People say a lot of things about Calcutta, but one thing they never say is that Calcutta is a pleasant place. Intense, chaotic, corrupt, and confusing, yes. Unremitting discomfort and infinite inconvenience, yes. Pleasant, no. Calcutta (or Kolkata if you insist on following the endless name-changes inflicted by the government of West Bengal) is never going to be your ideal destination for a quiet relaxing break. But it is unforgettable: addictive, insistent, and amazingly friendly (for a place that is so violent). Calcutta is India in highly concentrated form. Use with caution.
Calcutta is not the most densely populated part of the the world, but it certainly seems like it. In the list of the most crowded cities India accounts for nine of the top 20 urban zones, and it comes as a surprise that Calcutta is only number 18 on the list, less crowded than even spacious-feeling Delhi. Spaciousness is certainly not what you will feel on arrival in Calcutta: what you will feel is something like being dropped from a height into a seething ocean of humanity.
The former capital of India was once considered the cultural centre of the sub-continent, and many Calcuttans still consider it that. After all, what is the competition? Calcutta easily earns its superiority to jumped-up Bombay or prim Delhi; its main quality is not inequality but variety. This is the city that hosts the biggest book fair in Asia, the city Kalighat painting, of Rabindranath Tagore and of film-maker Satyajit Ray. Calcutta’s publishing industry is prodigious, and while its film production is less celebrated than that of Bombay, it is far more influential, and much better.
Yet the city does now feel marooned on the outer edge of a transforming India. The East India Company founded Calcutta, turning a scatter of riverside villages into a cut-throat global commercial control centre, lining the Hooghly River with warehouses and wharfs, and raising marble mansions out of the profits of trade in rice and sugar, spices and tea. Calcutta was the first Asian boomtown of modern times, an instant city that linked the eastern and western halves of the known world, fuelled by capital and technology and greed.
Today that centre of gravity has moved west. The Hooghly wharfs are empty, save for a few rusting hulks. Political power migrated to Delhi over a century ago. Trade and finance have been ceded to Bombay. Technology has shifted to Bangalore
But the people keep arriving. The partition of India brought the division of Bengal and the creation of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, and for decades people have continued to pour out of the new state and into West Bengal and its capital Calcutta. The city is also magnetic for the poor and the ambitious of rural West Bengal as well as neighbouring Orissa and Bihar, who daily crowd the platforms of Howrah Station and stream across the brutalist marvel that is the Howrah Bridge.
And Calcutta 2015 is growing like crazy. At every point of the compass the city is now littered not only with litter but also with new flyovers half-built, with unfinished apartment blocks that look like they are already ripe for demolition. A Ganges of cement is poured every season, as the subcontinent’s most chaotic city invites even more of the same. You think the pressure is intolerable today? Come back next year.
You would expect tempers to snap under such pressure. For some reason they don’t. Calcutta is still India’s friendliest city (it also has India’s lowest urban crime rate). There is an almost total absence of street hassle (unless you count hawkers politely trying to sell you Booker-nominated fiction), and a level of everyday civility that most world cities dispensed with long ago.
That is why Calcutta is a better city to walk than any other in India. Don’t expect to meet other tourists: there aren’t any. Calcutta has fallen off the tourist map. Do expect to be confronted by a city which is one great matrix where different centuries co-exist. In the markets of Jorasanko or Chor Bagan, of Shyambazar or Taltala, you may see an elderly man pushing a wooden-wheeled cart expertly stacked with 64 boxed inkjet printers, or a street food-seller turning bhajis in boiling oil while simultaneously making calls on two mobile phones, or a ‘bheestie’ carrying the same water skins that have travelled these streets for centuries.
Every great city is full of ghosts. In Calcutta the ghosts never seem more real than in the South Park Cemetery, the decaying walled park concealed in the very centre of town where the officers of the East India Company buried their very numerous dead. There are very few memorials to old people, for the average life expectancy of the English clerks who sailed east in search of a fortune was not much more than 20 years. One of Charles Dickens’ sons is buried here, and one of Captain Cook’s, and countless young children. And so is Charles ‘Hindoo’ Stuart, an 18th-century pioneer of European interest in Bengali culture and the author of a book of letters ‘With Incidental remarks on Hindoo Beauty, Whale Bone Stays, Iron Busks, Indian Corsets, Man-Milliners, Idle Bachelors, Hair Powder, Waiting Maids and Footmen.’
Calcutta may have a low crime rate, but its history of communal violence and political revolt is astonishing. Up the road from the Cemetery some of that history is now preserved in the extraordinary Calcutta Police Museum, housed in the grand former residence of the 19th-century social reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy. With all the literalness that is characteristic of India, the museum displays not only documents and images of some famous Calcutta crimes and criminals, but also unforgettable mementos such as bullets extracted from the victims of egregious murders and, in one case, the actual victim himself (in the form of a jumble of bones in a perspex case). The museum appears to attract almost no visitors.
The many political conspirators whose faces stare down from the walls of the Police Museum were fighting, often enough, for their version of Calcutta, their version of India. Calcutta, or Kolkata, or Kolikata? Everyone, it seems, has their own version of Calcutta; people here live side by side in worlds that merely occupy the same space. Is this the City of Joy? Or is it the City of Despair? Is Calcutta finally falling apart, or is it finally turning the corner? Is it on the long-awaited up, or is it on the long-expected down? And while we are at it, how many people do cross the Howrah Bridge every day? How many languages are spoken here? And how much does an auto-rickshaw ride from Gariahat to Prinsep Ghat cost? Perhaps it should be called the City of Questions.