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Kolkata: Beyond headlines, change and cynicism

Last updated on: March 5, 2013 08:53 IST

Kolkata: Beyond headlines, change and cynicism

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Sumit Bhattacharya

News from Kolkata paints a bleak picture - flyover collapse, deadly fires and crackdowns on political humour. But the City of Joy is changing, finds, Sumit Bhattacharya. Only, few are sure if it's for the better

Nothing is what it seems in Kolkata, it would seem. You fly in and drive over a flyover built by the old Left Front government in 2011 that has been recently painted by the new Trinamool Congress government. The day you fly out a part of that curving flyover crashes down when a truck hits the side-rails.

There is a buzzing nightlife -- it's where Bollywood hit maker Ehsaan Noorani goes to play the blues alongside city guitar god Amyt Datta -- and the city shuts down early.

It's probably the only Indian metropolis where the traffic police have enforced the zebra crossing for motorists -- you are supposed to stop before a zebra crossing, in case you are wondering -- and the police use The Beatles' Abbey Road album cover to urge pedestrians not to jaywalk. Yet everyone you meet will tell you "Don't think it's the old safe Calcutta."

The city looks cleaner and you can see sweepers in fluorescent jackets, and people die in market fires because illegal construction makes escape or rescue impossible.

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Image: A rescue team member stands next to the wreckage of a damaged truck at the site of a collapsed flyover in Kolkata
Photographs: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters
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Was voting in the TMC a big mistake?

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There are new identical trident - resplendent in some areas and redundant in others - street lights across the city, and all flyovers, sidewalks, road dividers, etc, have been painted blue and white, but the city does not seem impressed.

"Kolkata is going through a Mother Teresa phase," quips Mir Afsar Ali, host of a hit Bengali television comedy contest show called Mirakkel, deadpan. "There's a lot of love, a lot of charity, but international rock bands and investors don't want to come to Kolkata."

He gigs across the state with his standup comedy with music act -- his backing band is called Bandage -- and says wherever he goes, the discussions seem to point that "the people have realised that perhaps they made a big mistake by voting in the TMC."

"There is still land-grabbing, there is still goon-hiring, there is still repression and all the other social evils. Only, like a football match after halftime, the players have changed," he says.

There have been many headlines about assaults on freedom of expression -- including last week's controversy over the film Kangal Malshat being held up because it showed Mamata Banerjee's swearing-in ceremony in poor light -- and Ali says there is concern among the creative community though he has never faced problems for his politically incorrect humour.

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Image: All flyovers, road divides, footpath sides, etc in Kolkata have been painted blue and white
Photographs: Baishampayan Saha
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'Kolkata has become unsafe for women'

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"But I must tell you this incident," he adds. "I met a Congress strongman on a flight, and he said 'Your show is doing great.' I said I am worried it might be shut down any day. He said, 'Don't worry you're a Muslim, they won't touch you.' It was the first time I have ever been told that my skin is saved because of my religion, which is completely stupid and ridiculous."

"There is a general sense of insecurity," says a Kolkata-based employee of a multinational bank. "If a police officer can be shot dead (as happened in Garden Reach a historically notorious outskirt), how safe are we?"

The city has become unsafe for women, say most people.

"Earlier, they would look. Now they don't hesitate to take the next step," says Taniya Bhardwaj, recent Presidency College graduate who shot to national fame when Mamata Banerjee called her a Maoist sympathiser and huffed off a CNN-IBN television show. Bhardwaj had asked the chief minister about the Park Street rape case.

Political analyst Amiya K Chaudhuri says these are "teething problems" for the twenty-one-month-old administration.

"Mamata doesn't have a party structure," he says. "In the tidal wave against the Left, some Communist Party of India-Marxist men turned TMC. So there is a struggle of new TMC versus old TMC. Was there no violence in colleges or villages before? People just did not get to know! There are mass graves from the last regime still being found across the villages. Look at what happened in Soviet Russia after the breakup; there was turmoil and now it is again stabilising. Look at what happened in Bihar and how much time it took Nitish Kumar (Bihar chief minister) to turn the state around. Let us wait for five years. If Mamata cannot deliver, she should be kicked out. This is the law of democracy. And this law has been stunted by the CPI-M."

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Image: Kolkata at night. There is a definite attempt at beautification, though most say changes are cosmetic
Photographs: Baishampayan Saha
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'Corporates cannot control Mamata, so they want her down'

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Headlines from Kolkata paint a bleak picture, with local newspapers full of articles about political goons running amok.

"We have heard of media trial, but in case of Mamata Banerjee, it's media terror," says Chaudhuri. "We are in the habit of looking at her from an elitist frame of mind. She comes from a lower middle class family. She cannot speak English well. She talks too much. But she is a people's chief minister. She is not governing from Writer's. She is traversing the state. She has created 30 to 40 lakh temporary jobs through self-help groups. The corporates cannot control Mamata, so they want her down."

The future of the government, he says, "depends on Mamata fixing her party structure. The urban centres have turned (against her). But even now in rural areas her support base is intact." 

In Kolkata, it is difficult to find Trinamool sympathisers among those not directly connected to politics. Taxi driver Manoj Saha says he is one of them.

"Look at the roads, they are cleaner," he says, one of the few cabbies you will find supportive of the new government. "The traffic police are enforcing no-parking areas. We cannot park in busy city intersections and must keep ferrying people. Yes, it is bad for me as a taxi driver but it is good for the city. The police are finally working. I have seen the terror of the CPI-M. If the CPI-M government had returned, I would not be alive. We gave them over 30 years; we can't give Didi 10 years?"  

A young professional couple, who returned a year ago fed up with running to a standstill in maddening Mumbai, has decided to quit Kolkata. One of the tipping points for them came when they tried to rent a house in New Town, the new Kolkata suburb that has art installations at traffic intersections, a new Tata Memorial cancer hospital and miles of new buildings and initiatives -- including housing complexes, finance centres, a 40-acre ecotourism park -- coming up every day.

The couple had rented a flat by contacting the owner, who had advertised on a property website. After everything was settled, the chief of the housing society, a local satrap of the ruling party, refused to give the police verification form that must be stamped from the local police station for tenants. The housing society chief, a real-estate broker, was livid because the owner had rented out the flat bypassing him.

"More things change in Kolkata, more things remain the same," says the husband.


Image: Kolkata traffic police use The Beatles to spread the message of responsible road crossing
Photographs: Baishampayan Saha
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