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Rediff.com  » Business » Kolkata leaves Calcutta behind

Kolkata leaves Calcutta behind

April 28, 2004 08:50 IST

How do you spot change (not in outward look but in the way people think and feel) in a place with which you are over-familiar, having grown up there? By revisiting it after a gap.

Mixed with the joy of homecoming and the comfort from knowing that you can find your way on those streets blindfolded, is the excitement of making new discoveries. And Kolkata has changed, I discovered earlier this month, far beyond giving itself a new name that most of the rest of the country mispronounces.

Almost any change is welcome when things have been stagnating or declining for decades, because change means that the organism is still alive, not dead.

Kolkata, that is West Bengal (65 per cent of the state's urban population lives in and around the mega city), is changing both inside and outside.

The visible signs are the shopping malls, flyovers (more are coming, you are promised) proliferating, stylish eateries serving varied cuisine, roads in better condition than in decades, functioning phones and almost-nil power cuts.

But this is on the surface. The change in the city's psyche is far greater. It has adopted a new value system and with it a new icon, Sourav Ganguly. Exit the bhadralok, the graceful loser who will not crudely pursue success. Enter the killer instinct, the realisation that you play and live to win.

What does it matter if in the process you look indeterminate, talk partly like a robot and learn from the Australians a trick or two about how to be mean and sledge? The state has given up trying to be different. It has joined the national mainstream.

Its young are actively pursuing material well-being, freely cutting corners. Its brand ambassador is Ganguly whom you would lose in a crowd and who could be from anywhere in the country. From Satyajit Ray to Ganguly is a change in icons that says such a lot.

Nothing changes in a day, some things do not change, and some embody in themselves both change and continuity. The second symbol of newness is the new chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. With his flowing dhoti and impeccable manner, he is the quintessential bhadralok, so full of education and cultivated good demeanour.

But the change is in the policies he is seeking to bring in, in his description of Delhi's bureaucracy as Byzantine. Probably he feels the same way about Writers' Buildings but, naturally, cannot say it openly.

There are other measures of change and continuity or stagnation walking hand-in-hand. The continuity is in the fact that good films are still getting made. Rituparno Ghosh keeps the flag flying. The change is in his featuring Aishwarya Rai in Chokher Bali.

Ray starred Waheeda Rehman in Abhijan but then, she was an actress with a capital A. Rai is mainstream India, like Ganguly is, and the bonus is that she has carried off her role well. Between Rituparno and the other Ghose -- Gautam -- and a few others, they have brought about a major change. The crowds are returning to the movie halls.

The serious theatre scene remains active. I go to see a new production by a highly-respected group but am disappointed by the same old theme (exploitation, rape of Yadav women by policemen), same old treatment and even same old horseplay.

But Kashinama, set on the ghats of Varanasi, depicting how a Brahmin grapples with painful change, is so refreshing. If the theatre scene can remain vibrant in not just one language but in Hindi too, then the right genes are still ticking.

If you think Kolkata has entirely changed, you are mistaken. The old Ambassador taxis, which keep getting older but do not die, are very much there, belching diesel fumes that make your eyes smart when you wait at one of the interminable traffic jams.

I am sure, had I come in winter, every evening I would have been under a pall of smog, aided and abetted by the chullah fires using eastern India's plentiful soft coke.

It would be too much to expect that burning soft coke within the city be banned and only smokeless coal (the sort that is supposed to be plentifully supplied by the plant at nearby Dankuni), be allowed. If Delhi can so effectively use natural gas to reduce pollution, why can't Kolkata? Why can't someone build a second plant if Dankuni does not deliver?

Some old, endearing ways of life remain unchanged in pockets. Among those who stick to tradition, communal eating remains as much a part of the fabric of social intercourse as it always was. We visited Kolkata, among other things, to attend an important family wedding but unfortunately a grand old innings came to end simultaneously in another branch of the family. So a wedding and shraddh were running simultaneously.

The mood in the two houses was naturally totally different. But something was common, neither would the newly-wed be properly blessed nor would the spirit of the departed find peace if you did not consume around three sumptuous meals spread over as many days at each house.

The hosts are so grateful that you have found the time to come and eat. The menus are as elaborate as they would have been in winter. No concession is made for the sizzling April heat. For the two families and those like them, life remains woven around eating in style together, be it to celebrate a new union or to mourn a departed.

At the end of one of the last of these meals, a kindly relative distributed to a few of us, who looked as if they had literally had enough, antacid tablets. That, for me, was a symbol of unchanging Bengal.

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