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January 12, 1998


Farzana Versey

Tolly Ho!

Calcutta The next time anyone tells me about Calcutta and culture and clean up jobs, I'll wring their necks. Better still, I'll send them there. They will discover for themselves how easy it is in the city of joy to make a laughing stock of everything and everyone.

Since the dapper Netaji was the flavour of the moment during my visit to the beleaguered city, they made him look like a colourful barfi on huge cut outs. This, from a people who pride themselves on their sensitivity.

How can any sensitive person tolerate such filth, such chaos? It seems as though the Calcuttan has given decadence historical legitimacy. Old crumbling structures appear to have weathered many a storm not due to any heritage preservation; instead, it seems that all the collected soot -- antique in its own way -- is acting as a binding agent. In fact, the sight of a man in a standard white dhoti-kurta, standing patiently at the zebra crossing while cars, rickshaws and people criss-cross one another to get somewhere, becomes a mute testimony of the complete breakdown of a culture.

It would make for great satire, but not life. Of course, one meets the staunch defenders, but they live in Alipore and Ballygunge, not Burra Bazaar or Dhakuriyan. Okay, you can get a decent house, you have warm friends, no one is rushing anywhere; but, then, if everything is so full of charm, why the rut?

We visited the university and it is to be seen to believed. From the moodi sellers outside, to the desultory students in what passes for a campus, to a building that looks like a Girgaum chawl, to the 'intellectuals' inside who look like they've swallowed something terribly bitter (maybe, that's why the need for the famed Bengali sweets), it's a nightmare.

But if that can be bettered -- or more aptly, worsened -- then the Ashutosh Museum is a stinking example. A dark, dingy room, housing some of the most ancient texts, sculptures and miniatures, is left uncared for. The couple of babus, more worried about their imminent journey home than the glorious history around them suddenly wake up to swot flies or curious visitors who have no business to be there.

Since we were being masochistic anyway, we decided to visit one of the renowned coffee houses just across. First, you are accosted by hawkers selling not just printed, but photo-copies of best-sellers and classics. And then, you enter a little hole and climb a staircase to find a very, very strange phenomenon. Bearers in white, their high turbans pleated out like a fan, rushing about with plastic trays holding chipped tea cups with milky liquid spilling over into the saucers and shouting over our heads. Believe me, it is a hilarious sight, but it encapsulates Calcutta perfectly - a communist city obsessed with a colonial past.

Of course, one has heard about discussions on dialectics, but one look around and all one saw was tired professors and young leftists smoking cheap cigarettes, talking about the fire in other people's bellies while waiting to get their jocks off over some slick flick. Showgirls posters were everywhere.

Isn't it time the Calcuttan realised that he/she is like the rest of the human race and, if you have to especially sweeten your curd and market it as your pride and honour, then life must be really tough!

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Farzana Versey