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Taking Stock
Kolkata was Kolkata
By Rizwan Ullah

Rizwan UllahIn fact Kolkata was always Kolkata for the sons of the soil and Calcutta for others . But it was equally sweet for all like roshogolla even if it is vociferated as rasgulla. Notwithstanding the recent controversies about the founder of the city and the year of its origin Calcutta or Kolkata in its earliest days was sandwitched between two watery barriers--- the Hoogly in the west and a wide ditch in the east which was filled up later to become the Circular Road, perhaps the longest semi circular road in the megalopolis bisecting it in two upper and lower sections, the dividing point being Sealdah Railway station which is in fact Calcutta Railway station. However, when the watery barrier in the east was filled up a steel barrier was raised that was a cluster of railway lines which bring a malodorous stream of rushing and elbowing working force of all descriptions into the city; whose blowing breath hums throughout the day and at the end of the day’s toil and having generated and dumped several hundred tons of muck, shells of green coconut and earthen tea cups return through the same routs and railroads. But the high spirited city has successfully crossed that barrier and thrown wide net to reclaim wider areas adding to the dimensions of the city. It is, I am told, the new Calcutta or the real Kolkata inhabited by bhadralok with all provisions for their daily engagements and occupations including academic and entertaining requirements.

Calcutta had some distinct features which distinguished it from other cosmopolitan cities of the country. There must be many people outside Calcutta and many more within the ever expanding city who remember the city, every road and street was thoroughly washed for which there was a perfect and unfailing system of under ground water channels and an army of sweepers armed with water hoses with brass nozzles. Despite the fishy smack due to the humid climate the air had a freshness in the morning. The same process was repeated in the sweltering afternoon. Thus the face of the city was virtually washed twice every day ;and as the dusk approached a trickle of swift walking men holding thin sticks like a fishing rod with a crooked nipple could be observed pacing up and down the streets lighting rows of pale gas lamps on streetsides. They appeared again in the morning to extinguish those unfailing romantic glow of light.

Then that monumental feature called the Howrah Bridge, a great gift of the British Raj even after it had shifted its citadel to New Delhi emerging from the ashes of the old city. That steel jigsaw castle in the air links the city with the rest of the country in big way. The like of it is the Golden Gate at San Francisco,US, which is a contemporary in the sense that it predates by about five years only. Now according to the need of the time and marching hand in hand with the modernizing culture the city has opened its heart to accommodate the tube rail which is still a dream in the making for the national capital. This opening provides a north-south escape route under the all jammed avenues, roads and streets trying the nerves of those who; are mere visitors or incapable of developing the leisurely unmindfulness of Calcuttans.

However the real Calcutta or Kolkata is not what is sprawling between the east-west barriers including rows and rows of buildings of the Raj era showing signs of aging, sprinkled with newly emerging skyscrapers, university college buildings, the water polo pond, the smouldering coffee house full of shouting jostling youth, the replica of up country structures such as the minar in the Maidan, the Victoria Memorial, the Fort William and various other manifestations of the old and the new. The real Calcutta is warmth to be felt. It is a restless moving spirit always marching with the lime, rather ahead of time, as the Bengalees are fond of saying ‘What Bengal thinks today the rest of the country thinks tomorrow’. Yes. It welcomed and offered hospitality to the British Raj before the rest of the country, it hosted the English language, accommodated the Western culture alongside the indigenous culture including the architecture, sculpture, mixing the dance and drama freely to create a beautiful symphony. Calcutta is a conglomerate of cultures, Indian and global. So anyone from China to America finds there something which one feels to be acquainted with rather of his own. 

But the watchful eyes of the ageless Howrah Bridge observed with askance what the wave of globalization wrought of the city around the concluding years of the last century. It was the evaporation of the effervescent spirits, that is assorted hues of socialism called the leftist movement in the political jargon. As it rang in the new wave of globalization it rang out its benevolent attitude towards the working class. If Bengal is thinking along with the rest of the country it is a bad omen for those who have no other political umbrella, they are orphaned, they will work and work towards an insecure future. This is not the only contradiction that Calcutta is harbouring. The concluding decade of the last century saw disintegration of the Soviet Union and in the wake of it the remains of Lenin was taken out of the Kremlin and laid to rest, and at the same time Leningrad was reverted to its old nomenclature Petersburg. But in Calcutta the Lenin statue continues to dominate the point which bifurcates the city in two north, south sections. At the same time the statues of the Raj era, those marvelous sculptures pulled down from their pedestals along the riverside, dumped in warehouses are itching to come up to replay the past. Whether Bengal is looking towards a future ahead of the country once again!

Dr Qaiser Bakht a surgeon in New York for over three decades, a student of Calcutta Medical College, still inhales Calcutta air. He finds similarities in certain sections of the two cities spanned by the British traders in their formative days. I think there is a synchronism in the establishment of the two cities. Calcutta was founded in the last decade of the seventeenth century, and I saw a school in the suburb of New York whose date of foundation was mentioned on the signboard. It was 1730.

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