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The Indian Coffee House, its ceiling fans churning the heavy monsoon air, seems to embody all that makes Bengalis and foreigners nostalgic about the once-great metropolis of Kolkata, which in its old guise of Calcutta was India’s cultural capital and chief city of the British Raj until the move to Delhi in 1911.
“We take mental refreshment here,” Siddharth Basu, a 56-year-old painter and writer of Bengali short stories, tells me gravely. He frequents the café, run by the Indian Coffee Workers’ Co-operative Society, on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
There is fare for the stomach as well as the mind – boiled eggs for Rs8 ($0.12) apiece or a mutton sandwich for Rs37 – and the café’s cavernous hall echoes with the animated conversations of students, artists and intellectuals. At one end of the room, a portrait of the poet and polymath Rabindranath Tagore presides serenely over the hubbub.
Many of the locals lament Kolkata’s cultural decline and dream of a new “Bengal renaissance”, the late 19th-century flowering of literary endeavour and social reform – not through poetry this time, but maybe in cinema, theatre and modern music on the fast-growing suburban fringes of the old city.
Kolkata became India’s first modern “cosmopolis” under colonial rule, says Jadavpur University English professor Swapan Chakravorty, after the arrival of printing presses meant the serendipitous publication of Shakespeare plays and ancient Indian texts at the same time. “If you imagine the Renaissance and the Enlightenment telescoped into one, you will get Bengal.”
Today’s Kolkata is very different. Overcrowded and impoverished, it reeks of the economic and cultural decline that followed the death of Tagore in 1941. Old men with open sores lie half-naked by the road. Rats the size of small dogs forage in rubbish on the river banks. Whole trees whose seeds have landed on rooftops silently tear apart the unmaintained colonial edifices. The Botanical Gardens are overgrown with weeds, and mosquitoes attack those few who venture into the library of The Asiatic Society, founded by the philologist Sir William Jones in 1784.
Tourists tend to find a perverse charm in Kolkata’s physical decay, just as some of the city’s residents take a perverse pride in the eccentricities of the anti-capitalist political heritage often blamed for that decay. The 1980s, however, did not just lead to economic decline. According to Amit Chaudhuri’s typically hyper-intellectual book, Calcutta: Two Years in the City, they also made unviable the “Calcutta paradox” – the notion “that life and the imagination would hover most palpably over decay and dereliction”. Mr Chaudhuri writes: “Without the transformative effect of the imagination, decay is just decay, disrepair plain disrepair.”
It is a view shared by patrons of the Indian Coffee House. Chandidas Kumar, a retired bank clerk who refers airily to Dostoevsky and Maupassant (how many of his British peers could do the same?), and his friend Guru Biswas, a 76-year-old author, complain of declining values, behaviour, culture and education. And yet, he says, Calcutta two centuries ago “was a city so nice, more beautiful than London also – not only for the outward beauty but also for the inner beauty”.
At times it seems only Bengali filmmakers, or musicians in bangla bands such as Cactus, hold any hope for Kolkata’s cultural future. Aparna Sen, the actor and director who has celebrated the city’s melancholy glories in her films, is optimistic as well as nostalgic. “These young people are finding their voices, in cinema, in music, in writing,” she says. “Culture is not static. It’s a river that keeps flowing.”
Death of reason
Even after that lesson in Kolkata, it’s obvious I have yet to understand India’s cultural complexity. When I see the headline “Rationalist shot dead”, I immediately assume it’s a misprint, especially since tribal nationalists of one sort or another have been much in the news following the announcement of a new Indian state called Telangana.
But it’s no misprint. Narendra Dabholkar, who campaigned against religious charlatans, was assassinated in the metropolis of Pune. The killing shamed the government of the western state of Maharashtra into an emergency ordinance banning black magic and bogus miracle-workers. It would be a fitting epitaph to enshrine that edict in a permanent law.