In defense of Kolkata

The facts are now well known. The elected government (and/or the law-and-order infrastructure) of West Bengal prevented noted author Salman Rushdie from visiting Kolkata to promote the cinematic version of Midnight’s Children citing security reasons. In the aftermath, this heavy-handed action has met with disapproval, and quite rightly so.  An author with a valid visa has every right to visit any city in the country and to deny him this right is a travesty. Many columns have been written about this including one by Ruchir Joshi in The Telegraph and another by Sandip Roy in Firstpost.

The underlying theme in both columns? Kolkata, a city once noted for tolerance and for being the “cultural capital’ of Asia has now, to quote Joshi, “completed its downfall to a narrow-minded, spirit-crippled, morally corrupt, goonda- governed provincial town.”

Joshi concludes his column with the following lament:

There was a time when (what used to be) Calcutta understood what ‘freedom’ meant, what ‘free speech’ meant, what ‘imagination’ meant, what was meant by ‘art’. The movement for the stopping of sati started here (it offended the core ‘religious sentiments’ of lakhs of Hindus), the movement for a free India, where people of all faiths and belief and non-belief could live, also garnered huge charge from the thinking of Kolkataiya minds and hearts.

Central to each and every thing that Calcutta (and Kolkata) gave to the yet-to-be-born republic was the tenet, “Where the mind is without fear”, i.e. that you can think and say what you want. What this latest assault on our freedom to think, read and see what we want does is plunge us into a darkness of a kind we in this city have not yet known. Today, we Calcuttans have really become the children of a dreadful midnight.

Roy joins the bandwagon and heaps on the scorn:

That is why the Rushdie sting hurts so bad here. It’s all we had – that where-the-mind-is-without-fear cultural capital. Calcuttans’ sense of intellectual exceptionalism, the kind that made that young woman at Jaipur bristle, stems from the pride of a city that has little else in its kitty anymore. Now the emperor has been shown to be without clothes. And we are truly just a backwater obsessed with the price of fish while one of our most famous living authors of Indian origin could not come to the city when it was hosting, of all things, the legendary Kolkata Book Fair.

Like both Joshi and Roy, I am appalled by the treatment meted out to Rushdie. However, I take issue with a number of overreaching statements made by both observers.

Disregarding the overused-to-the-point-of-cliché reference to Tagore (as an aside, can we refer to Tagore beyond where the mind is without fear or ekla cholo re for once please?), both Joshi and Roy pine for a Kolkata from the past which was politically a beacon of fearlessness.

When does this Kolkata exist? Was this the Kolkata that segregated natives in the “Black Town” so that they did not interfere with the Europeans who lived in palatial houses and roamed wide boulevards in the nicer part of the city? Was this the Kolkata that suffered not once but twice when Bengal  was vivisected? Was this the Kolkata of Direct Action Day? Of slums with unlivable conditions for the streaming humanity dumped on it due to Partition?

Where was this fearlessness when Ritwik Ghatak got a raw deal then for speaking up against the injustices caused by arbitrarily carving up the homeland? Where was this fearlessless when some of the state’s best and brightest students were mercilessly bayoneted in their classrooms in the Seventies? Where was this fearlessness when Taslima Nasreen was banished from the city?

My memory and my reading of history seem to recall a quite different Kolkata, in which common citizens have striven despite the machinations of inept politicians and a woefully inadequate system.

I stress this point because it bears mentioning over and over again. The leadership of a political party banished Rushdie, its inhabitants did not.  How does this political act alone indicate the intellectual demise of millions of people living and breathing in the city – writing poems, singing songs, and taking part in amateur plays?

I say all of this with mixed emotions. I never lived in Kolkata for any appreciable time, growing up instead in its shadows in a small town two hours away. There has been much that has disgusted me about Kolkata: its inefficient, crumbling infrastructure; its lack of economic growth and opportunities for its own; its flexibility with time and its lackadaisical attitude. But for me and for countless others who grew up in mofussil towns in West Bengal, Kolkata has always been The City. We watched movies made in The City. We read books that were published in The City. We looked to The City for health and education and then elsewhere in India, when we painfully found that these had not been priorities to successive administrations. Even when the state failed us and we left it physically, we continued to look to it for our cultural bearings. Therefore, its decline is our decline.

The decline of Kolkata when compared to other cities is quite apparent. But I cannot give up on the city, just as I cannot give up on my friends and family. And I am not willing to write off the Kolkata Book Fair just yet either.

I have many fond memories of the Kolkata Book Fair. Of days buying brightly-colored, inexpensive books from Russian vendors. Of looking at maps and trying to figure out how I might cover all the stalls. Of jostling through massive crowds to pick up new releases from major publishers. Of standing outside at stalls distributing copies of my ill-fated short-running little magazine to people who cared to read and discuss poetry (yes, there still are many people in Bengal). Of meeting editors of other little magazines. Of fish cutlets and coffee in small cups.

Even on days I could not go, like countless others, I followed the Kolkata Book Fair. Many years, in the evening, friends and relatives would come back with new books that they had just had published – their faces beaming with pride.

Times have changed no doubt. Authors who have writing for years in Bangla, lament the increasing difficulty in publishing anything other than textbooks. Bookshops note that readership is marginally up in English, while it is down Bangla: people just don’t read as much anymore. These are worrying issues, indeed.

In the meantime, other states and countries have made notable progress. In West Bengal, for the longest time, we remained criminally unaware of the excellent literature in Bangla created just across our borders in Bangladesh. But I am very happy to note from author friends that there is a stronger relationship now than even two decades ago and large contingent of authors, publishers, and intellectuals is participating in the Kolkata Book Fair this year.

I remember when Rajiv Gandhi called Kolkata a “dying city” many years ago. It survived producing very many writers, artists, and musicians. It may not be the intellectual capital it once was, but don’t write Kolkata off just yet.


5 thoughts on “In defense of Kolkata

  1. Just because a political party (actually its leader) had barred the entry of Rushdie, or another political bloc had banished Nasreen in the earlier administration, doesn’t make Bengal a centre of bigotry.
    It merely shows how afraid the so-called people’s representatives are of the various minority pressure groups. It also shows how helpless the police force is in providing security to Taslima, Rushdie, Rezwanur, the Park Street lady and various other citizens and visitors.
    And, of course, most of the malicious gossips against Pashchimbanga and its ruling caucus doing their ubiquitous rounds are figments of your imagination and mine and that’s what the media thrive on.
    The moral of it all is that we are singularly inept at electing the right kind of party to power. Is there any such party in Pashchimbanga, anyway? That we survive still well beyond the oft-quoted 34 years and the impatient 19 months IS A MIRACLE INDEED!
    [Funny, there is no smiley for ‘tongue-in-cheek’!!!]

    1. We’ve missed you on Twitter! I hope you’ve been well.

      Thank you for this well-thought-out analysis. I’m glad you mentioned Rezwanur. Just goes to show that the police is an equal-opportunity helpless force.

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