Decline and Fall of the Bengali Bhodrolok and Calcutta: Part V — field notes from my trip to Kolkata

Reflections from my failed hunting for Tagore’s biography in Kolkata

A gentleman is polishing his shoe at the footpath in Park Street, Kolkata, where people set up shops in sidewalks all over the city, December, 2016

It is 2 PM in the afternoon on a December day — beneath a dull grey sky, a thick heavy air chokes me. My eyes burn from pollution. As I emerge from the underground metro station on the surface to go to College Street in central Calcutta, a cacophony of blaring horns from buses, taxis and cars greet me. I find a footpath but most of it is “unwalkable”, I have to tread carefully; hop on and off the street. I must share the footpath with vendors selling puffed flatbread, toasts, and chickpea curry to passers-by who eat on the footpath, some sitting on a wooden plank, others lapping up the stew with bread as they stand and then throw a plastic cup, now emptied of tea they drank, on the pavement and walk away as if it didn’t matter; thousands of people jostle in that narrow strip of footpath where I have to elbow my way to walk along. It’s a hot day, though thankfully it is not humid. I am hungry but I do not feel like checking in to a cafe, nor there are any close by, other than the ones in the footpath and I won’t have any food from there.

I came here to buy a book: a biography of Rabindranath Tagore — son of Calcutta, and India’s poet laureate — poet, raconteur, philosopher, dramatist, musician, painter — the symbol of Bengal renaissance. His biography is titled, aptly, “Rabindranath Tagore — the myriad minded man”. The authors — Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson wrote this book in 1995 — the book is highly acclaimed and considered as one of the finest biographies of Tagore in English.

Bengalis throughout the world are obsessed with Tagore, in Kolkata, Bhodroloks are more so— the class of people who consider themselves as direct descendants of the Bengal Renaissance. Traditionally, most educated people in Calcutta would like to consider themselves as direct descendants of the Bengal renaissance period — a period of enlightenment generation that started somewhere in the mid-eighteenth century Calcutta and continued till about the first half of the twentieth century. Tagore is undoubtedly the prominent icon of this time — he happens to be the first and the only Indian recipient of Nobel prize in literature (Indians are obsessed with international awards and citations such as the Nobel Prize and an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records or a cover in The Time and hold these in high esteem to form judgment about talents of people). Bengalis, prominently in Calcutta are proud of their heritage of Tagore.

In 1995, Andrew Robinson, a UK based scholar and Krishna Dutta wrote a highly acclaimed biography of Tagore. Since then, the book underwent several reprints, and the latest was in 2009. On my current trip I read Robinson’s biography of Satyajit Ray (another son of the city) titled “Inner Eye”, and a work on the history of Calcutta by Krishna Dutta — which is why I wanted to pick up a copy of the biography while I was in Calcutta this time.

At first I searched for the book in a chain book store in South Calcutta — the bookstore checkout clerk searched their catalogues and told me that they did not have in stock. I then went to another large bookstore in Park Street and asked for the book — they did not have the book in store there as well. Which is why I took a train to Calcutta’s and possibly the world’s largest marketplace for books — the famous College Street bookstores. Here, on each side of the street are book hawkers big and small, and bookstores that pride themselves selling all kinds of books. As you walk along, you will have book sellers and vendors tugging at your sleeves asking you what book you want and they will fetch it for you.

At College Street of Calcutta, the Coffee House is a renowned place where reputedly people meet, debate over cups of coffee (not sure if they still do these days as I could mostly see school students walk up the stairs and enter the coffee shop), but more importantly, that building houses a few reputed publishers and bookstores. I walked into one of them. The front desk clerks at the bookstore chided me for not handing them my backpack and then ordered me to place my backpack on a tabletop. Then they asked me what book I was after. The bookstore itself was an open plan bookstore with books laid out like a library, but I (like all other customers) was not allowed to walk and browse the books. I had to stand at one side and ask one of the clerks to fetch me the book I wanted. I wrote the name of the book on a slip of paper and patiently waited while the clerk searched for the book in the store. When he could not find the book there, he made a few queries to other bookstores. When he made sure that he would not be able to source the book from any of his known bookstores or book suppliers, he advised me that the book was not available. I thanked him and came out of the coffee house building. On the staircase, was a young woman clutching a little boy begging for money. I felt sorry for the young woman but unfortunately, these days, it is hard to find loose change in Calcutta because of peculiar restrictions to get money from ATMs or from banks. It is a hard time for beggars in Calcutta.

Next, I walked into another bookstore that had a plaque on their frontage proclaiming they had been in business since 1886 selling books. This was a quiet, dark, bookstore, more like a drug store. Here too, I (er… any other customer as well) was not allowed to browse books but I could have asked store clerks who would get me books that I wanted to buy. I walked in and asked one of the two clerks in the store for Robinson and Dutta’s biography of Tagore. One of them said that I won’t find them, as he did not understand what I wanted; the other person remembered selling a few copies of the book. They did not have the book in stock and made queries, mispronouncing the title (admittedly, they found it too difficult to pronounce “myriad-minded” somewhat of a tongue twister), and rang up a couple of publishers. Nope, the book would not be found anywhere in Calcutta, they quite confidently told me. I thanked them and stepped out.

I am not surprised that in Kolkata, I could not find Tagore’s twenty-year old biography in print format. I will order the book through Amazon; I don’t need to buy it in a bookstore in Kolkata. Perhaps this is symbolic of the quagmire that the city has fallen in. Just as I could not find a book on Tagore, in Kolkata 2016, you will not find there a trace of things one would normally associate with Rabindranath Tagore — his wisdom, his sense of aesthetics and design, or the simplicity of life he espoused. Much like the decline of the Bhodroloks, aesthetics and values have disappeared from the public life in Kolkata. Everyday I walk for miles in the city, and everywhere I go, I see squalor, and trash, dysfunctional designs in city life — there are no paths to walk on, patchy green spaces, disrespect of citizens and recklessness in every way. I have not encountered a single smiling face in this city — it’s not hard to see why.

Kolkata, a city of over 7 million inhabitants, depend on manual scavengers like these people for their trash removal, shot in December, 2016

A city with broken footpaths, where cars honk and screech incessantly, where politeness is altogether absent, a city with ugly colours and dysfunctional footpaths where pedestrians do not have right of way (the footpaths are occupied by street hawkers selling food or clothing, or every silly trinket imaginable; if not, then there are countless “mini-temples” to propitiate any of the 33 million Hindu deities occupy a space in the footpath). People spit, urinate, defecate, and bathe in the streets, stray street dogs roam freely, cars that turn corners almost never turn on turning signals, nor do people don helmets while riding push bikes or in most cases, when they ride motobikes, they do not wear helmets (some do, most do not). The police do not care or can be easily bribed.

You can argue that Rabindranath Tagore does not belong to Kolkata of 2016, nor do Kolkatans care about Rabindranath Tagore in spirit. Although they put up a great show year after year, they pay lip service to the memory of Tagore by taking out morning singing processions, or with their silly adaptations of Tagore songs and poems.

But Calcutta was not like this. Kolkata is a strange city that has no semblance to what she was once, her avatar “Calcutta” before the turn of the millenium. That city had her share of derelict but nothing compared to what is going on now. She had her own generation of creative people. The generation that inspired creativity and new forms of expressions of life in Calcutta is lost forever. What has replaced that generation of creative individuals in this city are crass, hedonist, self-centred, money-minded small-minded individuals who do not understand aesthestics in their lives. Of course one would argue that there are people who recite poetry and sing their songs, paint, write, and make movies in this city (some of them turn out to be blockbuster movies), but what does it matter when your city is dying, when you are disconnected from the reality of your urban environment, when you do not care whether your city chokes and drowns in pollution and ignore urban degradation, where there is no aesthetic in your daily life in your city? When will your art wake up the design sensitivities or elements that the citizendium will declare enough is enough?

Where are the people in this city who care about the aesthetics of a city? Perhaps more topically where we started with, how and why did this demise come about? How did the sense of beauty in this city die? I’ll explore this in my quest for that “soft heart” of Calcutta

(To be continued …)

Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Also in:

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