Yes, Kolkata is a city in eastern India. But there are many Kolkatas. Rich Kolkata and poor Kolkata. North Kolkata and south Kolkata. Elegant Kolkata and grimy Kolkata. Amazing how many Kolkatas there are. But for me there are only two Kolkatas. The Kolkata I lived in thirty years ago and the Kolkata I now visit.
In fact, the Kolkata I grew up in had a different name, Calcutta. Up to the end of the 16th century, India was the world’s richest country with the largest economy. So the British, the greatest maritime power at the time, sought a trading license from the royal Nawab to make use of the riverine port of Calcutta and three villages. Over the years they fortified their trading post and eventually, treacherously, ejected the Nawab. They made Calcutta their capital, the starting point of their Indian empire, the jewel in the British crown.
Calcutta was certainly my own private empire, the jewel of my life.
Modest barrios have their benefits. It was the only time in my life, I got to know slum kids as I played soccer with them and they treated me as equals, without distance or deference. Thanks to my parents, who had a large circle of friends, I had a vast assortment of kids as friends, from the rambunctious child of a Scottish professor to a quiet but mischievous neighborhood girl who spoke little but wrote me long and suggestive notes. Our living room was curiously egalitarian: father wanted us kids to sit with adults and discuss whatever caught our fancy, even the multiple affairs of a Hollywood star du jour.
I went walking everywhere, taking a bus only when the few coins in my pockets permitted it. It didn’t seem arduous or unpleasant at all, and I saw things you see only when you are not whizzing past in a car. You saw every pedestrian, every beggar, every fruit seller, every rickshaw-puller with his lined, sweat-soaked face. On Kolkata’s crowded roads your shoulders touched that of other passers-by; you had to be aware of the people, men or women, tall or short, old or young, that lived around you.
When I came out of the university and took a job with an affluent corporation, I was transported overnight into another world. I got to see the elite clubs, the fancier restaurants and the night life of the well-heeled, especially the movie stars for whom I did an occasional stint on scripts. It was, however, to the credit of Kolkata that it had bistros and coffee houses where the different worlds intermingled. Politicos and professors, reporters and policemen, executives and clerks, all talked, argued, analyzed, discussed, fought and made up. Kolkata was breathlessly alive on the streets and inside.
A mammoth, modern airport beckons you. The roads are better, major street corners have become flyovers and the cars bear wellknown brand names. Some of the advantages are balanced by a fierce flow of traffic and a swollen and careless army of pedestrians. Many old buildings, even the ones I knew and loved, have yielded place to large condominiums. Some shops, run by family businesses I once knew, still exist, but several have ceded ground to large shopping malls that are impressive but seem a little impersonal to me.
The city has a different look – and a different price. The last pair of shoes I bought when I lived there was for thirty rupees; when I came for a World Bank mission twenty years ago I paid three hundred for a comparable pair; now it costs three thousand. A breathtaking variety of cuisine, Indian and Indianized Asian or western food, offers the gourmand a tantalizing temptation. Friends invite me to a number of clubs, still bastions of peace and grace, and the service is jaw-dropping.
That, to me, is quintessential Kolkata. Other things change, but remarkably the people haven’t changed all that much. They are busier, more hard pressed, more squeezed by the demands of more demanding offices and factories. But they have defiantly retained some of their pristine habits or virtues. They are helpful. They are warm. They are companionable. They talk, express, exult and pull no punches to tell you what they think of the government, the city, the people around them, and their own life. They are voluble, candid and lively. They are exactly as I remembered the people of this exciting and confusing city.
I will keep visiting, and getting excited as well as confused.