I am always reluctant to skip a cricket match, especially at the Wankhede Stadium. There has also been a zing to the T20 league this year that is captivating, what with so many close finishes, not to mention the Mumbai Indians finding their mojo after a sputtering start.
But Kolkata’s seductive charm can sometimes override my passion for the sport. I like the slower pace of life compared to Mumbai, the delectable cuisine and the absence (by and large) of religious and caste chauvinism that is so much in tune with the Bombay of old.
Moreover, the occasion was to moderate a discussion on ‘Politics, Economics and Popular Culture’ — three subjects that fascinate me —with Lord Meghnad Desai as the keynote speaker, so the dilemma to travel east last weekend was comfortably resolved.
The purpose of the lecture, I was told by Pritish Nandy who organised the event, was to raise the level of public discourse in the country, caught as we now seem to be in a chakravyuh of inanities and profanities.
For instance, debate on the alleged prime minister(s)-in-waiting has been reduced to ‘pappu’ and ‘feku’; and Ajit Pawar thinks that the solution for overcoming the hardship of water-shortage for Maharashtra’s farmers lies in his bladder.
Kolkata, I was also told, was an apt venue because the city provides the country with its cultural and intellectual temper. History suggests there is truth-value in this premise, though whether the predilection for such discourse still exists I don’t know.
On my recent visit, the talking point was the assault on the famous Presidency College, allegedly by goons of the Trinamool Congress for a slight made to the party leader, Mamata Banerji.
On Twitter, some brash ones referred to the West Bengal chief minister as ‘Didi Amin’, which is blatantly disparaging, but in a sense reflects how Kolkata, like Mumbai, is feeling its long and much-valued liberal ethos under threat from wanton hooliganism.
But Kolkata never fails to win me over. The sight of trams still running criss-cross across the city — brought alive so evocatively by Dibakar Banerji in Kahaani—is another hark-back to old Bombay. I recall journeys from Crawford Market to Museum in the 1960s — at 5 paise for half-ticket!
The more engaging experience of this visit was lunch at Aminiya, a Muslim eatery near Newmarket, famous for its biryani, rezala and chops. The meal was splendid, but even more delightful was going to a restaurant that had little cubicles separated from the main dining hall by curtains.
In the Bombay of old, family rooms like these were a feature of most restaurants run by Iranis, Chiliyas from Gujarat and UPites in Sobo. When I was growing up, eating out was a luxury — and for women almost out-of-bounds. Eating out was a surreptitious activity.
These secluded rooms gave my mother and her ilk the freedom to remove their burkhas and indulge in gossip and tattle without fear of being recognised. In the somewhat better-off restaurants, these family rooms — as did box enclosures in cinema houses — gave young couples privacy from prying eyes.
To get back to the lecture, Lord Desai wove a fascinating story of India’s economic growth through the prism of Bollywood. The over-arching sentiment was that India is growing despite its politics, though he wasn’t too optimistic about Bengal, which he said was the richest ‘country’ at the turn of the 20th century, but has since stagnated.
Kolkata’s position as the mercantile capital of India was taken over by Bombay. But a century later, and more so after liberalisation, where the former has got bogged down because of ideological compulsions, Mumbai could be seen to becoming a victim of unfettered greed, for example, the rampant exploitation of real estate.
In theory, there is a middle path that allows economic growth to go hand-in-hand with social development without sacrificing probity or sanity.
In many ways, Kolkata and Mumbai could be metaphors of an India that is caught betwixt and between.