by Stuti Ghosh
“আামার ভীতরো বাহিরে
অন্তরে অন্তরে আছো তুমি”
aamar bhitoro bahire,
ontore ontore aachho tumi
In my entire being, inside out
How do I begin to describe it in ways it hasn’t already been done? It has trams, the Howrah Bridge, Durga Pujo, Park Street, maach, mishti and more. Kolkata’s charm is way more than this. Kolkata is a paradox, to put it simply. It houses different cultures and peoples. And despite differences, they all call it “home”.
The city was insignificant in the Mughal era, though there are mentions of it in the records of Akbar. The seat of activity in the revenue generating Bengal was Murshidabad. With the incoming of the British, three villages (Sutanati, Kalikata, Gobindopur) on the eastern bank of the River Hoogly were bought by the British East India Company in 1690. It was to serve as a trading port, selected due to its secure positioning: Hoogly on the west, a creek in the north and two salt lakes situated nearby. The importance of Calcutta grew in 1757 after it was recaptured by Siraj-ud Daulah. Calcutta soon became controversy’s favourite child, starting from the Black Hole tragedy. On 20 June 1757, Siraj-ud Daulah captured Fort William and is said to have held 23* prisoners of war. Located on the extreme southern side of the fort, the walls connected from the 14th and 15th parapet were caved in and used as a military prison. The prisoners were without food or water, and about 100 of them survived. A survivor of this incident, John Holwell, erected a monument in memory of those who had perished. The monument, known as Holwell’s monument, stands even today with inscriptions describing the bloody incident. The tragedy is, however, not mentioned in the Treaty of Alinagar and no report was submitted to the officers of England.
In 1772, Calcutta was named the capital of British India and became the seat of cultural and literary developments, bringing in the ‘Indian Renaissance’. The term Renaissance is used in tandem to the awakening of a modern India, which had different sections of the society coming together to liberate their nation. As a result, the amalgamation of cultures was inevitable.
Still referred to as the Cultural Capital of India, Kolkata holds on to the old world charm. Symbols of the bygone era are still present – the Botanical Garden, which is 250 years old; the centenarian Calcutta Zoo; or the fact that tram depots still exist near the British era market (the S.S. Hogg Market) and the essentially Bengali market at Gariahat. Parallel to this, new townships in Rajarhat and the South City area are very “2017”. Underground tube-rails beneath the Hoogly stand proud with the first ever Metro system of India. Park Street is your place to go party, with quaint restaurants that are no less than 80 years old. So, you watch with disbelief how a 21st century celebration seems to be in perfect sync with an ethnic- or British era- setting and atmosphere. (Paradox, remember?)
Political transition is necessary to every place, and Kolkata is renowned for its active role in India’s politics. The stronghold of a Marxist and Liberal ideology had been maintained for nearly 4 decades after Independence. Quite possibly the worst thing faced by the city after both 1931 and 1947 was the cultural and intellectual drainage during the Naxal Movement of the 70s. The political scenario has changed, but you would still find hidden areas that hold on to the “good old days”. Dharmatala has lost count of the number of protests it has witnessed and till date, continues to be a place of interesting political demonstrations.
Kolkata has seen riots based on the communal in the past, but proudly hosts the largest number of minorities after Kashmir. Celebration of every possible festival is done with great enthusiasm; almost every month, you can see the city decorated during one event or the other. Kolkata lives up to the Bengali phrase
বারো মাসে তেরো পাববোন
Baro maashe tero pabbon
meaning: 12 months a year but reasons to celebrate are 13.
Kolkata has had an ugly side too.
There are differences, incidents of honour killing in the name of religion (the Rizwanur Rehman case), inter-caste outbreaks and simultaneously there is collaboration of every one in a prominent festival or inter regional dispute. Kolkata still holds on to the tag of being home to Bengalis. Bengali is an identity beyond social barriers. All arguments are sorted out at Indian Coffee House or while shopping at Central/Gariahat. The differences between Bangal and Ghoti — the age old conflict between Marwari and Bengali way of living — are all assimilated under the name of Kolkata. No one cares what community you belong to during Eid, Durga Pujo or Christmas, as long as you respect the festive spirit. Poetry, food and tea unite this massive population of 14.3 million against stuff that irk most people.
It is a beautiful mixture, and that is the charm that stays intact because you can never really put a finger on what you like best. It is a city with a soul. Once you have experienced this city, all other places are incomparable and seem bland. You discover something special in every lane, because history and modernity go hand in hand here.
*Folklore, however, suggests that the number of prisoners were 146 instead of a mere 23. The casualty being 100 seems to be an exaggeration.
Stuti Ghosh is an editor at Tavarikh. As you can make out reading this article, she is obsessed with her hometown, Kolkata. She enjoys history as much as witty comebacks.