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
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.