For Kolkata to improve, the greater part of the city must be involved.

There's a strange urge to define Kolkata — to bring the city down to a phrase, an epithet, a word — of which Gunter Grass's “a bloody great mess that was dropped by God and called Calcutta” is perhaps the most flamboyant. Collectively, they refer to the city's stagnant economy, poverty, squalor and civil disarray. But what exactly is meant by the claim made recently by Amit Chaudhuri that Calcutta as a city is fast vanishing? Certainly what is feared disappearing is not the physical city itself, the gross fact of the city, the place that within a space of certain square kilometres manages to assemble in the peak hours of the day a population not much less than the entire population of Australia. What is the city that disappears even as this city in which its inhabitants live continues to spread and breed, assert and resist?

'Vanishing city' argument

It is not the same order of claim either as the one made by Mike Davis in his book, Planet of Slums, where he maintains that Mumbai in all possibility will become biologically and ecologically unfeasible by 2030. Davis is indicating to certain first order necessities for the maintenance of human life itself — like water, minimum space for habitation, etc. — that he thinks would be in short supply as the city's population exceeds the 30 million mark. In contrast, what is at stake in the ‘vanishing city' argument is a certain investment in the city — an investment in taste, in built environment, a certain style of life and living (that honours among other things, the life of the mind), respect for public space and ‘publicness', a certain cultivation of comportment and a mode of presenting the self. This is what is feared is being depleted, if not completely erased, in the Kolkata of today. A manifestation of such depletion (or erasure) — the most visible as well as the most painful — is the venality with which the city's beautiful and perfectly functional structures (mostly houses for living in the once aristocratic quarters built a few decades back) are torn down to make way for pigeonhole apartment constructions or office spaces. What is vanishing is a time, a style of life, a mode of being.

At one level, this is not Kolkata's problem alone. And certainly the question, ‘is the city vanishing?' is as old as the phenomenon of city itself. In a way, this very question (and the anxiety and threat to which it indicates) constitutes the city — the modular city, I mean. Tanquam dissoluta — ‘as if it were dissolved' — is how Thomas Hobbes at the dawn of modernity phrased the constitutive fear that works at the heart of the city, securing it from the very people whose labour maintains the city but who need to be kept under constant vigil. In this register of thought, there is a difference between contributing to the city and constituting its essence; respecting that difference secures the ‘city-ness' of the city, its essence.

Londoni metaphor

What I would like to question is not the sagacity and wholesomeness of the urge to preserve the beautiful houses of our city, the few remaining that is (though, I must say, Chaudhuri displays a charming, diasporic naïveté in suggesting that if properly packaged, expatriate Bengalis or for that matter even Europeans may be encouraged to buy up these endangered places of dwelling.) What is worrying is the unruffled to and fro between Calcutta and certain metropolises of the West — particularly London but also New York, Berlin, Madrid and others on the way — in Chaudhuri's and quite a few other recent discussions of what is desirable and not, what works and doesn't work in this city. Like the ‘Londoni village' in Sylhet of Bangladesh, it seems there is a Londoni metaphor hanging in the airs of Calcutta these days, functioning as a glib shortcut to magical transformations of existing realities, no matter how dire.

As part of this magic realism, certain characters are regularly evoked, the principal of which is one called the NRI. Originally an acronym for expatriate Indian, it has now become a trope for absolute holiness of being. Right from bringing an academic institution back to its earlier glory (erstwhile Presidency College, now Presidency University) to buying up houses living perilous lives at the hands of real estate sharks (coupled with sarkari callousness) — the NRI in this genre of thinking is more of a deus ex machina than a human properly speaking, for no worldly calculations can reveal why this character will perform such a wide spectrum of benevolence and bestow all these goodies other than an imagined compulsion of nostalgia, albeit resplendent in hues of dollar, pound, euro, yen or what have you. And much like magic realism again, Calcutta's (not Kolkata's) becoming London follows no cause-effect linear course, but is plotted along a series of targeted actions of ‘fixing' the city (we might even say, ‘spot-fixing' of a different order): the seamless traffic and neatly done floral wayside from the airport to BBD Bagh where investors will flock, the riverside development keeping Thames as the model, the office-areas, designer street-lamps (part of which has already been achieved in the form of a three-prong aluminum structure and planted across the city), ensuring aquatic life in the canals just as it has been done successfully in London — the list is somewhat long.

What makes the London metaphor seem feasible at all, the specific mixture of neoliberal gloss and postcolonial populist sweep, is not clear. But two real sources of Calcutta's magic realism are missing in this fiction. First is a character called the promoter, or better, the phenomenon previously known at least in common parlance as ‘promotery', now rectified to ‘promoting'.

I don't know if a Londoner would have any idea of the rhizomatic nature of this phenomenon, but it is a real pity that Calcutta's own homegrown magic realism leaves it out, for any investigation into this hydra-headed being would have made bare the ground realities of the city long strangled for jobs and investment. Like the tortoise-on-tortoise-on-tortoise trope of origin mythologies, like the city's unemployment and poverty (and selfishness of those who have something to fall back on), this phenomenon — each instance of it — has no proper beginning or end; its long shadow falls everywhere.

The other missing source of the city's magic lore is the story of the ordinary humans and the absolute magic of how they manage to keep on providing the city. The morning newspaper that gets tucked to the door knob at a particular hour, followed (or preceded) by a packet or two of pasteurized milk in a thin plastic bag, the garbage man at nine, the maid who has travelled all the way from Sonarpur in the adjacent south 24 Parganas by auto rickshaw and train after perhaps fending a drunken husband at night and preparing the family's breakfast at dawn (no perhaps here) and who on return well past midday will cook the family's lunch: the rhythmic existence of city life that goes on unabated is a miracle of sorts — and the occasional hiccups are much less than what they are made out to be — only if one thinks of how many lives from how many disparate corners and in what precarious states are hinged successfully to make it moving at all. These lives are of course not entitled to the city's culture and taste, to its intellection and leisure; these are gross lives, meant to be like this.

Venom, violence, generosity

This is the other city where brawls break out past midnight; this is also the city that came out recently, as it invariably does, one and all — men, women and children — at predawn hours, staking lives through poisonous bellowing fume to help save lives stuck inside the labyrinthine callousness of a private hospital that prospered on greed and to which, no matter what the emergency was, they would have nothing to do apart from working as sweepers or ayas. This is a city of venom and violence within itself and, mysteriously, of generosity and honesty for the other city — the city of privilege — based on nothing better than age-old, mythical narratives of elementary ethics. This is a city that the definitional city has to keep out as part of its definition taking it as surplus, though this is also the city that will allow the definitional city to define itself in the first place by providing its regularity, services and circulations — in other words, by allowing it to be a city at all. Kolkata cannot change — and change it ought to and radically — without tapping the creative potentials of the bulkier part of its existence. You can call this socialist piousness or, if you prefer, sheer liberal cunning.

(The writer is a Fellow at Kolkata's Centre for Studies in Social Sciences. He can be reached at manas04@gmail.com)

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