Sunday, January 20, 2008

New sights, new soul?

Well, the annual trip to Calcutta is done and dusted. And while any trip home is always too short, this one was a bit different. Till last year, I still could evidence the romanticism of the city of old. Its values, its middle-class vibe and laid back soul was easy to seek out and see. However, this time around, the difference was palpable. I'll tell you what I mean in a minute. The fact that I was on a schedule from hell didn't help either. Hardly had any time to wander the narrow 'para' streets to really feel at home...
Well, the city seemed to be on the move. No doubts about that at all. There is new found sense of purpose. Clean things up, get rich, development and infrastructure seem to be the new buzz words. I hardly saw a road or a lane where some establishment, luxury condominium, or shopping mall isn't coming up. This of course is stressing the limited infrastructure immensely. However that's something that is a natural outcome of exponential growth. Buying a house was such a big deal a while ago. Today, most are able to purchase a flat with relative ease. I saw smiling faces from billboards saying how easy it was to purchase a property. Loans from banks, easy installments, all the modern day comforts and luxury, superb location etc. A boom seemed to be underway. This was already happening for the last couple of years, but it was only now that I saw the effects of this new found prosperity. All the young people go about from one pub to another, talking excitedly on the latest cell phone, Mp3 players stuck into their ears. All everyone talks about is buying property, some gloating over how they made a killing by buying a flat at a prime location a year ago, purchasing the hottest labels of clothing from the millions of new malls that are coming up in every nook and corner. A wholly new attitude was on display and money and prosperity seem to be the new ideals. New restaurants, glitzy streets and a buzzing nightlife all give evidence of this new growth story.
While I am happy for the city and this should come as a welcome change to Calcutta, I somehow felt a few pangs of loss. Its the same feeling you get when you realise your best friend, who you've just met after a longish gap, has changed somehow and doesn't value your friendship as much anymore. You're happy at your friend's new found wealth, but you want to share the same good times as you did before...without the cellphone ringing all the time, without having to go shopping with him to Guess, Mango, Spencer's and M&S. Just you and him, together, by the riverside on a winter afternoon, sipping a hot cup of chai, discussing something more than which new cellphone or car to buy. I want to be able to walk through the city lanes, see children play sports on the streets, instead of being glued to their Play Stations. I want to see the fast disappearing 'para club' still thriving. I wish to see people take a break from their running about and cell phones and actually take interest in other people. I want to see the new buildings glitter and glow in all their neon glory, but I still want to see a family taking the children out to the book fair, instead of a hurried 2 night 3 day trip to Bangkok. I want to see children at the various community libraries, not at video game parlours and malls.
Perhaps this incident will explain what I mean, best. On the 24th of December, Xmas eve, I was at the Saturday Club with the wife and some cousins. The atmosphere was jovial and upbeat with live music and dancers from some troupe, swinging to all the latest dance floor hits. When the clock struck 12, I expected at least one Xmas carol if not anything else. But nothing of the sort happened. Instead Daler Mehendi's 'Hayo rabba' blared through the speakers, sung by the Anglo-Indian singer, hired for the night (tell me about the IRONY No one really stopped to say Merry Xmas or the like. On top of that, there were pesky waiters who demanded tips at any given opportunity. I looked around to see just one Xmas tree, almost covered by huge sponsor hoardings and adverts from alcohol companies. This was an excuse to party, not a Christmas celebration. The only cheer and good spirit was from the Scotch whisky which flowed non stop. As we left the club, feeling let down, we noticed a man in a torn suit outside the gate, paying the saxophone. 'Jingle bells, Jingle bells...'. All we could do was smile at each other and put a brand new Rs. 50 note into his hat which lay in front of him. There were hardly any people on the road (which is unheard of in Calcutta during Xmas) and he seemed to be the only thing that night that reminded us of the festive Christmas spirit. A poor, cold and drunk saxophone player. This was what was left of the old Calcutta. This from a city which had such a large Anglo Indian and Christian community and where Xmas was perhaps the second festival of the city after the Durga Puja. No more plum cakes from Nahoum's for you son, its going to be disco music and pub hopping this time. Father Xmas? Haha, still living in the made up dreamworld huh? Wake up and smell the money. Now he visits only those who have nothing better to do. The 'have nots' or the 'out' crowd. I guess definitions of good cheer and festive spirit have changed. Sigh.
The government may have a role to play here. It must look to keep the cultural scene alive and kicking. Is one connection that cannot be lost. Reinvention of the city's past and the rehabilitation of the quickly degenerating cultural edifices and hubs would help immensely. Going to see the gorgeous, but largely unknown, 'Marble Palace' has to be seen as 'fashionable' again. Currently all I saw was hoards of young people, rushing from one place to another, looking to quickly improve their lot and get rich. Calcutta of old, at least in terms of values, is perhaps getting left behind in this frenzied rush. I would hate see this happen. I'm sure all Calcuttans would. I pride the city's soul more than anything else. I like the body beautiful, but I'm afraid Faust might have just made his deal again.

PS - All was perhaps not lost. I did get the opportunity to see Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka perform at the Calcutta Club. It was a great evening to cherish and remember, with the ailing maestro improvising brilliantly through the various raagas. He had the crowd enthralled all throughout his 2 hour performance. I'm glad I went. Something to tell the grandchildren about.



Prashant said...

Echo your sentiments. I would add that this paradigm is not just in Calcutta, but rather across the country.

I have made similar observations each time I return. Its all about doing what is perceived by others as 'hip n happenin'. Let alone the pesky waiters you mentioned (for service par excellence..sigh), even to visit some temples, its about how much money can you pay?

I guess some of these are just side effects of 'development'.


sougata said...

Now you know why I have shied away from our beloved city for such a long while. I have had the similar feel the last time I was there.

Rajiv Gandhi once said, Calcutta is a dying city. Did not believe him then. But today, I agree that Calcutta is indeed a dying city, giving birth to a new plush and commercially successful city some people prefer to call Kolkata.

Anyway, hope you are still enjoying your days in Singapore. Any plans of moving west-bound?