If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Friday, 7 August 2009

Kolkata calling

Where the sober-coloured cultivator smiles
On his byles;
Where the cholera, the cyclone, and the crow
Come and go;
Where the merchant deals in indigo and tea,
Hides and ghi;
Where the Babu drops inflammatory hints
In his prints;
Stands a City – Charnock chose it – packed away
Near a Bay –
By the Sewage rendered fetid, by the sewer
Made impure,
By the Sunderbunds unwholesome, by the swamp
Moist and damp;

Thus the midday halt of Charnock – more's the pity!
Grew a City.
As the fungus sprouts chaotic from its bed,
So it spread –
Chance-directed, chance-erected, laid and built
On the silt –
Palace, byre, hovel – poverty and pride –
Side by side;
And, above the packed and pestilential town,
Death looked down. ...

A Tale of Two Cities - Rudyard Kipling

The city of Kolkata has had a knack of attracting strong criticism, mostly for right reasons. Jawaharlal Nehru called her a “city of processions”, and his elder grandson, a “dead city”. Till the time of going to press, such criticisms have had little impact on the city, for the better or for the worse. You can say, she can take them in her stride. Or maybe, she is too thick-skinned to bother!


I was posted at Kolkata at that time. A junior colleague – let me call him Jayaram – telephoned from a remote branch office in a faraway corner of the country with a request to help him during his vacation in Kolkata. He had spent all his life in small towns and was audibly nervous at the prospect on visiting the big bad city. He explained that he didn't wish to visit Kolkata, but had to, as he had some transactions with the netherworld that could be put through only at Gaya. And who doesn’t know – Kolkata is the gateway to both Gaya and the netherworld!

I hadn’t even heard his name and we had no common acquaintances. But that didn’t matter, I would naturally extend the normal courtesies to a colleague. Jayaram asked me to book a hotel room for a few days. When I asked what his budget was, he suggested an impossibly low figure. I reckoned pavement dwellers in cities like Kolkata or Mumbai paid only a little less as bribe to policemen every night.

A semi-furnished flat of our bank was available in a condo where some of our officers lived. Although not strictly according to the rule book, Jayaram and his family were accommodated therein. As he had sounded quite nervous over the phone, I sent the office car to receive him at Howrah station. During his stay, my colleagues helped him in every possible way and made sure that he had a comfortable stay.

The day before he left, Jayaram called at our office on some work. It was our first meeting. I asked him, ‘How was your stay?’

‘Lousy city! So-o-o dirty! Wretched fellows, they are bathing on the road!’ (Sic)

Jayaram said this leaning on my table with so much emotion that I instinctively leaned back; I thought he might puke on the table. But Jayaram left without dirtying anything or wasting his breath to thank anyone.

Shorn of the hyperbole, his description of Kolkata was almost accurate. But what I could have told him, (but didn’t bother to,) was that the kind of reception he got in the lousy city was something that he wouldn't have got in too many places. I also didn't tell him that my colleagues and I had done nothing special for him. Anyone in my position in Kolkata would have done exactly the same. Call it tradition if you don’t have a better word to describe it.

And that too is part of Kolkata, just like the men “bathing” on the road are.

Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, but squalor doesn’t. If there is filth, everyone thinks there is filth, there is never a difference of opinion. But what you want to see depends entirely on you.


  1. Santanuda,

    I also thought Kolkata was dirty, but I find Mumbai, esp in the suburbs, even dirtier. The only difference is that probably, in Mumbai, an attempt is made to remove the dirt before the huge pressure of the ever-increasing population piles it all on again, whereas in Kolkata we are content to let sleeping rubbish lie.

  2. I have never been to Kolkata but I have heard a lot about its general untidiness. No doubt there are such accounts of Chennai as well :) As with every other metro in the country I suppose. But, you love your city, good bad and ugly and that is amazing. Only a true Kolkatan can. After all, after just twenty one years I love Chennai wholly, accepting all of its glaring flaws. Very enjoyable write up :)

  3. Kolkata has always been like a lady who evokes strong responses, you either hat her or love, but can never be indifferent, Its a city I have grown to love am not avoiding the issues hygiene and poverty here..but am too partial and tend to overlook that aspect for the humane ness of this city and its sepia tinted grandeur.

  4. I have always wanted to visit kolkata.the lousiness and untidiness mentioned is a fact about our cities, and no place is removed from it. I have heard of Kolkata Slums and sonagachi, but which indian city doesnt have slums.

    When i went to chennai for the first time to study, the site that welcomed me when the train was approaching the CENTRAL station was heart wrenching. But gradually the city wooed me with its charm. I feel so is true with all cities. We hate them in the beginning, but once into the rhythm, its heartbreaking to depart. Nice post as usual.TC

  5. It is not as if a person you like has no trait you dislike. You like him/her because of several features of his/hers. As with people, so with cities.

    'What Jane tells sbout Jill tells more about Jane than about Jill,' I read somewhere. What Jayaram tells about Kolkata's poerverty tells more about Jayaram's poverty of imagination.

    Reminds me of someone who complained about one of the most beautiful ilstations: "What a strange place! The roads here go up and down!"

  6. Opinions on Kolkata are in Black or White. People either love the place, or strongly dislike it. To me she is a City with a Large Heart. Someone once told me that to a Kolkatan, Working hours of 9 - 5 would mean he leaves home at 9 and gets back home at 5. Could be close to the truth, but I had mentioned to him that at 09:30 when the Kolkatan sees a person falling ill on the street, he would take him to a hospital, get him admitted, and then trek back to office. In the evening, he would leave a bit earlier than normal, and call on the stranger to enquire how he is. That is the spirit of Kolkata. Quite unlike some of the other cities where one would step over the man to rush for the "09:33 Fast". Joi Kolkata !

  7. I couldn't agree any less with you. Everything encompasses the good, the bad and the ugly within it. The only thing that makes us different is what we wish to see. What could be an eye-sore for one person might just be beauty for another, it has been so very well said, "beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder".

  8. dada, i missed this post but I do know why it was written, it again proved that everything can not be deleted from.......
    let me tell you something in bengali----



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