Calcutta/Kolkata


Some scholars reckon that Kolkatta’s name comes from Kali Ghat, the great Kali temple after what is called the district where I live, near Rash Behari Crossing. Kali is the goddess of time. Black faced and pulling a red tongue, she wears a garland of skulls and holds a sword to cut off time and frighten the Brits. She is a good goddess though and local people love her and worship her, asking for shelter and help that she truly provides. Exactly nearing the huge Kali temple is Mother Theresa mission. A sign says : Missionaries of charity, Nirmal Hrday, estd 1952, Mother Theresa’s home for the sick and the dying destitude. On the balcony, I can see a nun watching the colorfull indian street scene around the temple, and the superman size statue of Jesus crucified on his wooden cross. Down on the street, thousands of vendors sell holy images, holy food, holy gadgets to a joyfull crowd that flocks for a puja or just a visit to the goddess. I am not sure that full respect and pure friendship lie between Theresa and Kali, though. This an old story. Kolkata has been a stake between east and west for the past four or five centuries. It is among the most indian of India’s megapoles and it is indeed the most european city in India.

Rash Behari Crossing is one of the most hectic crossroads in the city. It is the encounter of Mukherjee road, the largest north/south flow in Calcutta with Rash Behari, a major east/west axis, in the near southern section of town. My hotel is called Transit House and is located one block off this crossroad where Raj Bansanta Roy road meets Sardar Sankar road. You would expect the location to withhold some of the madness of the powerfull traffic running up, down and sideways. On top of cars, rickshaws, motorcycles and heavy lorries, this crossroad carries a dense bus traffic and also several lines of the famous sky blue tramway that runs from the different edges of the city. Calcutta’s transportation system works as a fine tuned swiss clock, but a noisy one. Rash Behari Crossing also shelters an important subway station, Kali Ghat station that disgorges hundreds of commuters every few minutes. Three blocks north, dozens of thousands of pilgrims converge towards Kali Ghat every day. And to the east of the crossroad is Lake Market, one of the biggest markets in town for food. But, believe it or not, my Transit House hotel is located in the most peacefull neiborhood you can imagine. This is one of the magics of that city. Outside what is called Central Calcutta and off the main roads, you feel like beeing in the country. Calcutta is a patchwork of very peacefull neiborhoods where village live can be enjoyed. One village is centered around a dam, another one is gathered near a temple, a different one depends upon a school or an ancient mansion. In a neiborhood, less than before but still now, most inhabitants know eachother. Ask for Shyamal here or for Abhijit there, everyone will indicate you the right house with a smile of connivance. They very well know who Shyamal or Abhijit are, they know their habits and most of their friends.

As in most remote aeras, life begins with the first birdsongs in my neiborhood. At six o’clock, the day is clear and some bicycles as well as a few cars drive up and down Raj Basanta Roy road. But he first visible economic activity starts at seven when the newspaper is been delivered. « Life begins with the reading of the news from the previous day in Bengal, says my friend Dipankar, nothing can be done before that. » The Standard is distributed in English or in Bengali versions by cyclists who wedge their piles on the handlebar. Then they stop the bicycle from place to place, chat here, salute there, and slowly dwindle along the streets delivering with slow gestures the last news about Nandigram1 and the rest of the world. Curiously, at this very early morning time, some moms or dads take duly uniformed shoolchildren to their learning day.

At the extremity of Raj Basanta Roy, the families who have spent the night on the sidewalk near Mukherjee road still sleep deeply, bodies enlaced. The shops are closed on the avenue, the traffic is scarce. The first real activity begins when the first Indane truck arrives from the outside world. Indane is a gaz company, delivering propane throughout India. All along the day, those trucks will park along the sidewalk facing the hotel, just a few hundred yards east. Then you will hear the ringing and tickling of propane bottles beeing unloaded from the lorry and loaded on tricycles that carry a dozen bottles at a time and deliver them across the neiborhood, ringing their bells. Goods carrier, Public transporter says the front of the lorry while the back reminds to « obey traffic laws », that is Indane’s contribution to the world order and local Dharma.

This neiborhood shows signs of its colonial era. At that time, one and an half century ago, it was an Indian district. The British, as in all their colonies, had the peculiar habit of not mixing with the « locals ». They had invested the Center where imperial architecture of the proudest style can still be admired on decaying facades, rotten by the many monsoons with the complicity of a communist rule that controls the low level of rents. But, aroud Kali Ghat, the Indian bourgeoisie had built fairly big mansions on a design mixing british building technology with a discreet traditional moghol style : bow windows, long free-running balconies, floral symbols upon delicate cornices and peacock images in stainglasses. Those houses have now been sectioned into many appartments, reduced every year by the pressure of urban speculation which strikes savagely Calcutta like all big cities in the world.

In the early morning the sugarcane juice vendor who will later take his post on Rash Behari and Sardar Sankar road, follows a personnal path. He stands for short ten minutes periods on selected crossroads inside the neiborhood at probably fairly precise instants ; he waits for local customers to get down the appartments and enjoy a long glass of green, sweet, delicious juice. At that time of the day, the carpenter who runs a workshop on Sardar Sankar, spreads out his activity on the sidewalk : with many tools, large pieces of plywood and friends or helpers, he uses the public space for his private matters. Five meters away, towards Rash Behari road is a public fountain. There you are in urban India ! All along the day, this fountain will be used by children, men and women alike as a public bathroom. The user squatts on the kerb and splashes himself with the running water, foaming the soap on his/her body with vigor, then rincing the soap before letting the sun dry his/her shining dark skin. From that fontain a permanent noria of carriers irrigates also nearby houses. On both sides of a wooden pole, two and sometimes four 20 liters cans are suspended. The pole is set on a man’s shoulder and carried from the fountain. The man walks bearfeet very short paces, eager not to spill the precious liquid he is paid a few rupees to carry into some distant kitchens. Some women also carry water, but in a different fashion for they use the bright yellow cooper baloon-shaped pitches and carry them on the head like they used to do in the remote Bengali, Behari or Tamoul villages where they come from. This is the mellow life that seems to flow in Calcutta.

When asked about themselves, my calcuttan friends tend to reckon that Bengalis are proud, brilliant and nonchalant. Most of my friends here are middle class urban professionnals turned skeptikal about economics and big prophecies, thus searching the keys to, or the outposts for a new world. They meet several times a week in informal but obstinate encounters called addas where they read aloud poetry and short stories, discuss politics and philosophy, drink not too much beer, smoke cigarettes but also bidees, and enjoy their lives as it goes. Brilliants, they are indeed. My presence first of all switches them into english. Then it induces debates about the wake of colonialism in the day-to-day life, about the creativity of contemporary indian cinema or about the history of the naxalite movement. But we also go into very up-to- date subjects, offered by a rich and intense political activity. Everyday, the papers bring new evidences about Nandigram (1) and the topic seems to inflame most Bengalis. All those debates are precisely argumented and most of the speakers can quote VS Naipaul, Tagore, but also Edward Saïd, Fukuyama and, to my surprise Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze. Nonchalant, they probably are : they never worry about time and love to meet in Jadevpur coffee house whenever they can. In a way, they even pretend to be irresolute, but that, I assert is untrue. Two accidental discoveries gave me an hint on how active Calcuttans are.

One is the number of modest but active magazines running across the city. On small format, for 50 to 80 pages, treating many subjects from art to politics, from economics to litterature and so on, each of those reviews offers a specific vewpoint upon the world and the city. Not reading Bengali I cannot give an opinion on the content but I can testify of the effort made by those sustaining the reviews with a great determination. And the radical viewpoint asserted by the managing editors who invest most of their life into this achievement. There even is in Calcutta a museum for those reviews where they can all be found and compared for those who have missed an issue or want to deepen a subject. Apart from chatting seriously, my friends were a joyfull bunch of good humored people, men and women alike, from different origins and apparently no suspicion of caste borders or social positions.

Another discovery was more accidental but, a late one, I had no time to investigate about it. Dozens of pocket theaters are spreading throughout the city. One of those theaters was next to my hotel so I could cast an eye upon it. Beyond a tiny courtyard edging Rash Behari Crossing, you can guess by a blackboard filled with names, titles, prices and dates that you are near a performing hall. Actually you had already had that intuition for, before the blackboard, was the kind of desk you are accustomed to pay at, in a alternative theaters. If you carry on your way across the courtyard, you pass a porch and there you are in front of a stage, facing the steep slope of an amphitheatrum. Lights and rails, curtains and velvet, you are indeed in a theatre. There, tells me my guide, you can attend many kinds of plays, mostly modern adaptations of long run tradition such as Mahabarata or Ramayana. But some theatres perform only modern stuff, some only satirical essays, some more poetry, some contemporary authors, etc. Those groups are not funded by state or federal institutions. Sometimes they get money from a donator. But the great majority is militant, or, say, free. The chic du chic for those theater people is to perfom in the country. If they have had some success intown, and gathered some dough, they can offer a couple of days or a week of magic to Bengali villagers.

Network of addas, network of magazines, network of theaters, everything is about connections in Calcutta. « I was glad to meet you in such network, but I would like to invite you in my more private adda... » asks me a wise man with a former career of history professor and another one of communist activist. Calcutta is a network of networks.

I dropped in the knot of a network once. It was not entirely by accident for I had been

informed about it by a French friend, once almost a calcuttan. The place is in the

deep heart of the city, what local people call the center, the most active, vibrant,

2 crazy neighborhood of the city. I had my habits in a Penjabi dhabba (2) nearby,between

Park street and Middleton street ; they had rich and cool lassies and Punjabis are supposedly reliable. Customers of the dhabba where of the kind that could not or would not be satisfied by a fast meal caught standing on the sidewalk of Mukherjee road like most local yuppies : those who whould fancy a good ten minutes in the fresh and clean atmosphere of the dhabba, eating a real bowl of rice with spiced vegetables and dhal (3).

Five minutes walk from my Punjabi dhabba, off Middleton street, you follow a sign that promises Drive Inn. That is another type of restaurant, a strictly vegetarian restaurant for executives needing to talk business, and families in search of a peacefull retreat. Surprising high flamboyant and big pipal trees welcome you in their shade, casting a mellow atmosphere. Drive Inn restaurant prices are not for anyone in town and neither are the cars sold upon the same name, SUVs and rutilant limousines. But if your eye is sharp enough, you will notice a written sign that says Bookstore with an arrow. That is what you were after. So walk on along this path under the tall pipal trees. There it is, the cabin in the tree. You would not have believed your eyes had you not been informed beforehand. Made in the crossed vegetal fibres that you had noticed in the Bengali remote villages where they had already met you memory of early Satyajit Ray black-and-white movies, the cabin defies gravity and urban traditions in that hectic part of the city. Another sign repeats Earthcare Bookstore & resource center/ inside, classic books/ organic rice and potatoes for sale here. There, the last sign by the door encourages you, if you find a closed door, to ring the bell. That I do.

A pretty lady comes down the stairs from the cabin after a while. Vivita is frail and her eyes shine. She asks me where I come from and what are my centres of interest. Then she introduces me to the bookstore. The store itself is tiny, hardly three rooms piled with books set on face, thus showing easily their titles and authors names. The centres of interest, as Vivita put it, are diverse. Good indian classic and contemporary fictions, a fine choice of gender studies, selected religious and philosophical stuff such as the Vedas, the classical upanisads, Vivekananda, Krishnamurti and so on, anthropological surveys of India and elsewhere, indian mythology. But what Vivita is rightly proud of is the environmental fund. This fund proposes both high scientific studies and political argumentations by authors from all over the world. That is when I realise that all those books are in English. It is not the case of the huge regular bookstore on Park street, that sells books in English, Hindi, Bengali and other indian langages. « That is my choice explains Vivita, for English is, as a matter of fact, the scientific language and the only language spoken in all of India. »

Filling my basket among those publications I discover that some of them have been published by Earthcare Bookstore itself ; and that this place with the cabin in the tree is only the geographical center of a large network of various merchandises among which rice, potatoes, books, reviews and probably political chats are only the most apparent items. Before I leave, Vivita registers my name in her e-mail adress book so that we can keep in touch. That is the point. When I talk about my visit to Earthcare Bookstore to my calcuttan friends, some of them agree that this is not only an original place but also an important spot in the the city. « You cannot imagine how much energy this city gives me, » reckons Vivita when asked about her cabin in the tree, « someone wrote a book saying that, in a way, Calcutta resembles Naples, have you ever been in Naples ? In which way could those cities look alike ? » I remember for myself a photograph seen in Paris just before I left for India. This photograph showed the shore of the Gulf of Bengal within fifteen years when the waters have risen up for cause of global warming. Calcutta didn’t exist any more on the photo, flooded in the delta of Ganga, the Ganges. This threat is much closer than that of the Vesuvius in Naples. And also closer than the threat of the San Andreas fault upon the city of San Francisco. Citizens of those three city should have many feelings and facts to discuss about however. Would the imminent disparition of a city give a special energy to its inhabitants ? To me, this energy is a constant surprise.

On my first night in Transit House, I understood I was in a Tamoul district by the drums of a wedding procession. A South Indian wedding procession is one of the most awkward urban scenes in India. The bride disguised as a prisonner princess from the Thousand and One nights is carried, still, silent and alone, on a huge chariot, inside a red and gold throne flashing with a millons electric bulbs. The bridegroom follows ten meters behind, disguised like a defeated Baghdad prince. The third chariot carries the many batteries and electronics that dispatch a deafening musical din across the neiborhood. The chariots I saw were not pulled by tractors but by heavily paid brahmins behind the drumers beatting their drums and followed by a meagre crowd of family members. This part of town is indeed a Tamoul colony. Later I noticed the Madras style lunghees worn by the men and the French marigold and jasmine arrangements in the ladies plated hair, typical from the South. Also a specific pride in the slow gait of people, but of that, I am not sure. Those south Indians work, I was told later, in Lake market where they are shoulder carriers.

Lake market almost reaches my Transit House but stops half a block away. For the past year, the building of the market has been under reconstruction, letting the vendors and customers spread all over the adjacent streets. Like a tide they come over here from early morning to mid afternoon. But in Raj Basanta Roy, as this streets lies on the fringes of the market, you only find small stalls selling on the sidewalk fruit and vegetables of all colors and frangrance. Probably villagers selling their own crops.

In the late morning, the summer heat begins to hit, slowing pedestrians and cycles alike. Only few of the orange old Ambassador taxis cruise around with some small Marutis cars. A gang of five children invaded the roadway. They are three or four years old, dressed in rags and bearfeet. They play cricket. One of them holds a piece of wood pretending to be a bat. The other four run after a moss ball, catch it, throw it and pitch it like they have seen on TV. No, actually, they never catch and always miss the ball. But that does’n matter. The catch wears a cross at his neck. Christian ? It could be. Keralite ? Who knows ? A motorbike passes with four persons on board, dady wears a helmet, mum is riding sidesaddle. As I am sitting near the door of my hotel, chatting with the doorman disguised as an army officer ; he calls the pitcher and slips a couple of coins into his hand. The other boys instantly rush towards the lucky one to check what he got. Two coins of two rupees, great day ! They already talk eagerly about what they will buy with this unexpected wealth.

Early afternoon is the time of real heat. A very tall mango tree let its branches loaded with still green fruit, hang from atop. The flamboyant that here is called Krishnachurra spreads out its shining red-orange flowers next to a Gulmohur that displays a yellow firework of light flowers. They are supposed to play the roles and recite the dialogues of Rada and Krishna, the mythical lovers. Facing me, from the other side of a boarding, a tropical garden overflows banana leaves and bouganvilleas violet flowers. The rare passer-bys tend to slow down for freshness under this unexpected thick shade. It is naptime. Khanai, the decaying dog protected and fed by the young hotel boys pulls his tongue and avoids moving.

Later in the afternoon, a barber squats on the sidewalk, ten meters from my seat, in front of his client holding the same position. They chat gently and have good stories to laugh about. The barber holds his client’s face with one hand while the other brushes his black face with a thick white lather. Then he gently passes the razor blade on his cheeks. He guides his face holding the bridge of his nose. The two next customers wait in the same position, commenting the gestures and very softly talking about nothing. Gestures and words go very slow. A few yards further, four men play a 54 cards game on a blanket displayed on the sidewalk. No unusefull words eather at this time of day, but still a great attention, proving that money is probably at stake.

From where I sit, I can decipher two signs. One is about Sikkim Manipal University. It celebrates the many diplomas available from this supposedly prestigious university located, as written, near Kali Ghat : BBA, BCA, BSCT, IT, Education garanteed, Career assured, Future secured, all this proved by the photo of a sexy blond girl smiling with 32 shining white teeths and a couple of phone numbers. The other sign is pitched above an electrical open sky transformer. It reads in huge red letters on a yellow background that in case of power interruption, you can call 1912.

Life comes back with the lengthening shadows. Ladies walk like princesses from their working day, their hair still perfectly plated, drapped in flawless pink or bright blue saris, their back straight, in gracious flocks. Men hold their attaché case like high rank executives. Kids play their way back home in stylish uniforms. Middle class India is a proud population that has a real project to conquer the world and some amunitions for that. Calcutta is not an industrial city. Overcrowded by the two waves of refugees from East bengal or, say, Bangla Desh, Calcutta needed a couple of decades to digest its huge population. The assets of this city in the global race is culture. Bengal is a state of refined and prolific artistic production. In Calcutta what is mostly sought after is education. The city is rich in high priced schools where philosophy, sports, electronics and langages are tought by selected teachers. Middle class India comes back from its working day, having much more to conquer but proud of the past achievments. Some old fashioned nababs cross the neiborhood in man pulled rickshaws, the night comes. In Bengali, this time of day is called khonedekhalu, when the pink light turns girls into stars encouraging fathers to introduce their unmaried daughters into rich and educated families.

When night comes, the first fires of the families living on the sidewalk can be seen where Raj Basanta Roy meets Mukherjee road. The ladies cook food on big cauldrons upon charcoals. Young children come back from a day of fight for life as usual. Babies are laid upon mats. Men are to come later or will never come. Homelesses are extremely poor and hunger is often suffered, but most of those families are proud and little misery can be observed on this sidewalk. On the very crossing of Rash Behari a huge image of Mother Theresa, whose little statues can also be seen among saints and gods, reminds of the harshness of time, but charity might very well be a westerner’s fantasy. Bengalis do not beg. Those street families will come to sleep when the fires vanish and the Bengali night will be another time for oblivion.

When I leave Kolkata, my taxi drives me across Salt Lake City. This is a new town, north of Calcutta. The 9 % GDP increase flows huge investments into the future seen here like an opportunity for a kind of gready revenge as well as a chance to escape poverty for the poor. It is night time again and the landscape is still, looking dead. Hundreds of cranes have been working all day to contribute to this super city supposed to compete with Bangalore to develop new technologies that make the international success of India. My taxi wallah is very proud of Salt Lake. I don’t find the words to expess my doubt without offending him.

(1) Nandigram is a place where a peasants revolt took place against an industrial project fomented by the communist led government that treatened to expell villagers from their land. The official toll is of 14 people killed. Unofficial figures amont the hundred.

(2) Small indian restaurant

(3) Lentils

Marc Olivier Hatzfeld

Visions of the City. 2008

First published in www.visionsofthecity.com

Visions of the City, 2008

Photo Jean-Frédéric Chevallier

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