“Calcutta is a purely English city. The city belongs and has always belonged to the English and the native community in it is simply a foreign and parasitical community which would cease to exist if the English were to abandon it,” a correspondent of Englishman once wrote. But Calcutta, Kolkata or Kalkatta, lives on. Once the capital of British India, ‘the Second City of the Empire’ has held on to its unique character, even though it lost its lustre as the premier city of India.
Perhaps few cities have inspired authors and photographers like erstwhile Calcutta. Books on Kolkata, rich with photographs, are not rare to come by. Spanning different times in its history, they have been written and will continue to be written.
However, it is the juxtaposition of the old and the new, the then and the now, that marks out a space for the new book Calcutta Then, Kolkata Now by Sunanda K. Dutta Ray, Pramod Kapur, Indrajit Hazra and Anshika Varma.
The room at Raj Bhavan, where the book was launched by West Bengal Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi, was filled with septuagenarians and octogenarians (and perhaps a few nonagenarians, too). It is they who had opened wide their family archives for photographs that has lent the book its uniqueness.
Little surprise then that the function helped many to refresh their blurred memories.
Medieval to modern
India’s journey from the medieval to the modern began in Calcutta, and the book devotes two pages over which it chronicles how the city’s golfing greens were the site of a take-off by two brothers — Jules and Jean Tick — who had shipped their planes from Europe to become the first aviators to fly in India, a mere seven years after the Wright Brothers’ historical venture in the United States.
Flip the page over, and you have the picture of a zebra-drawn carriage — the result of fanciful Bengali gentry (‘the Mullicks of Shovabazar’), who had the animal imported, harnessing it to a customised carriage.
A push into the future
From nostalgia and trips down memory lane, the book catapults the reader to the ‘now’ with a jolt, choosing as an inflexion point the Naxal agitation of the 1960s.
The way all cities need an origin story, they also need a middle — a dramatic lurch that looks like a rupture but is clearly a push into the future. “For Kolkata, this lurch came in the 1960s with the Naxal agitation,” writes the author.
The ‘now’ also documents, through poignant pictures, the slow decline of the city’s bonedi (rich and cultured traditional families).
It very deftly ends with a picture of the fibreglass Big Ben replica recently erected to mark a city’s, or rather an administration’s, obsession with its colonial past.
It is barely possible for any city to sustain as many firsts as erstwhile Calcutta had to its credit. A decline was inevitable, but the title, published by Roli Books, has driven home the point that there is something eternal about the city.