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

Thursday, 5 November 2015

The fake Big Ben: Pride or Shame of Kolkata?

Pashcim aaji khuliachhe dwar
Setha hote sobe aane upahar
Dibe are nibe, milabe milibe
Jabena phire, ei Bharater
Mahamanaber saagara teere
The West has opened its doors
People are coming in with gifts
They will give and take,
Join us and connect us with others,
But they’ll forever remain on the shores
Of the great ocean of humanity that India is.
When Rabindranath Tagore wrote these lines, he obviously referred to the culture of openness, the spirit of scientific enquiry, institutions of democracy and judiciary, and in general, modern ideas that came in from Europe like fresh air into a moribund Indian society groaning under the twin oppressions of feudalism and imperialism. Rabindranath also possibly had in mind people like William Kerry, Norman Bethune, David Hare, great Englishmen who devoted their lives to spread education and knowledge in colonial India.
When Rabindranath wrote these lines, he didn’t certainly think of Lord Clive and the succession of blood-thirsty Heads of British East India Company that followed him, or the later day British Governor Generals. Within the first 25 years of their brutal rule, these scoundrels turned India from the most prosperous country in the world – yes, India had 25 percent of the global wealth during the Mughal period – into a land of perpetual hunger, while ship-loads of Indian gold and silver set sails from Murshidabad, Calcutta, and Madras. The 190 years of British Rule of India was punctuated by periodical famines that killed millions, the last of which happened in 1943 when three to four million people perished in a man-made famine directly organised by the India-hating poster-boy of the British Raj – Winston Churchill. [Please read Madhushree Mukherjee’s Churchill’s Secret War. “It is a terrifying account of how colonial rule is direly exploitative and, in this case, made worse by a man who made no bones of his contempt for India and its people.”]
And where did our wealth go? To “Great” Britain of course, where else? Thanks to the ruthless exploitation of the colonies, particularly the jewel in its crown India, England became a prosperous nation and the biggest power on earth. London turned from a dirty beggar-and-rat-infested city into the most sparkling metropolis of the world.
The original
One of the mascots of the power of the nineteenth-century GB was the magnificent Tower Clock in the West Minister Palace in London. It is somewhat erroneously called the Big Ben, although actually the Big Ben is the huge bell of the Tower clock. The clock, which was known simply as the Tower Clock or St. Something Clock in the past, was rechristened ELIZABETH CLOCK in 2012 to commemorate 60 years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. I am mentioning this just to show how important a cultural mascot the Big Ben is even now for the declining world power that the UK is today.
Returning to the history of the Big Ben (let’s call it by its popular nick name), it was designed by architects Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, who was celebrated for reviving the Gothic style. Interestingly, the Big Ben was completed in 1858, a year after the Great Indian Rebellion in which thousands of Indians who craved for independence were killed, some of them literally as cannon fodder. Therefore, will it be too far-fetched to say that the Big Ben contains a few bricks that had been bought with the blood of the famine-stricken farmers of Bengal or the sweat of cotton mill workers in Bombay?
I might also add that until now, the interiors of the Big Ben is out of bounds for outsiders, only UK citizens can visit it with the help of their MPs. It is difficult to guess why entry to the tower is restricted to outsiders, could it just be hang-over of Imperialist hubris?
Let’s fast forward to West Bengal 2015. For the last four years the state has been ruled by a party of illiterate goons most of whom wouldn’t know if the Big Ben is a clock or a brand of potato chips. And it is led by a party “suprimo” and Chief Minister who, whenever she opens her mouth – she is fond of talking on every subject under the sun – exhibits complete lack of education. I am giving you just three examples that have either been reported in newspapers or happened live on the TV. Thus spake the supreme leader:
(a) The despicable Hindu Sati system (in which the wife used to be burnt alive in the pyre of her dead husband) was abolished by the (post-independence) West Bengal Assembly. (The bill was actually passed by the British in 1829 after tremendous pressure had been mounted by progressive Indians lead by Ram Mohan Roy.)
(b) Rabindranath Tagore (1861 – 1941) met the English poet John Keats (1795 – 1821).
(c) When a Bengali mountaineer climbed the Mount Everest, the Chief Minister encouraged him to climb even higher mountains.
And this wonderful Chief Minister, whose word is law in the state today, has taken it into her head that Kolkata should be turned into another London, (and if possible the Ganga into the Thames?). And with her somewhat limited sense of history, her initiative has been limited to copying some London landmarks thoughtlessly and putting them in Kolkata. Her original aim was to replicate the London Eye, an eyesore of a Ferris Wheel on the London horizon which very few Londoners can afford because of its prohibitive cost even by their standards. Unfortunately for the CM, the Central Government Authorities that control the riverfront in Kolkata didn’t allow her this ego trip.
The copy
So what? One of her minions has built a smaller version of the Big Ben on the main road leading from the airport from the city, so that every outsider visiting Kolkata is introduced to the intellectual vacuum that is the hallmark of the present state government. Let there be violence on the streets and college campuses, let college principals and vice chancellors be beaten up by ruling party goons, let industries run away from the state, let education reach abysmal depths, let policemen be murdered in open day-light by you-know-who, let rapists and murderers roam the city free, let women be scared to leave home in the evening … how the hell does it matter?
I am an insignificant person, but let me offer a suggestion to everyone who has some emotional attachment to Kolkata in particular and West Bengal in general. Let this stupid symbol of intellectual slavery be demolished immediately and replaced with something that has a connection with Bengal’s cultural or historical pride. Can we for example have a huge replica of a terracotta horse from Bankura, or a Dokra sculpture?

05 Nov 2015


  1. I agree with you sir, as far as the replica of Big Ben seems void of cultural and historical context. But only so far. For the picture you painted deals largely with history and history alone. Times have changed and India - UK are more than what meets the history, if you will. For all we know this new building could well signify traits of forgiveness and moving ahead with time. If Delhi is the political capital and Mumbai is economic capital of India, Kolkata is justifiably its cultural capital. In this regard a cross between big ben and bengali school of architecture could well represent our shared past and history.

    Lord Buddha said that if u hold a piece of coal to throw at ur enemy then it is no one but urself that u r burning.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Sushant. I am happy that you have read the article carefully and if you and I have any difference, it is not only natural, but also desirable. Because we form and refine our opinions through such dialogues.

      After reading your response, I feel I haven't been able to state clearly what I intended to say. I have no issues with Englishmen for what their forefathers did to our country hundreds of years ago. But at the same time, we must know our past; because history is the torch that throws a bit of light on the future,

      I am not throwing a piece of burning coal to anyone, least of all to the UK or its residents. My worry is about the people who are ruling us in West Bengal today. I do not know if you will agree, but I firmly believe that the present ruling party and government are leading us to destruction, just as their predecessors did. Building a copycat structure that has no relevance to Bengal or India is just an example of cultural illiteracy of the ruling party and I have a problem there.

      I am not saying they are all bad. If you drive through Rajarhat, you will come across beautiful sculptures. I have no issues with them. They indeed beautify Rajarhat. But the structure under reference does not.

      Best wishes


I will be happy to read your views, approving or otherwise. Please feel free to speak your mind. Let me add that it might take a day or two for your comments to get published.