i spent too little time in Kolkata – staying only 2 nights. The city was once the British Raj’s capital and i’m currently reading a travelogue of India written in 1901 which describes the place as having wide clean sidewalks, wide city avenues with grand well-maintained victorian buildings, a river promenade along which its citizens walked every evening and just over 1 million inhabitants. In the early 1900’s it sounded much like Melbourne.
100 years later the present day Kolkata has 16 million inhabitants and the majority of its famed sidewalks and buildings are deteriorated, abandoned or both. Its roads are completely clogged by traffic making crossing its major streets a hair-raising experience and the pollution and noise created by its thousands of poorly functioning cars, autorickshaws and buses is impossible to describe.
Walking through the BBD Bagh area, the central business and government part of town, I was struck by how many of the grand buildings were empty signposted as national monuments but showing no signs of maintenance so that the result is a crumbling waste of space that could better be utilised as public housing, speculative development or just green space. Even the buildings that are still in use are falling into the ground with crumbling mortar, cracked walls, exposed brickwork and debris everywhere.
The British built imposing structures with high ceilings, thick walls, grand doorways and facades all designed to awe, diminish and impress. Decaying and decayed as they are, they still affect the viewer but on the street level, Kolkatan life so fills every available space to the brim that it sometimes seem that it is not the pollution and neglect that is tearing down the architectural remnants of the Raj, but the breath, clamour and colour of the Kolkatans.
And in two days, i got just a glimpse of how complex and rich that life is. The Communist Party of India has a branch down the lane of our guesthouse and there was a small march one evening during which the red sickle and hammer floated down a street full of western tourists, local touts and street chai and chowmein stalls. The local paper I was reading had a review of a major retrospective of Indian art, selecting 60 works from 60 artists aiming to represent as much as possible the changes in India over the last 60 years. Down the road, the Indian Musuem which is nearly 300 years old is still running and unlike the majority of buildings, sports a nearly new coat of paint. Within, I’d found some astonishingly beautiful miniture paintings on mica, ivory and paper, the latter paintings showing almost of many signs of deterioration as the moulting and rotting stuffed animals a couple of galleries away.
Earlier that day, I’d pushed through the lunchtime jostle of lawyers, plaintives and claimants around the old courts all eating from a bewildering variety of street-stalls, none of which I dared test my digestion on yet. I’d paid 5 rupee to gain entrance to the Millenium Park to look at the river and found instead that every park bench had a least one pair of necking couples demurely protected from the sun by umbrellas. I’d walked into what appeared to be a newly restored building in which the new market was housed, found that nothing had been done to the interior which nonetheless was full of sari, tea, spice and fabric stalls. On the wall, a notice from the administrators pleaded for stall-holders to register as many had never been registered.
But even as i left thinking about how little of the city i had actually seen, how little of it i’d got to know, i was glad to escape the pollution, traffic, noise and unpleasant accomodation.