The communists lost in India's West
Bengal but Kolkata is heading
for world city status
Associate since 1991
Comments directly to
May 17, 2011
Most reporters have been here for the election in which the communists - the longest ruling democratically elected communist party in the world - were trounced. It was a peaceful and civilized election and spoke well of West Bengal and its capital, Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). I've been here to sniff around the city and find out why it is one of the Third World's most interesting and successfull places.
Long a well educated part of India, West Bengal, and in particular Kolkata, has produced a disproportionate number of India’s intellectuals and artists. The other day one of its returning sons and one of its six Nobel Prize winners, the economist Amatya Sen, gave a speech at his alma mater, Presidency College, wondering if the reason for Kolkata’s low crime rate (the lowest of any big city in the world) is because of the depth of its artistic culture. (Others would point to the exceptionally close Bengali family and neighbourhood structure.)
Not just locals but also many Western readers are devouring Bengali novelists like Amitav Ghosh, Amit Chaudhuri, Jhumpa Lahiri, Rana Dasgupta and Kunal Basu.
Theatre culture is thriving. So is film. The greatest Indian film maker of the twentieth century, the late Satyajit Ray, lived in the city. So today does Buddhadeb Dasgupta, a poet, a film maker and an icon for film aficionados. All his films are shot locally. “When I’m away I can’t write” he told me. “I’m now writing a script for my next film. I have to be in Calcutta. I have to have that love of the people, the smell, see the trams, the double deckers and the pot holed streets, the classical charm of the old buildings.”
After talking to Dasgupta I started asking everyone I met who had grown up in the city if they liked it with a similar intensity.
There is an artist who has his home nearby. I knocked on his door without an appointment and was immediately invited in. He has many of his latest works hanging in a big room. “The city looks crowded and dirty”, he said. “But the people who live here are good people, a cooperative people. Look at the metro - we were the first city in India to build one. As a people we are so proud of it. It is spotless.”
Joy Dasgupta, now working in Kabul in a development project, disagrees with this view of city harmony. “It’s not a communal city. The Muslims - a minority - and the Hindus have separate spaces. 30,000 died at the time of partition. Later there were riots in 1992. The rioting by Muslims was Muslims who didn’t have Bengali as their mother tongue- they came from the north.
Ranabir Roy-Chaudhary, the ex-editor of “The Bengal Post”, says: “Thanks to the communists the people have the idea of rights but not of duties, and that makes for a lazy workforce. But, to give them their due, the communists have extended education and organised medical services to nearly all the poor. The lakes and parks are well looked after - they could easily have become crime-ridden places. Today there is much more appreciation of the fine buildings.”
Parwez Hafeez, the Bengal editor of "The Age", a national paper, talks of the success of the changeover from Marxism to capitalism (although the ex-Chief Minister of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, had a picture of Lenin in his office and told me that he is still a Marxist). The city has attracted back educated Bengalis who left for better opportunities in other cities, and also Bengalis from the Diaspora in the United States and the UK.
The British bequeathed a green city, planting trees on every street which have now matured into 15 metre high leafy shade. Talking of the British, their legacy in India is profound and nowhere more so than in Kolkata - the quality of the best schools and universities; the perfect colloquial English spoken by the well educated, and even their sense of humour and irony; the style and interests of middle class life; the standard and reach of a free, questioning, press; the introduction of parliamentary government all the way down to small villages; the use of English law, replacing the haphazard forms that existed before; the concept of economic development rather than centuries of inertia; and, not least, the railways, now being modernised in West Bengal and all over at a hectic rate, with money being spent to improve the whole system, not concentrating on a few high speed TGV-type trains as they are in China.
Indeed India - frugal Kolkata and West Bengal in particular - is not known for white elephants and spreads its development progress much wider than China where it has been concentrated on its eastern and southern coasts. The Indian way fits in with the European and North American way much more than the Chinese.
This is why for two decades I have maintained that before too long India will overtake China. And why I tend to go along with the mantra of some of my Kolkata friends and acquaintances that we will live to see the city taking its place beside London, Shanghai and New York as one of the world’s great cities.
Copyright © 2011 Jonathan
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