassed by their fathers. We had not much more to say and she asked if I could hand the phone back to her mother. Afterward, I asked the proud mother if her daughter was coming back to India. Her answer was unequivocal: “No.”

I stayed after the couple left. Two men and young woman took their table. One man said that he now lived in Delhi where he was an executive with a company. He was critical of the Bengal Communists. “They were fine when they represented the oppressed peasants, but they lost their way and have become a party of workers. They are not realistic in their demands. They made Tata take his Nano car project away to Gujarat by their unreasonable demands on behalf of labor. The Tatas who long lived in the nearby Jamshedabad wanted to give back to this community. They had invested $350 million for that project. It is all politics, instigated by Tata’s rivals.” The man lamented that Bengal which was “the center of industries in the past,” had lost

many of them due to labor problems. He was still too proud of Kolkata not to agree with his friend who now said “but this city is still the center of arts and law and those things.”

Relics of the British Colonial Rule

Our conversation continued over coffee. I mentioned the Jantra poster and asked them about the Kolkata film-maker Satyajit Ray. “His type of movie is not made much nowadays,” the friend responded. “Bollywood movies dominate the market.” He continued with nostalgia: “Ray was in the tradition of the big name intellectuals of Kolkata. This goes back to the Tagores, the son in the 20th and the father in the 19th century.” The other man interrupted, “even before them, to Raja Ram Mohun Roy in the early 19th century. They were called the Reformists. But in fact they represented the re-awaking of Indians, especially its middle class.” The other resumed: “To be honest, we owe this to the British. They made it possible through education, especially through the English language. Do you know, it was through the translation into English that the educated Indians gained access to our own sacred Hindu books? Before, only a few Brahmin priests could read those texts.”

I went to see what was once the major center of this intellectual ferment in old Calcutta (the spelling of the name was changed in 2001 so as to better reflect the phonetics). College Street is impressive with its nearly one thousands stalls selling books, old and new. It runs through the urban campus of the Calcutta University Institute which was established in 1891. The academic buildings here show their age. It is not just that they are old, they evoke the past. This was also true of Kolkata’s famed Indian Museum.

Stately with colonnaded halls around a garden yard, the Museum had collections that looked more like relics. A fellow visitor directed me to a cherished item in an old-fashioned cabinet of hardwood and glass: “there are bones of Buddha there.” On the second floor there were twenty eight aging large display windows about various regions of India with models of their habitat, people, and their costumes. At one corner, all by itself, was a small-scale metal model of Parsis’ Zoroastrian Dokhma (Tower of Silence) where the deceased are left to be devoured by vultures. In a room at the other end, there were several statues of Buddha. As I could not find any sign describing them, I asked the two guards on duty about them. They gave me a blank stare. They were sitting on plastic chairs, barefoot. Their sandals were spread on the floor. A little later I heard them walking down the hall shouting that the Museum will close in 15 minuets.

Our city tour of Kolkata emphasized the curio. We were driven over the Howarh Bridge which the guide described “as the world’s busiest with 2 million pedestrians using it everyday.” On the other side, we were shown the Kolkata train station which was described as “India’s busiest.” This was on our way to the Botanical Gardens established in 1786 to develop the newly discovered tea bush but now more famous for its banyan tree with a canopy spread over about 15,000 square meters, which is said to be “the largest in India.”

The tropical fecundity of Bengal has nearly devoured some of the oldest relics of British presence. Job Charnock died two years after he established the first British settlement here in 1690 and began trading on behalf of the East India Company. His mausoleum is almost hidden in the overgrown graveyard  of Kolkata’s St. John’s Church.

The settlement that Charnock established eventually grew into the capital of the British colonial government in the late 18th century. This was not without resistance from the local population. In 1756 Siraj-ud-Daula, the Muslim ruler of Bengal who was concerned about the East India Company’s interference in his domain, protested against the increasing buildup of a British military force in Calcutta. He saw this as a threat to his independence. When the Company did not pay attention, Siraj attacked and captured the British military fort. Some hundred of those he arrested suffocated in the small guardroom where they were imprisoned. This incident made that room famous in history as “the Black Hole of Calcutta.” Siraj held the city for a year but was defeated by another agent of the East India Company from Madras when he was betrayed by an aide who was promised Siraj’s position.

There is now a Tablet commemorating the dead of the Black Hole in St. John’s Church. It attracts busloads of Western tourists, more than I saw anywhere else in Kolkata. In contrast, Indian tourists flocked to another one of colonial Britain’s monuments to itself, the Victoria Memorial which was built to commemorate the Queen’s 1901 jubilee. It looked imposing with its marble dome in the Maidan, a two-mile long, well-groomed park, which is the most pleasant space in the city. “The British claimed that Victoria Memorial was built by ‘the generous contribution of the common people of India and its princes,’ but, in fact, they got the money from their puppet Princes,” our guide said. “The common people you see here don’t even know which queen it was,” our guide continued. He said these tourists come from all over India. He pointed out their diverse clothes: “They are the middle class. Only the middle class wears traditional style Indian clothes: the sari, lungi, kamiz, and shalvar. The lower and upper classes wear Western style.”

Attribution of various defining characteristics to the “middle class” in Kolkata made its definition almost fungible. It is Kolkata’s “middle class” of the late 19th cent which is credited with the Bengali Resistance movement that caused the British to move their capital to a calmer Delhi in 1911. In architecture, however, Kolkata remained the most British city in India. This it owes largely to its colonial era terracotta red buildings, such as the ones around the old Dalhousie Square. The maintenance of those buildings has been neglected. They sit in various stages of crumbling disrepair in an area encroached on by an Indian bazaar scene  complete with rickshaws, idle men, and trash.

The Dalhousie Square has been named BBD Bagh (Garden) , after the three nationalists (Binoy, Badal and Dinesh) who unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate the British Lieutenant Governor in 1930. The Tablet commemorating the victims of Black Hole used to be here. The Indian nationalists agitated for its removal, with the Congress and the Muslim League parties joining forces. A student leader of the time, Abdul Wasek Mia, gained notoriety for the physical removal of the Tablet in 1940. A few years later, he moved himself to East Pakistan because of the Partition of India.

Grieving the Disunity

At the same time four million Hindu refugees moved in the other direction across the nearby border. This vast addition to the population of Calcutta crippled the city. The Muslim-Hindu conflict continued unabated. It consumed Gandhi. On the day the success of India’s struggle for self-determination was celebrated in Delhi by the declaration of Independence, Gandhi, its undisputed leader, was in Calcutta, mourning for the Muslim and Hindu victims of its violent religious riots of 1946.

That mantel of grieving in Calcutta was soon picked up by another extraordinary person. Mother Teresa had been in Calcutta since 1928, serving as a teacher and administrator at Catholic schools. The appalling plight of the general population in the city in 1946 led to a dramatic transformation in her. On September 10 of that year, she had a “call within a call”: Jesus asked that she devote herself to serve “the poorest of the poor.” This is what she did for the next 36 years of her life. Mother Teresa’s first Nirmal Hriday (Pure Heart) place left no doubt about who was her primary concern: this was a home for the sick and dying. In 1953 she moved to Motherhouse , her home which I now visited.

Mother Teresa’s own room was up the stairs on the second floor. Small and spartan, it contained a narrow bed, a desk, a stool, and also a table with a few chairs around it for meetings with her staff.  Mother Teresa lived and worked here from 1953 to 1997 when she died. Her simple tomb was downstairs. Next to it was a small room that served as a museum, mostly a gallery of pictures, presenting her as the smartest kid in her class, good looking, the child of Albanian catholic parents who named her Gonxtha (flower bud). She took her more famous name Teresa, after St. Therese of Lisieux, just before she arrived in Kolkata. Based on her legacy thereafter Mother Teresa might have deservedly assumed that she was reborn as a true Kolkatan.

Next door to Motherhouse was an orphanage. On the second floor, set aside for “crippled” children, two women volunteers from the West were helping the regular staff. “They come to work for one or two weeks here,” I was told. Mother Teresa’s ability to motivate others to join her is her lasting contribution. At her death she left 3,842 sisters serving in 594 houses in 120 countries and 363 brothers in 68 houses in 19 countries. Those numbers have increased since.  Mother Teresa’s volunteers have included people of all nationalities and religions. The awards and honors that she received, in addition to the Nobel Peace prize, came from many countries including one from the Soviet Peace Committee.

Yet Mother Teresa’s focus did not waiver from problems of Calcutta. This was made clear in a booklet I bought in Motherhouse, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997); Words of Inspiration. In it she said: “Make us worthy, Lord, to serve our fellow men through the world who are forced from place to place without shelter and food, unwanted and unloved.” Her religion was social service: “The fruit of prayer is faith; the fruit of faith is love, and the fruit of love is service.” She ignored the boundaries of the secular and religious: “We are not really social workers. We may be doing social work … but we are really contemplative … for we are touching the body of Christ.” She left no doubt that she was a Christian as she juxtaposed her notion of (embracing) suffering to those in the religions dominant in Indian tradition:  “Suffering is not punishment… it is a gift of God. It’s a sign that we have come so close to Him that … we can share the joy of loving with him in … suffering.”

Her God was, of course, alien to the prevailing Puranic Hinduism, with its many deities, mixed with idolatry and animism. Kolkatans went to Mother Ganges for pilgrimage. I joined them. Men and women bathed  in the sacred water in a ritual of purification , “to wash their sins.”  Men shaved their head and beard beforehand. This is “the holiest dip” for Indians, my guide said, because it is in its Kolkata delta that the Ganges ends its long journey into the Bengal Sea. Geographically, the journey begins in the Himalayas, but in legends the river Ganga, the only living Goddess in the Hindu pantheon, flew in heavens and sanctified “gods with her holy waters” before descending on the earth. My guide was now excited and launched into a complex story of a mythological universe inhabited by “King Sagar, his 60,000 sons, a Jealous Indra, a stolen horse, a meditating hermit, and his withering eyes of fire.” This was his version of the fantastic myths surrounding the Ganga, described variously, as the guide said, in the sacred texts, the Puranas, the Vedas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

If the provenance of the Ganges was shrouded in primordial legends that accompany divinities in many cultures, the Ganges munificence was distinctly concrete and reliable. The Ganges’ water has sustained the banks that nourished much of India’s civilization. In Kolkata, specifically, not only did the Ganges supply the city’s drinking water, but at high tide it was piped for public bathing by the residents on the sidewalks of streets.

In Kolkata Mother Teresa might have found company in the great local 19th century reformist theologian, Rabindranath Tagore, whose thought of a universal spirit was rooted in Hindu Upanishadic monotheism.  Mother Teresa’s own trust in the power of universal love was palpable: “To bring peace just get together, love one another.” Her command –this one posted on wall of the museum in Motherhouse — was unmistakable: “So let us be one heart full of love in the heart of God, and so share the joy of loving by sharing, helping, loving and serving each other.” Nowadays not many Kolkatans pay heed to Mother Teresa’s sayings. Motherhouse is usually the first stop for tourists from the West, as it was for us; the pilgrimage to the Tagores’ memorials is left out.  Local critics resent that a Catholic nun should be what most attracts foreigners to their mostly Hindu city, especially a nun whose reputation is based on the abject misery that she found here and tried to sooth.

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This article, entitled The City of Joy and Protest, was published on the following website of Iranian.com on April 26,  2010 with related pictures:  http://www.iranian.com/main/2010/apr/city-joy-and-protest

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