I was born and raised in Calcutta. I then went to work (and still do every week) to Bombay and I now live in Delhi. So that does, in some ways, make me an authority on these three cities. Or so I would like people to believe. But then there is real difference between these cities and we need to be non-judgmental about these differences as well.
I would break them into three essential clusters of definition:
There is no question that there are good people everywhere. But in some cities, their priorities suddenly shift for the worse and that has been my enduring worry. In Calcutta, you can still walk into a club and pick up a conversation from where you last left off. In Delhi, you may not find that person in the club anymore because he may have moved residence to Tihar.
In Bombay, while it takes them some time to reach Tihar, the truth is they may have easily moved location, which also means their club.
The people in Calcutta are simple. Very simple. Almost to a fault. You can introduce yourself as an astronaut and they will take you seriously and perhaps the more erudite amongst them may also discuss the impact of the G3 force. In Delhi you can call yourself an astronaut and they might think you are referring to the paddock box you were in at the recently concluded Formula 1. In Bombay they couldn’t be bothered if you were an astronaut if you weren’t acting opposite Salman or Shah Rukh.
But do we need simple people? Of course we do. We, in these hurried times, need people who will take us at face-value, won’t judge us by the giganticism of our car or for that matter by the layout of our home. We need people to converse rather than to talk down. In Calcutta when you walk into a room people look at you. In Delhi they look over you to see whether a minister is entering. In Bombay they keep looking waiting for Priyanka Chopra to enter. In Calcutta they will spend hours discussing Marx. In Delhi they’ll spend hours discussing Advani’s rath and its travails and in Bombay they’ll be chatting about Bollywood or where the RBI is headed.
In sum, the people of Calcutta have a certain humility; a certain rootedness. Of course not every Calcuttan is like Mamata Banerjee who will storm police stations. Neither do the young in Calcutta carry guns instead of wallets. Which is why, I guess, we mourn the demise of business and wealth in Calcutta while lauding its soul. You can’t have everything, can you?
In Calcutta people live in homes. In Delhi, they either live in bungalows or in farmhouses. In Bombay, they either live in slums or slums that are designated high-rises. This says a lot about the cultural underpinnings of each of the cities. In Delhi when people invite you to their home, even their toilets are worthy of a long stay. In Bombay when they invite you home, be sure they’ve sent the kids for a sleep-over. In Calcutta when they invite you home, they want to welcome you with affection and grace and care.
Parties in Delhi start but finish when either the host is drunk or dead or when the cops have come to remove the corpses resulting from a friendly brawl. In Bombay they end just when the last guest has left. In Calcutta they end at about 11 pm so that you can get home, read and then go to bed. The essential difference is that in each of these three cities, there is a certain value they ascribe to your coming home. In Calcutta it’s about conversation; in Delhi it’s about conversation regarding those who are not present, and in Bombay it’s just the same. The same people; the same topics, the same faces.
In Calcutta, very early on you are encouraged to spend hours in libraries (yes, those places with a large amount of books). In Delhi, you are encouraged to treat hoodlums or politicians as your role models. In Bombay, you are taught either to run with money or run around trees.
Which is why I guess Calcutta is in the economic limbo that it is in. The tragedy is that no one in Calcutta is upset about this. And why should they be? When they can navigate the path less travelled with a Robert Frost in their hands or imagine passing daffodils in Tollygunge Club, why on earth would they worry about food on the table?
In Delhi money is important. You just have to see the small bets that are placed during Diwali by hotelier wives and other sundry dodgy folks.
Bombay, on the other hand, is Maximum City with Maximum Deviation. You can gorge on vada pao with as much ease as you can at Wasabi. But the values are also around the economic — though thankfully not as pronounced as they are in Delhi. In Calcutta it is who you are. In Delhi, it is who you know. In Bombay it is what you do.
For me, cities are nothing without people. You can’t romance the Victoria Memorial or the Gateway of India or India Gate.
Suhel Seth is Managing Partner, Counselage India