I prefer to travel by air if I have to reach Kolkata by daylight. I love it when the plane swishes down, circles a bit and then touches the tarmac. This is because never ever have I seen a city which is so ornamental in its natural beauty. As the aircraft begins its descent one knows that Kolkata is around when one spots a long, never ending river lying about casually like a cast away cellotape amidst a thick dark green rug. But as we swirl down closer to the ground we find what seemed as lifeless as a thrown away litter emerges into a clear river with the reflection of the sky in it. This is the Hooghly river of West Bengal as it meanders through through the deltaic zone of the Sundarbans into the Bay of Bengal. The closer to the ground we get, one finds the stunningly ornamental beauty of its jade green trees, the paddy fields of light emerald, flowers that are like gems set amidst green plants that have turned gold as the sun shines after a bout of dark rain, the generous smattering of rain clouds half grey and half indigo against a sky that is blue sapphire in the orange light of the setting sun. I have seen nature in many places, lush, lustrous, luxuriant but never have I seen nature as it is found in Kolkata, rich, ostentatious, and conceited in that extreme richness.
The Bengal villages are green but they are not rich, the open paddy fields, the occasional banyan and peepal trees bear a sense of necessity for the rural community. Kolkata is not like that; it is regal, elegant, idle and supercilious. The canals and nallahs are like molten green and gold, its gulmohar like zircon, its champak flow out in open petals like ivory plates, the palm trees shine like gold plated green richly textured silk. Nowhere is nature so supremely beautiful and so self consciously arrogant in that beauty. There is nothing pristine, nothing simple, and nothing rural in Kolkata’s natural bounty; the sheer ostentation, the bedecked luster makes Kolkata take a manicured, haughty look.
I have always suspected the theory of Kolkata being a set of unknown villages of Sutanati, Gobindopur and Kolikata those the British used when they never had access to anything better. I always get a feeling just by watching the colours and foliage of trees and fragrant flowers of the city, the mirror like surface of its dark and deep water bodies, the glory of its sunlight and the dripping gravity of its cloud covers that Kolkata can only be an imperial city, bedecked and bejeweled. The British did not alight on a malaria infested unpeopled muddy shores of a few hapless villages off the Hooghly; their imperial eye must have immediately recognized this largely unpopulated riverine stretch as one that was fit to hold a City of Palaces and to become the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire on which the sun never set.
As I got into the car that drove me through Rajarhat, I saw these palatial buildings of the Peerless and Axis Bank, Technopolis and so on. Lights glistened, fast cars swished past and the recently launched signboards of Uninor with their neons and blue light shining through yet a glorious twilight as the sun was lazily sinking into its rest behind the gold lined indigo clouds heaped on the radiant sky. Suddenly many things seemed to fall in place at once for me. I observed that the Kolkata was naturally suited to affluence and abundance; orchestra played through the saxophone, musicals of the Shehnaai, toony lights that fall like the beads of gold, plush interiors, glossy shop fronts and men and women in expensive attire moving about in evenings wearing fragrance and decked in fine filigreed jewellery gelled aesthetically into the opulence of its nature. I never realized that Kolkata was naturally aligned to all things fine, heavy and expensive and exclusive. The drab houses, the sallow shops, the fungus laden walls, the sweating and gasping women wrapped in body hugging saris and men with terry cot printed shirts running after overcrowded public buses such anomalies. Wealth and its display fit aesthetically into Kolkata’s surroundings, not pallor and poverty.
Delhi is green and wooded but there is certain simplicity in its woods and shrubs and hence sprawling single storeyed white washed bunglows with lumpy pasters, or the uneven floored DDA mass housing without elevators and private homes with wide open courtyards in the centre spelling of jasmine and champak are so much in line with its character. This is why in Delhi where rain leaves the fragrance of wet soil, ostentation looks gawky. Delhi, unlike Kolkata can be home to power but never to wealth. On the other hand Mumbai, a city by the sea, a port town that congregates people from all over the world is so naturally cosmopoliton. It houses unstoppable pursuit of wealth and accommodates the rich and the poor alike. Its rains leave the smell of dried fish and merchandise. When it rains in Kolkata the air is fragrant with wet lush green leaves of trees and the sweet smell of flowers in bloom from the crevices of unkempt buildings, some even crumbling out of public memory. It is a lie that Kolkata accommodates the poor; the prices are low because incomes are lower; Kolkata is a city which has no place for the poor in its scheme of things. Only beggars who thrive on charity do well in the city.
The rich in Kolkata are not the earning rich; they are a spending rich. This is why; the city has little respect for anyone who earns an income like the Gujarati, Sindhi or Marwari businessmen. The rich of Kolkata are the idle rich; either as socialites, or as wheelers and dealers of social and political contacts. Hence high value brands, gourmet restaurants, colonial clubs, nature resorts and culture tourism and exclusive housing do so well in the city for all of these are spending avenues and not productive activities. The rich does not invest in factories, or in schools, and far less in services; these belong to the ‘up country” communities who are scorned as ‘meros”.
Since the rich native to the city do a not engage in productive activities, the society in Kolkata has no sense of interdependence and mutuality. There is no recognition of the poor by the rich and the reverse. The poor show their contempt when workers don’t work in the factories, shopkeepers are rude to their customers, taxi drivers refuse elderly passengers; eve teasing, passing of lewd remarks, defiant body language of servants show that the poor are keen to resent the rich. The rich also take it out on the poor by paying ridiculously low wages, by never creating work opportunities them and leaving them to languish in conditions not fit for any kind of decency. Kolkata is a great city inside the premises of a club or a drawing room, outside in the streets it is a rude city where each one waits eagerly to talk down at the other, impatiently jostling past the other and very suspicious of the world outside their homes. It is a city where the neighbour is the enemy who befriends you only for the latest gossip, in which you have to chase service providers rather than the other way round.
Kolkatans hate to work for a living, and so the shopkeepers shout at customers, parlour hands look the other way round when you go for a haircut and should you be visiting a doctor’s chamber, you are treated as being no better than a stalker. No wonder factories rapidly evaporated, investments left the state and Bengal, India’s richest state came to rank below some of the poorest African countries. Beggars do very well in the city, because the rich that does not want to own the poor find it easier to deal with them by throwing in a deterring charity.
Kolkata would have been a happy city were it to remain as the city of the idle rich. There would be the high spenders in the palaces and the poor would be happy to be patronized as the palanquin bearers. But the Partition did all the wrong things; the huge Hindu population of the Bangals came in all from the walks by the Padma, used to plain living, conservative ways and austere demeanours. They tried to bend and twist Kolkata into the same drabness that they had in their little cottages by the rivers and ponds laced with palm and areca nut trees. Kolkata never liked the bangals and as the bangalization of the city took place, its great natural beauty made for the aesthetics of palaces were replaced by dull, morbid, hopeless dwellings of lamenting and despairing souls. The bangals made Kolkata into a great anomaly by their cynical austerity, their brooding pessimism, their bitterness at having to work for a living. Kolkata never being a city for work did not open out enough opportunities for people to work and earn. The bangals tried their level best to fight the high culture of the rich by writing sorrowful poetry and lewd novels, and for sometime they became the corporate types but again found themselves pretty alienated in that ostentatious world.
The bangals were saved with the onset of the Cold war when they took the socialist side to fight the obscene flaunt of wealth by Kolkata’s rich. They wrote competitive examinations and qualified in professional courses and made a living for themselves that depended on merit and not on some rich Marwari’s whims. The bangal conservatism also moved against women and Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Taara made a martyr out of a modern woman who was acting like the man of her father’s family. Women in Kolkata still consider working for their own living to be a downgrade in their status!!! The bangals came from the uprooted soils of a Partitioned land; growing up never to trust the neighbour, never to talk to strangers. The sense of public space broke up and a mass of alienated and isolated individuals came to occupy the territory of Kolkata.
But Kolkata innately remained a city that loved and housed only the rich. This is why the Banga band, Bengal’s own format of the rock music, despite being the first in India really never took off. Bengal’s popular music is drawn out, melodious, swaying and swinging, rising and floating as if one is aboard on an autumn cloud. Hence when the CPI(M) shed its egalitarian pretence and invited the Tatas, Jindals and the Salims of world for glossy malls, posh housing colonies, wide roads and fast cars, Kolkatans felt as if the essence of the city was returned to them.
The CPI(M) was never really egalitarian; it was a comfort for those bangals who came into the alien high culture of Kolkata and found no space in it. Then through the consolidation of a thirty year long rule of the party, slowly the CPI(M) secured the lower middle class to give them the confidence to imagine that Kolkata now certainly belonged to them. Dreams of opulence started again, fantasies of bright lights, polished floorings and stilletoed women emerged once more as possibilities. The CPI(M) fed into that dream by adhering to an image of development that meant gloss, privilege and social exclusion. This is why when Trinamool returns with the discourse of the lower middle class it appears as a regression to so many Bengalis. Trinamool is a return, a sink back into the sentimentalities of the lower middle class, one that had thrived on its envy of the rich. Trinamool is puncturing this aspiration of Kolkata in which every girl hopes to enter the glamour world and every young man wants to own a flat in a gated self contained apartment complex with gym and swimming pool. This is why Mamata seems to be such an undo button, whose dilapidated home, whose undecorated face, whose simplicity and street arrogance is such a misfit in a city where natural assets aesthetically can only be matched by everything glamorous.