Thursday, April 1, 2010

Kolkata Urbanism: Coexistence of glitter and litter:

 December 2009

It was almost my first personal encounter with Kolkata. I have been here on short visits before, but never encountered it like now. I did it alone walking around and exploring. I have heard a lot of stories and not-so-good epithets about the city and I expected a chaotic hell. I did see a ‘hell’ all right, but it was not dissimilar to many other ‘metropolitan hells’ in India. What it displayed was a quite ease and predilection with its disposition than the usual uneasy grumpy rashness of metropolitan India elsewhere.

On the morning of December 26, I reached the Dalhousie square; the epicenter of Kolkata; the seat of its political power. Compared to the pompous aloofness of Bangalore’s Vidhansoudha and its pretentious facade, this red building looked more like a huge distinguished but ravaged old man standing by the roadside. The pompousness of arcades and barricades and also the battalions of police and other vehicles around made it seem formidable and powerful though. The bamboo scaffolding put up for painting made it look precarious as well.

I walked across and strolled into the side streets. And the city really punched me hard.

Frying masala. The smell of it and the hiss of cooking on kerosene stoves and make shift fireplaces on the sidewalks hit me. It is on and on endless in all the streets. Smell of food and the sound of it being served and eaten by people sitting on wooden benches and tables, the clutter of plates and tumblers, the smell of dirt and filth mixed with water, the sound of rushing water from hoses and hydrants, the sound of chattering men and women bathing and washing clothes on the road from those hydrants, the sound of tinkering and welding , the men repairing small electrical machines on the side lines, the shout of rickshaw pullers with their shameful burden of yore, the bells of cycles and horns of cars, the clickety-clackety relics of trams, laugh of happy looking men and women, the tactility of walking on rough broken pavements, the slush of mud, the colorful clothes hung on steel barricades separating the road and sidewalks, the thud of things thrown down from roofs , colourful ads of digital cameras and laptop computers, and the mosaic of clothes and mobile phones and electronic goods on the elegant shop windows of rundown buildings, men and women in soiled working clothes, babus in their best attire, puppies, street dogs and cats, dying flower plants on broken planters, food gadis under colourful cloth umbrellas …Ah a rioting attack on all of one’s senses.

That was my first sensual phenomenological adventure in and around Dalhousie square. Later I found that this mixture is not just in one street but in all streets of old Kolkata; Chowranghee, MG Road, Esplanade, everywhere. Nowhere in India, I experienced this real boiling cauldron of urbanization unabashedly mixed. No attempt here to separate the glitters and litters by barriers of law and semblance of westernized order. The rickshawala blissfully sleeps on his vehicle on the side of a street. So do many on paved surfaces and benches and even on the balustrades around the tranquil yet filthy central lake in front of the Writers building- the secretariat. The migrant worker families live on huts around the large unkempt maidan with its unclean pond, like they do in the villages. Men and women bathe in those waters, the embankments are misused, dumped with waste and dirt, and growth of wild plants abounds and there are many huts. No manicured lawns and plants as one would expect on the side of a lake which reflects the Secretariat. Across the road that is full of yellow couloured ambassador taxi cabs, there stands the remnants of the Raj, the majestic white postal building; the red bricked others with Corinthian and Ionic columns. A real contrast of life situations, a miniature of life in India.

One may find this coexistence of various strata of society, luxury, middle class and poverty in all our cities, in Mumbai, Chennai or Bangalore, but not the way they ‘peacefully ‘ occupy the same urban space. Am I imagining? I checked again, no it is real. Right in front of the seat of power, the Writers building, it is there, the chaotic disorganized unsightly yet peaceful coexistence. Visual poverty and ugliness is not pushed out of the main roads. Not to be visible for the upper class and powerful elites. Is the ‘Bhadralok’ tamed enough? The streets, all of them, do have a side walk wide enough for people to walk, but occupied by venders of all kinds of goods and road side eateries (a poor man cousin of fashionable food courts, a distant cousin of roadside restaurants of Europe) yet leaving enough space for people to walk and shop from the upper class outlets in the adjoining buildings. Three decades of communist democracy made poverty as visible as luxury. Decadence of edifice is not apologized nor covered up. I wonder, is it by design?

The centre and old part of Kolkata presents no evidence of glittering sheen of consumerism dominant in new urban spaces and in central part of other cities. It does not mean consumerism is not there. One look at Park Street tells a lot. However, hardly one finds any new buildings there. All old ones have seen paints decades ago, no new aluminum windows or structural glazing covering the facades. All these are reserved to comparatively newer areas a like Salt Lake City or Rajarhat and other peripheries. Capitalist real estate dreams are catching up the citadel of communism on the periphery.

One finds an addictive abandon. (Gay abandon?) Starting from the beautiful pond of the centre, there are many useful relics of the past which are abandoned to languish. Kolkata is the only city in India continuing to run the transport heritage of trams. But what they have today is an apology of its early traffic wizardry. Its coaches are rattling ramshackle of wood and steel, the connectors are archaic slipping the electric network so often that the conductor has to do a repair magic with a rope more often, the people who travel are all too poor to pay a decent fair. No wonder that the Calcutta tram company (CTC) runs buses to rehabilitate their redundant employees, who cannot be retrenched and to cover the losses. All the main streets of old Kolkata have hydrants established by the east India Company with water pumped directly from the river for washing the streets. They are still there, used by poor to bathe and wash. Nobody do bother to remove them though they add to the filth of streets. It certainly serves the migrant labour.

With all this palpable chaos for an upper class elite eye, there appears an invisible equation; a balance between the various strata of society. The lower strata do not seem pushed out of sight as in other Indian Metropolises. They are very much there everywhere, the poweful votebanks, perhaps. Kolkata is not pleasant to eyes, it doesn’t show off wealth, it may be repulsive and unsightly, it does not hide the contrast with in a gleeful veneer, it does not boast of a westernizing metropolis trying to be hightech with poor parts and filthy unsightliness canned up beneath the surface. Not so far at least. The human face of Kolkata is pleasantly smiling. Metropolitan misery seems internalized and expressed. It is a metropolis of poverty with a facade of poverty. Does it provide a base to build a future Kolkata; a metropolis of progress, a city of promise? or Will it wilt and wither away faster? Does it hold a promise?

I did not see much in three days of aimless walk, perhaps. But this was my impression, I may be wrong.