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Where to start?

The mind was elsewhere altogether, lost to dreams of daab and malai-kari.  Epicurean delights wafting over the stronger scent of traffic turmoil, but underscoring this flight of fancy the reek of exhaust commingled with street smells very far from aloo posto. No poppy seeds here, though, just another kind of taste flowering in the cracks of a photogenic urban collapse.

Nowhere more so than in the frayed edges of a public transport infrastructure buckling under the weight of private cars. And of every other kind of road user too.

Scooters, buses, trams, auto-rickshaws, occasionally even tana or manual ones as well: beasts of burden flitting into precarious view and as often as not with the wiry puller straining every sinew under the onslaught of an especially tricky client, the city’s new rich.  His untroubled cargo, almost inevitably, a voluble, pampered mass of bejewelled bourgeoisie, her plump jowls (for it is usually a ‘she’) making for a cruel contrast with his gaunt, toasted features.  The whole arrangement redolent of Dante, though nothing divine or comedic in the implication that it is only when he meets the devil and mounts his back that Dante is able to be transported to the terrestrial paradise.

Something too of other anthropologies, retrofitted around so many global dysfunctions.  Shades of Michael Taussig and his sobering analysis of how power operates across historical defaults, urging us: ‘to push the notion of hegemony into the lived space of realities in social relationships, in the give and take of social life as in the sweaty, warm space between the arse of him who rides and the back of him who carries.’

Such are the moral dilemmas blissfully failing to register in the Darwinian fight for space near a choking underpass.  Handkerchiefs are pressed against faces, but it’s a losing battle against the cloying, acrid fumes being belched out from the painfully slow column of traffic.  Though ‘column’ is perhaps overly generous, given the Wacky Races style jockeying for position on this narrow stretch of asphalt that might even have given a Dastardly and a Muttley pause.

It’s not the usual journey, from North to South.  Mention that in London, or near enough anywhere else in the global ‘North’, and the notional sense of its obverse, the ‘South’, is of an idea as much as of a physical place, synonymous with heat, chaos, darkness.  A topography of sunkissed dysfunction. Of course the same largely holds true in London itself, where the southern half of the city is rarely alluded to by the media-laden, ‘taste-makers’ of the north, other than as a byword for ugliness, urban sprawl and violence.

But Kolkata, as in the reggae lyric, is ‘a little way different’.

The former imperial capital, Calcutta, as it was then known, enjoyed great social and cultural advances during the late nineteenth century Bengali Renaissance and justifiably established its reputation as the artistic and cultural capital of India, spawning an enviable lineage of writers, artists and later musicians and film-makers of such global renown as Rabindranath Tagore, Ravi Shankar and Satyajit Ray, to name but three.


Of course along with pride in the culture would come the inevitable questions regarding the less exalted elements of daily life.  Principally, why was a foreign power, the latter day representatives of a trading company at that, still ruling India?

So whilst Calcutta might have prospered as the political capital of British India, it was also the bedrock of political dissent, particularly in the wake of the hugely unpopular 1905 division of Bengal, prompting the British to relocate their colonial capital to far less troublesome Delhi in 1911.

But the city’s manifold traumas would continue throughout the remainder of British rule and beyond. First it would be eviscerated by a famine which many historians have since argued was cynically manipulated by the colonial authorities as a particularly brutal form of population control; more specifically of a dangerously rebellious population, elements of which had sown the seeds of the Indian Independence movement as far back as the original 1905 division.   The impact of partition in 1947 was perhaps even more devastating though, with the arrival of around 4 million Hindu refugees from East Bengal swelling the city’s already overcrowded slums and creating the abiding image of Calcutta as shorthand for abject poverty.  And no sooner had these refugees been absorbed by the city’s creaking infrastructure, than a fresh wave would arrive during the 1971 India-Pakistan conflict and the the bloody birth of Bangladesh.

Equally, it would be remiss not to mention the many dynamic new-town suburbs or the slew of air-conditioned shopping malls which have sprung up across the city and which speak to other entrepreneurial currents currently galavanising the metropolis. Physically, too, for instance around BBD Bagh (or Dalhousie Square as it is more commonly known), there is an impressive feast of colonial-era architecture,  including the Raj Bhavan and the High Court.  Hard though it may be to stomach, given the history behind them, but these buildings are beautiful, perhaps never more so than in their shabby genteel dilapidation, with all that that says about love and longing.  (In any case, if it is possible to appreciate a wholly colonial throwback like cricket, then surely it’s not a stretch to appreciate the buildings too as an enduring legacy of fascination, pleasure and no little pain).

Aesthetic reminders that this is a place of grandeur too, where there is still a dapper local gentry enjoying the pleasures of a bygone era, and perhaps of gentry all over the world: teeing off at some of India’s finest golf courses; backing horses at the Calcutta Racetrack; and then retiring for an evening constitutional at one of the city’s grand old gentlemen’s clubs.

The cultural imprint is strong as well, in the hugely popular Kolkata Boi Mela which takes place every year in late January, early February, and is Asia’s largest book fair.  Or in the regular, and high quality, programmes of Indian classical music and dance on offer at Rabindra Sarovar.  For those who take their pleasures at a step cinematically removed, mid-November every year sees the week-long, growing-in-acclaim, Kolkata Film Festival, showcasing both local and international talent. And that’s not even getting into the colourful, imaginative, city-wide mayhem of Durga Puja every October or that other kind of passion, distilled in the vast and knowledgeable Test Match crowds at Eden Gardens.

Away from the massed ranks in the bleachers, there are museums showcasing the life and works of Tagore, as well as of the Bengali Renaissance, or the Academy of Fine Arts which includes the works of Jamini Roy and Desmond Doig.  Not to mention a rich vernacular of street theatre which has served the city’s many film-makers well in turning out a production line of gifted actors.  (The ensemble casts of many Ray and Ghatak films are testament to this).  And if all that culture is hungry work, then what better way to set off the palette than the strong mustard notes of shorshe curries, or the drier, spicier jhal or richer, ginger-infused kalia ?  And fish, everywhere fish, from chingri to rui, chital to bhekti, and of course ilish.  Or for dessert the legendary mishti doi and rasagulla at Haldiram or KC Das.

No, Kolkata is indeed a little way different.

Often rambunctious, sometimes unlovely, but rarely unloved.

A conflicted place which has been made to carry a huge, occasionally unwelcome historical burden – witness to some of the greatest upheavals of the last century – and thus with a visceral sense of how, in the words of Irish nationalist, Roger Casement, ‘men are conquered not by invasion but by themselves and their own turpitude’.

An upside down place, where things are rarely as they first appear, from street names, to attitudes, to entire topographies.  And where the North/South divide comes to mean something else entirely from the standard equation.  It’s partly about money, as these things often are.  But it’s something else too, that ineffable quality beyond currency which some might term ‘class’.  As used in the arcane fashion to describe someone of solid character.  A good egg, in other words.

The North is the oldest part of the city, shabby genteel for sure, but historically a hotbed of writers, artists and thinkers whose residue is still much in evidence at the mythic Indian Coffee House just round the corner from bustling College Street.  Once the favoured haunt of freedom fighters, bohos and revolutionaries, it remains a site devoted to intellectual sedition; and imbibes too from some of that theatrical vernacular, of exquisitely performed dissent.  And of course, like the University district it comprises with its myriad publishing houses and the famous Presidency College which spawned the early 20th century Swadeshi movement, these are resolutely North Kolkata destinations.

The South is, well, the South. Richer, brasher, largely indifferent to the intellectual and not exactly lucrative heritage of the North.

I’m minded of this as the taxi (pre-paid, Ambassador) lurches out of a pothole and lightly kisses the bumper of another car which has found its way into the tightest of gaps right alongside.  We’re not far from the restaurants and shops of the wealthy southern enclave of Gariahat.  But it feels a long way while stuck in this spluttering, carcinogenic Chain of Being; several chokes removed from the freshly tarmacked avenues ferrying the nouveau-riche to their designer emporia.

It’s the lightest of kisses but almost as a reflex there is a sharp collective intake of breath.  Cabbie and chotomamu in the front. Myself sandwiched between Ma and mamima in the back.

The car we’ve flirted with has the telltale markings on the back.  It’s Kolkata police.  And now the window is lowering and there’s the sound of raised voices and aggressive pointing towards the pavement.

Typically, the traffic, concertina’d for so long, chooses precisely this moment to disentangle itself, and ahead of us there is movement and an unexpected stretch of road which suddenly opens up.  Cabbie panics and makes an impromptu dash for freedom.  But in the inevitable manner of a Kolkata log jam, the traffic is again starting to bunch up ahead, and the car comes agonisingly, worryingly to a standstill.

A momentary pause, then from the shadows a terrifying roar and the figure hurtling towards the stationary vehicle.

In the split-second before the steel-tipped lathi comes crashing down onto the bonnet, it is possible to make out the enraged, blood-red eyes of the policeman.  Nothing much is being said in the taxi.  Probably a combination of shock and apprehension.  After all, cabbie did try to run, and even if it was the lightest of kisses, a kiss it still was.

The second lathi assault shakes the whole car.  We’re boxed in now anyway, and the police driver is signalling for cabbie to get out of the vehicle.  He does so; has no choice really, and is unceremoniously yanked onto the pavement.  The steel tip is pressed menacingly under his chin and with so much force as to virtually lift him off his feet.  Meanwhile the police driver is trying, unsuccessfully as it turns out, to remove the ignition key from the cab.  When questioned as to why he is doing this, he replies that it’s because cabbie ‘tried to run and didn’t apologise when asked to’; though in fairness it didn’t seem as though it was an apology that his red-eyed boss was after.

The pavement dance is becoming rougher.  The language harsher.  The threats more vivid.

Another figure gets out of the police car, and the heft is familiar, as is the lack of ‘couth.  Could easily have been the ‘entitled’, flabby passenger of so many tana rickshaws.  But it turns out to be the copper’s missus instead, and, whatever he’s been having, she’s had a skinful too as her eyes are blazing and her mouth goes into overdrive.  Her appearance, though, in full arriviste fineries, broadly suggestive that this merry coupling is strictly off duty.  And is thus peculiarly unauthorised to be throwing all that heft around.

Chotomamu and Ma have stepped out of the car and are remonstrating with the copper, and his driver, on the pavement.  Although both are in their seventies, and neither is in great health, there’s no hesitation in stepping into the fray, though for my part I’ve been given strict instructions to stay in the car and say nothing.

A crowd (admittedly never that far in a population of this size and density) has gathered to see what the disturbance is.  At least a dozen people, men and women, and there’s consternation and rising anger on many of their faces.

Copper’s missus continues to berate poor old cabbie, but her husband’s not saying quite so much now that his professional instinct is beginning to kick in; the bloodshot eyes starting to register taut calculations around crowd control, backup, and fallout.  And where once there might have been the slow burn management techniques of famine as policy default for those in authority,  now there is only the instant aura of the steel-tipped lathi to fall back on.  But when fear of its consequences dissolve, even a seasoned campaigner like this knows that the game is up.

Ma has largely been ignored by the copper, and his driver, although she has made repeated pleas for calm and commonsense to prevail.  And this perceived sleight has not gone down well with the crowd, palpably morphing in momentum and now unwilling to see too far beyond a dignified, silver-haired lady in a sari being shown systematic disrespect by younger, brasher, sharp-tongued bullies.  Chotomamu meanwhile has sat on the pavement but is clutching at his heart and breathing heavily.  This pleases the crowd even less.

The touchpaper is lit when copper’s missus starts to shove cabbie in the chest.  The crowd, now at least thirty strong, immediately pulls cabbie to safety behind them before confronting his assailant.  And though the decibel count has gone through the roof, what’s striking is that it is only the policeman and his missus who have been swearing, and using the familiar, but impolite, form of address ‘tum’, while everyone else has scrupulously observed the polite ‘ap’ script and a vocabulary hewn from a more respectful commons.  A shabby genteel one, even…

Straining against muscle-memory (fight! Fight!) as well as the rudimentary Fanonian prop of restorative violence, I watch what happens next with the same kind of muted fascination that one might have while watching old library footage of sporting giants or political icons just doing their thing.  The apparent effortlessness of the showman, or the shaman.

Amidst all the shouting, accusations and counter-accusations, a figure has emerged onto the pavement, moving with the unhurried ease of a film star.  He is well built, easily fills out his safari suit, but carries himself with a studied poise.  Turning to Ma, he politely informs her that he doesn’t normally get involved in these roadside disputes, but having witnessed the entire episode he couldn’t let the policeman’s disrespect, or that of his wife, go unchallenged.  Though the clear implication is not so much unchallenged as ‘unpunished’.

He tells Ma that both her and chotomamu don’t need to worry about anything.  They should get back in the car, as should the cabbie.  He’ll take care of the rest.

Mercifully, chotomamu’s breathing seems to be back to normal, and he is soon back in the car, as is Ma.

Something else too.  As the safari suited gent is talking, a number of other young men, ‘neighbourhood’ guys with noticeable flex in their arms and a familiar look in the eye, have started to surround the police car.  So when the softly-spoken order comes to ‘trap the car’ a moment later, it’s all the copper can do to practically shove his still-ranting missus back in before jumping in himself and yelling to his driver in a more panicked, skittish tone than earlier, to ‘get going’.   The fight had in any case long since left him, and a split second longer would certainly have spelled consequences.

The other side of the road, too, a phalanx of auto-rickshaws, and some glints of metal under a couple of shirts.  Perhaps in their thinly veiled contempt for authority, carrying a torch for those revolutionary strains of Bengali nationalism which have always counteracted the complicity of the babu? An emotional antecedent in the actions of dissidents past; of those, as historian, Pankaj Mishra reminds us, like the 26 year old, Rash Behari Bose who, just after the British had abandoned Kolkata as their imperial capital, threw a hand grenade at the then British viceroy as the latter ceremonially entered Delhi on the back of an elephant?  Or maybe these are just more neighbourhood guys spoiling for a fight that’s been brewing for centuries, gestating in that ‘sweaty, warm space between the arse of him who rides and the back of him who carries.’

But the crowd isn’t done yet.  Their blood is up and there’s still some sense of unfinished business here.  Peering into the cab, a particularly incensed young woman stares at me and mamima who, though not young, is still considerably younger than Ma or chotomamu.

Why on earth had we stayed in the car while all that was going on outside? Mamima’s answer that we had to protect the keys from the marauding police driver doesn’t really seem to satisfy the questioner.

Narrowing her eyes, and with genuine rage in her voice, she then asks which part of the city we are from? The answer, Paikpara, is conveyed back to the crowd by the young woman to general murmurs of approval, and it doesn’t take long before her face visibly softens again.

‘Paikpara?  North Kolkata.  Good people.’