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Kulture in Kolkata

I trolleyed my way out of the Kolkata airport on Wednesday, I heard a series of uninterrupted dog-like snarls mixed with sounds of human quarreling and a high-pitched moan. Indrajit Hazra writes.

columns Updated: Feb 02, 2013 22:06 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times

Dear Salman,
I landed in Kolkata the same day you were supposed to arrive here. I knew this because even before I trolleyed my way out of the airport on Wednesday, I heard a series of uninterrupted dog-like snarls mixed with sounds of human quarreling and a high-pitched moan, the whole effect sounding the way it does when a crowd in Kolkata appears out of nowhere and mills around a pedestrian knocked down by a car. Once outside, I saw the motley crowd - some 100-150 men in grimy clothes that seemed worse for the wear, not all of them looking half as agitated as the man standing above them in the middle.

Before getting into a cab, I turned to my wife to tell her that at last I was getting a decent reception in my old hometown. But quickly enough, I realised that the 'welcoming committee' was waiting for you. Bloody hell! What do you have that I don't which gets you a crowd waiting for you outside the airport? Actually, don't answer that.

I took a good look at the young bearded guy standing in the middle. He was wearing a white Muslim cap - how else would he have looked Muslim? - and a light brown jacket, and was certainly the best dressed chap around. He was also the most irate of the lot. "We will not tolerate the government allowing Salman Rushdie to set foot in West Bengal. Rushdie is an insult to Islam and has insulted all Muslims. We will not allow him to enter Kolkata," he dog-snarled in Bengali while placards bearing your name were held up in a far more professional manner than the way chauffeurs outside the terminal half-heartedly hold up a piece of paper carrying the name of their passenger coming out of the airport.

I doubt whether anyone would have sent a driver holding up your name for you to spot if you had indeed come out of the terminal into the dusty, crumbly, dirt-filled, loud area outside. It turns out that Kolkata is a place where the administration can't guarantee your safety. Considering it isn't really bothered about the safety of its own citizens - a visit to a government hospital can always be an eye-opener - I'm sure you'll understand that keeping you safe from self-appointed custodians of culture was never going to be a priority.

I learnt later that you didn't end up coming to Kolkata at all. Frankly, I don't know why I didn't make some easy money by wagering that you'd not be able to come. You tweeted about the chief minister and her administration ensuring that you didn't enter this city. Well, that's only partially true. If I still know my old city, the chief minister is only the cat's paw, the executor of popular wishes.

By popular wishes, I don't mean those of the hundred-odd chaps agitating against your dastardly appearance in Kolkata. I don't mean the wishes of Maulana SM Noor-ur-Rehman Barkati, the Shahi Imam of the Tipu Sultan mosque in Kolkata, either, whose threat against the screening of Kamal Haasan's film Vishwaroopam - "If it is screened, there will definitely be violence" - seems far less worrisome to the administration than the kind of threat your presence poses to Islam according to the imam.

The people who actually didn't much care for you to be in the city, whose popular wishes were met, are those very folks who believe Kolkata to still be the 'cultural capital' of India. If anyone wonders how such an epithet can stick to a place that threw out Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen in a display of one of the most potent forms of literary criticism one has ever seen; a city that is governed by a chief minister whose reaction to a caricature of her on the internet was to have the chap who had uploaded it arrested; a city that suckles on a teat long gone dry believing it to be the finest source of literature, arts and cinema - then there are ways by which any questioning of Kolkata as the 'cultural capital' can be magically seen as the ignorance (and envy) of Mammon-worshipping philistines.

An American gentleman (from Buffalo) who has been in Kolkata for two years asked me at the dinner hosted for the writers attending the Kolkata Literary Meet how anyone who writes and speaks freely could bear to live in 'soulless' Delhi. I tried to give a smart answer. But all I could come up with is that none of Kolkata's super cultured people whose fondness for Ray or Kurosawa, Tagore or Marquez, Pyne or Klee, will ever get their knickers in a twist if denied their cultural drip.

Which makes me secretly admire the rag-tag bunch who were badmouthing you outside the Kolkata airport much more than the Kolkata lot who couldn't do a shit about you being told to scram. So, it's just as well you didn't visit this village pretending to be a city. Folks in Kolkata think they value the arts and culture but what they value is kachkola. Put that in your next book. In Bengali, kachkola means 'an unripe banana' or 'bugger all.'

Warm regards,
A former Kolkata boy

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