Transforming its urban spaces requires an acknowledgement of the city's unique character and its history.

In a response to a speech I published in the Telegraph, Manas Ray wrote an article in The Hindu last week (This London dream has parts missing, February 20, 2012) that states a position about the city which I'm largely in agreement with: that the “other city... where brawls break out at midnight...”, made up of “lives... not entitled to the city's culture and taste, to its intellection and leisure”, is as much a valid constituent of Calcutta as any genteel section of it. Who but the least imaginative and most retrograde would disagree, even if they knew that the putative city of “culture and taste... intellection and leisure” is an anachronistic invention that has little existence today outside the purpose it serves for the article's argument? In order to make such urgent pronouncements, the article misreads my piece, and takes a number of positions that I think are revealing about the impasse that thinking about Calcutta inevitably falls into.

A particular Calcutta

It's generally implied — not only in Ray's article but in a certain kind of academic discourse — that to talk about a problem that's specific to the Calcutta middle class is also to be necessarily, and culpably, wilfully disengaged from, or ignorant of, the ‘other' Calcutta. However specific a particular occurrence might be — such as (the subject of my piece) the systematic destruction of houses that comprise most of North and South Calcutta — the ‘other' Calcutta, of the homeless, must be mentioned ritualistically if the conversation is to not be shouted down. Otherwise, it's a simple, opportunistically presumptuous equation — you're concerned about middle-class houses; you're unaware of the homeless. Usually, though, it's usually perfectly all right to talk about the ‘other' Calcutta without any reference to that middle-class environment to which, as it happens, every academic or journalist belongs. The middle-class person, as a result, elides their own setting, history, and milieu, making it even more ‘other' than the ‘other city' mentioned in the article; they abnegate the responsibility of their own past and ambivalent present in the city, while continuing to reap the benefits of whatever remains of their middle-class locale — materially; in the form of property and cheap labour; and, significantly, from the dregs of the symbolic capital deriving from its history and its residues of canonical prestige. What a comfortable place to be in — to ritualistically invoke the ‘other city,' like an incantation, before any discussion of the middle-class world might begin, while being so transcendentally cosmopolitan and international oneself: a cosmopolitanism that isn't unique to that particular person, as he or she might pretend it is, but which, annoyingly, is inextricable from the city's bhadralok past.

In my piece, I said that Calcutta as we've known it is vanishing rapidly with the demolition of neighbourhoods, and if we didn't make a hasty assessment of this problem (one very low on the list of priorities), this particular Calcutta would be gone in a decade. The idea of the ‘vanishing city' was not meant to be taken literally: how can this city vanish, with several million inhabitants “who continue to spread and breed, assert and resist”, many of them in that ‘other' city? And yet a city's history might well die, even as another one is created — a history contained as much in its spaces, arcades, and buildings as it is in individuals, literature, songs, language, and in the archive. My alarm regarding Calcutta is manifold: firstly, that middle-class houses which bear all the signs of a particular cosmopolitan lineage are being decimated by promoters because there's no law in place governing this destruction. Many of them are spaces that are lived in; most were inhabited, explored, remembered, and written about until 25 years ago. These generally aren't, contrary to the claim made in Ray's article, ‘aristocratic' houses. I'm not interested in these buildings for reasons to do with ‘heritage' or nostalgia, but because, in many ways, they're a part of Calcutta's lived fabric and living memory. If we can no longer find a role for them, it's to do with a failure of imagination on our part, a failure as tragic, in its way, as the house owner's utter dependency on the promoter. And it's clear that if the middle class wants these houses to continue standing, it'll have to find a way to enforce a change in the law itself — that Calcutta's slum-dwellers can't rescue these buildings as they've rescued patients from burning hospitals.

Calcutta is a fairly recent metropolis, its ethos created in the nineteenth century mainly by arrivistes; it has no great historic sites. And I don't think it possesses any monuments that testify to that singular past that are as compelling as these houses in which the bourgeois lived. Yet it's a fact that we, in India, are trained to respond to the urban efflorescence that belonged to a certain phase of modernity when we travel westward, but are ruthlessly indifferent to or strategically suspicious of it when it forms our immediate surroundings. This is why a city such as Pune has disappeared in the last two decades, its distinctive history obliterated by a greed shored up, subconsciously, by the sort of disingenuous ideological zeal with which Indians habitually change names of streets and cities and remove statues that offend them. As a result, Pune today is indistinguishable from any new Mumbai suburb. Perhaps it's an Asian impetus, because many of the Asian cities I've seen in the last decade — Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong — have deliberately decimated their complex histories in favour of sterility. Do only European cities have the right to address their spatial, architectural, and cultural legacies?

My suggestion that NRIs and Europeans should start buying these houses in Calcutta, far from displaying a “charming diasporic naivety,” was, in fact, meant as a provocation — given the indifference of the Calcutta rich to these buildings, in contrast to, say, London, where the affluent buy older houses to live in rather than to destroy them. It was also a provocation to the NRI, who, not content buying ‘condos' in New Jersey, must now, in some Calcutta suburb, buy condos that have risen where an older structure has been razed down. I have nothing against new apartments, as long as they're built on new land, and don't blithely finish off Calcutta's neighbourhoods. In Calcutta, the afflatus of capital and the distaste for history now go aggressively hand in hand.

Categorisation of cities

Comparing Calcutta to Western cities as I did has been called a form of “glib” diasporic equivalence, although I'm really no more ‘diasporic' than many middle-class Bengali academics. I live in Calcutta; I spend a few months in England every year; I believe much of Indian middle-class academia possesses or pursues a similar itinerary whenever possible. What's important here is not the nativist idea of rootedness that is unobtrusively inserted quite routinely into such politically correct argumentation; it's the question of how we allow the travels that constitute our lives to inform our relationship with our principal place of domicile. There are more fruitful ways of responding to the global than simply taking advantage of its opportunities in terms of fellowships and airplane journeys; of being fitfully ‘abroad', and keeping that experience from impinging from the one of being at ‘home'. One thing is sure: that cities mustn't be categorised crudely on the lines of being ‘Western' and ‘Eastern', but according to urban characteristics. Dubai has more in common with Los Angeles than it does with Bombay; New York City has greater commonalities with Bombay than it does with L.A. Certainly, I don't, as implied, endorse Mamata Banerjee's slightly mad idea of turning Calcutta into London. But comparing Calcutta to London is one thing; to Berlin quite another. Indeed, Calcutta is more akin to Berlin than it is to London, Delhi, or Los Angeles for a number of reasons. London, like New York, reinvented itself as a global financial centre for the free market in the nineties; Berlin continues, for historical reasons, to be a bankrupt city. Berlin's history is imprinted on its architecture — often obsessively. But it has been able to turn its traumas and its persistent self-division (between East and West, just as, in Calcutta, you have the two universes of the North and South) into an energy that makes constant, daily, unexpected use of its urban spaces. But this wouldn't have been possible without Berlin's artists and intellectuals confronting, rather than denying, Berlin's neighbourhoods. Nor would it have been possible without committing to the unique idea of creative flux (rather than, as in Frankfurt, commercial concentration) in Berlin, taking the city's very limitations as incentives. For this flair, an acknowledgement of that city's peculiar character and past, and funding were all necessary — and, fortunately for Berlin, the latter was forthcoming from the German government. There has been very little funding from the West Bengal government — because of ideological and political reasons — for the ‘culture' for which Calcutta is still incongruously famous. And there is little from the Centre: as if Calcutta's contribution to national culture has no proven basis. To this, local intellectuals have added their earnest, often predictably academic, testimony to that culture's irrelevance.

Read Manas Ray’s response

(Amit Chaudhuri is a novelist.)

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