By Sunanda K Datta-Ray and Pramod Kapoor
Calcutta claimed the first Indian to storm the white bastion of the Indian Civil Service (Satyendranath Tagore), the first president of the Indian National Congress (WC Bonnerjee), and the first Indian to win a Nobel Prize (Satyendranath’s brother Rabindranath). ‘Lord Sinha Road’ honours Satyendra Prasanno Sinha, Baron Sinha of Raipur, the only non-white ever to be raised to Britain’s hereditary peerage. A plaque marks the hospital where a British army surgeon, Ronald Ross, discovered the cure for malaria by getting mosquitoes to bite his servant. Calcutta was also the birthplace of the deadly dum-dum bullet.
Some Bengalis believe the local scientist Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose invented — but didn’t patent — the wireless. Others glory in the Bose–Einstein theory recalling Einstein’s cooperation with a Bengali mathematician, Satyen Bose. Some diehards are still waiting for a third Bose, the lost hero, Netaji Subhas Chandra of Indian National Army fame, born in 1897 and killed in a plane crash in 1945, to rise from the dead and restore Bengal’s former glory.
Calcutta was a city of contradictions. The White Town’s spacious mansions and tree-lined squares inspired the ‘City of Palaces’ sobriquet. Curzon added the Victoria Memorial, built of white Jodhpur marble and paid for by Indians. Yet another palatial edifice, Belvedere in Alipore (now the National Library), recalls Curzon’s dream of ‘a place to which people will resort as they do to the British Museum in London or the Bodleian in Oxford.’ Given his commitment to the city, it is fitting that Raj Bhavan, formerly Government House, completed in 1805 exactly a century before he retired from India, was modelled on his own family home, Kedleston Manor, in Derbyshire.
White Town’s business heart was Dalhousie Square (today’s Benoy Badal Dinesh Bagh) over which rears the red-brick Writers’ Buildings, which once housed East India Company writers (clerks) and is now the Bengal government secretariat. Jackals howled in the narrow lanes of the congested Black Town to its north and east where the Greater Adjutant Stork (hadgila or ‘bone-swallower’ in Bengali) saved the populace from infection by gobbling up the garbage. When Calcutta Municipal Corporation was set up in 1896, it rightly featured the bird on its coat of arms. Despite this expression of gratitude, storks suffered from the youthful pranks of writers who fed them marrow bones stuffed with gunpowder so that the greedy creatures exploded in a fury of flesh and feathers.
Black Town’s quintessential bhadralok were distinguished by ‘their deportment, their speech, their dress, their style of housing, their eating habits, their occupations and their associations — and quite as fundamentally by their cultural values and their sense of social propriety’ according to the sociologist John H Broomfield. Six hundred Bengali bhadralok and only two Europeans heard WH Auden, then at the height of his reputation, read his poems at the British Council’s inauguration in 1949. An ardent nationalist like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, author of Vande Mataram, described Bengali babus as ‘those who are invincible in speech, masters in languages of others, and are hostile to their own tongue.’ The 19th-century poet, Michael Madhusudan Dutta (nom de plume Timothy Penpoem), whom Moorhouse called ‘besottedly Anglicised’, boasted, ‘I can speak in English, write in English, think in English, and shall be supremely happy when I can dream in English’.
Credits for photos in this section, in order of appearance — The Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata; Zentralbibliothek Zurich; Private Collection; Getty Images. From ‘Calcutta Then, Kolkata Now’, published by Roli Books.
By Indrajit Hazra and Anshika Varma
The way all cities need an origin story, they also need a middle — a dramatic lurch that looks like a rupture but clearly is a push into the future. For Kolkata, this lurch came in the late 1960s with the Naxal agitation. The epicentre of this ‘movement’ lay in 1967, 460 kilometres north of the city itself, in the form of a peasant uprising against landowners in the tea estates in Naxalbari village in Darjeeling district of north Bengal.
The lag between this agitation and what would unfold as ‘revolution’ in Kolkata, provided ample feeding ground for the imagination of the city’s upper middle-class and middle-class youth. They were restless, hopelessly hopeful and already giddy with the news and pictures of Paris 1968, anti-Vietnam protests in the US courtesy rather non-revolutionary mediums such as Time Life magazine. And with China’s Mao.
As cultural historian Sumanta Banerjee describes the ‘scene’ in his book, In the Wake of Naxalbari: A History of the Naxalite Movement in India, ‘In the posh areas of Park Street and Chowringhee gathered all the gaiety and frivolity of the city. Swanky business executives and thriving journalists, film stars and art critics, smugglers and touts, chic society dames and jet-set teenagers thronged the bars and discotheques. All mention of the rural uprising in these crowds were considered in distinctly bad taste, although the term “Naxalite” had assumed an aura of the exotic and was being used to dramatise all sorts of sensationalism in these circles– ranging from good-natured Bohemianism to Hippy-style pot sessions.’
The Shahid Minar Maidan, or the Brigade Ground off the central hub of Chowringhee, has been the traditional venue for political rallies in Kolkata for decades. The first recorded political meeting here was presided over by Rabindranath Tagore to condemn the killing of a young Indian at Hijli in Midnapore by British authorities in 1931. The old Ochterlony Monument, named after a commander in the East India Company, is every mass-mobilised long-marching protestor’s kaaba.
Three months before the Ochtorlony Monument was renamed Shahid Minar, at around 4.30 in the afternoon of 1 May 1969, a procession of the Calcutta District Coordination Committee of Communist revolutionaries attending a rally was attacked by a group of CPI(M) members, who were holding their own rally at the Brigade Ground. With orders from the then home minister – and future chief minister – Jyoti Basu, the police arrived.
The Amrita Bazar Patrika of 3 May 1969 recorded, “The Police also fired several rounds of tear gas shells, all directed towards the Naxalites…Supporters of the Brigade Parade Ground rally were seen breaking the loudspeakers installed at the Naxalites’ meeting ground at the foot of the Monument.’ If there was one moment that brought the Naxalite movement – and its emblematic violence – to the bhadralok, Anglophilic city of Calcutta, it was this ‘Gunfight at Non-Brigade Corrall’. Unofficially, Kolkata was finally unleashed on Calcutta.
But for Kolkata, very much still Calcutta, that bubble within the city – which was as comfortable and familiar with the Beatles’ ‘You say you want a revolution’ as with Rabindrasangeet rather than with jatra (pop theatre) being performed in a nearby neighbourhood or Bengali and Hindi film music blaring from loudspeakers during holidays; that was more het up with an Oxbridge degree than bothering about the conditions of a local non-English-medium college; that knew its Mao better than ‘Hnow Mnaow Khnow’, that sinister sound made by human-munching demons in children’s folk stories like those collected in Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar’s Thakumar Jhuli (Grandma’s Sack) – had been breached forever. Kolkata (read: the rest of Bengal) had entered Calcutta, no matter how much Flurys, the iconic pâtisserie on Park Street, sweetened the pill.
But Calcutta/Kolkata continues to puzzlingly, gloriously contradict itself, because like Walt Whitman, as the poet mentions in his ‘Song of Myself’, ‘I am large. I contain multitudes.’ The city of old, decaying mansions, of a Netaji statue on every second street crossing, stand cheek-by-jowl to exclusive twee clubs where brown people behave white, slipping into a sahib–memsahib cosplay, and share the same space-time with the self-described ‘cultural capital’ of India even after much of capital has taken flight.
Kolkata defies change. This is not to say that over the decades, especially over the 2000s–2010s, Kolkata has not changed. It is simply a city that is defiant to change even as it changes one stretch at a time.
It has changed both physically and mentally. The flyovers that continue to sprout like the branches of a giant banyan tree eating into the old facades of rajbaris in north Kolkata may be an eyesore for old-timers. But even in a city where shops close for extended and undefineable lunch breaks, the existence of time is being slowly acknowledged – in dribbles, in data plans, in the opening and closing times of bars and the countless restaurants and eateries, and in the ‘one-way traffic’ timings that seem Tropical Prussian for visitors.
Credits for photos in this section, in order of appearance — Sutirtha Chatterjee; Ritayan Mukherjee; Getty Images; Karam Puri. From ‘Calcutta Then, Kolkata Now’, published by Roli Books.
This excerpt from ‘Calcutta Then, Kolkata Now’ — authors: Sunanda K Datta-Ray and Indrajit Hazra, photo editors: Pramod Kapoor and Anshika Varma — has been republished here courtesy Roli Books.