Kolkatans are exploring their city and taking joy and pride in shared spaces, writes Amit Chaudhuri
I moved to Kolkata from the UK in 1999. I wanted to move back to India and settle down in Kolkata. My parents were growing old and I, being an only child, wanted to be with them. Besides, my daughter had just been born, and we wanted her to grow up here. Childhood in Kolkata was something I’d only experienced vicariously, through the lives of my cousins, who introduced me to the extraordinary role of the Bengali language in the child’s imagination, and how lives could be rich without having to be affluent. I’m not sure how much of that universe, which Bengalis had created over more than a century, remained by the time we returned — but I felt some of its vestiges must remain. Certainly, there had been no counterpart in the Bombay in which I grew up to the culture of childhood in Bangla.
There was yet another reason why I decided to settle in Kolkata: the city was also my subject matter — it was, for me, where life and the imagination converged. I’d long been engrossed with what the city represented, and I felt connected to its spaces, even if the people in those spaces whom I may have earlier known had gone. And on some subconscious level, I felt those spaces could perhaps come alive again if people began to engage with them once more, rather than plan their escape, as they seem to have been doing from the sixties, and most notably over the eighties.
I returned on Saptami from Paris, where I’m based now for some months, to spend a couple of weeks here. The Puja made me embark on expeditions within the city, not all of which had to do with the festivities. I was struck by some positives: for instance, the lake, like the riverfront, has become a viable place for recreation again. And recreational spaces in a city being used (think of the moments of recreation captured in Bengali popular cinema), whether it is by old or young people or by lovers or married couples, is an indication that a city is alive.
About a decade ago, recreational spots were going to seed in Kolkata — one felt that to see people strolling casually and with pleasure here one had to watch black and white cinema. There was a sense that people were not exploring their city any more, which is what they do when they go for walks in parks, gardens, and streets. I have a feeling — having seen the lakes and the riverfront and noticed people’s renewed relationship with neighbourhoods in the north and south of Calcutta — that they are now once more gradually rediscovering their city and aren’t simply determined to get out. We seem to be in a period of rediscovery: I say this without sentimentality, and taking into account the endemic dangers of politics in Bengal, and the anarchic and unsettling eruption of new money in this city. But I do think that a sizeable minority of people are realising they can be citizens; that they need not function only according to political party loyalties, but might function in other capacities too. In fact, Kolkata is now poised between two futures, two possibilities — to be consumed by populist politics and by the eruption of new money and its attendant values on the one hand, or to re-engage and rethink the city on the other. The first is ubiquitous in the city; but the emergence of the second among many living here is also now palpable.
My exploration of the Pujas this time was a surprise, because I’ve either been absent during this period, or presumed I’d lost interest in the festivities in the way I’ve lost interest in cricket. But I was reminded in the last two weeks how much the Bengali continues to be excited by creative playfulness. This excitement, during the Pujas, is now spread across every section of society, from the working class to the upper middle class. So what we are seeing here yet again is sometimes quite a sophisticated idea of art experiment that is being delighted in by crowds who may not have any idea what an art experiment or installation or exhibition is. I find this quite extraordinary — an event comparable, say, to the crowds in London visiting the Tate Modern, and yet completely unlike it, in the way the experience and occasion are generated by the neighbourhood, and the neighbourhood belongs to everyone. In going to a pandal one is visiting an exhibition space, but one is also re-entering a lane.
I would say that the vitality that one encounters in these moments and in these spaces is noticeably missing from congregations of expatriate Bengalis in more affluent parts of the world. Those congregations show an insularity which is the opposite of the kind of experimentation and open-endedness that characterises the Pujas. Despite this city’s disappointments and trials, it’s a good time to move back from Atlantic City and re-engage with Kolkata.
The writer, an author, takes a keen interest in the city’s architectural heritage and public spaces
If you are a proud citizen of Kolkata and feel that there is no other place you would rather be, tell a loved one all about the new, changing Kolkata.
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