Thirty years ago, a dishevelled man leaned across and shouted at me in the smoke-filled, raucous Olympia bar on Calcutta’s Park Street: “Calcutta is forever!” Outside, Ambassador taxis were inching along the flooded street. The electricity would go the moment you hung up your umbrella at home after a hard day’s work, and it would not come back until the early hours of the morning. The traffic signals rarely worked, but at least you got to see the amazing sight of traffic policemen with revolvers in big holsters at their hips (no wonder people hadn’t thought of ‘road rage’). It was a little over a decade after Spring Thunder, the revolution that Charu Mazumdar and Kanu Sanyal had launched from Naxalbari. There was something else — the Left Front had just won power.
Today is the 30th anniversary of the day the communists moved into Writers’ Buildings in Calcutta. I don’t know how many of us appreciate the significance of the world’s only democratically-elected communist government holding power for 30 years.
And Calcutta today? Drive through the city at night and it is blazing with lights — billboards, lamp-posts, car headlights. Salt Lake’s Sector V is bursting with 55,000 people crowding 6.5 million square feet of call centres and BPOs. And Siddharth, West Bengal’s top bureaucrat in the IT and biotechnology departments, says that’s going to go up by 20 million sq ft over the next two years, and that will mean 200,000 more jobs. A little further down, a new township called Rajarhat has exploded out of the landscape, with gleaming office towers, malls and apartment blocks. There’s a whole new lifestyle, with young people tumbling out of their offices as dawn breaks, 24-hour bars, and other entertainment centres.
What is it about Calcutta that endures? I only have to shut my eyes and be transported back to that other city, where you heard the dull clink of the rickshaw-puller’s bell against his yoke, and stepped around men in ganjis playing carrom in para contests, or heard the bhaiyas, after they stabled their buffaloes, drinking bhang and singing lustily late into the night to the beat of dholaks. Or sat looking out of a louvered window at the rain pitter-pattering down and remembering Tagore’s song (Brishti pore tapur-tupur, Node elo ban, Shib-thakurer biye holo, Tin konya daan…).
Not far from where I was taken as a boy to watch Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy movies, a huge two-plus kilometre flyover now sweeps you to Park Circus. The second and not-so-new Howrah bridge wafts you to a realm that is so smooth and efficient, all those men beating on the sides of their mini-buses to drum up passengers to BBD Bag seem a world away. Traffic moves smoothly most of the time now, except when it rains heavily, and if you need an online update on congestion, go to www.kolkatapolice.org, a website that even features the police blotter. “HASTINGS PS — On 18.06.07 at about 20.45 hours one Nazrul Mollah @ Raju (25) S/O Haran Mollah of Village Purba Kathlia PO Bhangar PS: Kashipur Dist. 24 Parganas South has been arrested for having in his possession 1 kg 300 grams Cannabis Plant (Ganja) for which he could not render any satisfactory reply. The above said Cannabis Plant has been seized.” What would have those merry milkmen said of this?
Even the CPI(ML), which now contends with several other home-grown strains of Maoism, has a website (http://cpiml.in) where Sanyal has an urgent message (“I appeal to all our comrades, sympathisers and friends to collect food-cloth-medicine-money for the struggling people of Nandigram”).
Nandigram and Singur are the new totems for a people’s party that rode to power on its bargadar policy of giving land to the poorest tillers. Earlier this week Jyoti Basu, the CPI(M) patriarch, said unemployment, healthcare and illiteracy were three challenges that still needed to be met. Ten years ago, when I met him on the twentieth anniversary of his chief ministership, he told me he hated comparisons with other Communist parties because in India the communists had to work in states and not as sovereign nations, “and compromising with feudalism…In this capitalist-feudalist system, we have to take part in elections. If we get governments we have to run them in a way that other, bourgeois parties have not done.” Basu was remarkably prescient about coalitions, saying one-party rule was finished, and describing how the Left parties in his own West Bengal coalition often did not see eye to eye, but had learned to live together. And, just to put in perspective the effect that 15 years of economic reforms have had on our nation, Basu told me back then, using words that are as relevant today: “In some spheres, of course, compared to the colonial period some good things have been done, like building up basic industries. But the drawback is that all this has happened for 10 or 15 per cent of India’s people, not for the remainder.” If you think of all the infrastructure that still needs to be put in place, and the thousands of villages with no drinking water or electricity, and the extent to which the benefits of reform have trickled down, you’ve got to hand it to Basu for farsightedness.
But all this is taking us away from the point the man at Olympia made all those years ago: Calcutta is forever. Last week, with the rain pelting down and with it the onset of the ilish maach (hilsa) season, the Calcutta Club was celebrating its centenary by welcoming its first women members. Not very far away, on College Street, thousands of tense and anxious young men and women were wading through waist-high and dirty floodwater to Presidency College, to appear for entrance examinations that would decide whether they had a better-than-average chance of beating those cheaper-by-the-dozen BPO employees in the great race to prosperity. And Siddharth was telling me that Tata Consultancy Services was going to grow its centre in Calcutta to 20,000 from 7,000 over the next three years, that the government was handing out an “employment generation subsidy” of Rs. 20,000 for each recruit that an employer trained, groomed and developed — and retained in a tumultuous, high-attrition marketplace. West Bengal is determined to be India’s third-biggest IT state by 2010, he said, and the India Design Centre plans to get into making VLSI (very large-scale integration) microprocessors.
Meanwhile, the nightclubs that ran along Park Street are slowly dying, one by one, as the action shifts to the humming towers of Sector V and Rajarhat. The older Calcutta slowly sheds its skin, but the new one stands bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to take on the world.