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Lost Calcutta

Calcutta, 1996
Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos
Calcutta, 1996

On the Calcutta Maidan, or central parade ground, one morning in January 1906, the Prince of Wales tapped into place the foundation stone of British India’s most self-aggrandizing monument. The Victoria Memorial Hall, as it would be called, had been dreamed up by Lord Curzon, the former viceroy of India, who envisioned it as a museum celebrating the late Queen Victoria and British rule in India. It was to be “not only a Victoria Memorial but an Indian Valhalla,” The Times of India declared, though, faced in the same marble as the Taj Mahal, it might more aptly be called the Taj of the Raj.

The Victoria Memorial Hall sits on the Maidan like an enormous dollop of Italian meringue. Inside, a gallery chronicles the city’s history since 1690, when an East India Company agent named Job Charnock established a factory near a village named Kalikata on Bengal’s Hooghly River. Charnock lived there for thirty-five years with his common-law wife and their children, and though the legend that he had rescued his wife, a Hindu widow, from her first husband’s funeral pyre is doubtless apocryphal, the founding story rests on an elemental truth: the city’s development was a joint British and Indian affair. In 1757, the East India Company commander Robert Clive defeated Bengal’s local ruler, or nawab, in battle and consolidated the company’s power in the province.

Over the subsequent decades, as the company’s reach spread across northern and central India, Calcutta blossomed into the cultural as well as political capital of the emerging British empire in India. It became an important center for higher education, social reform movements, literature, and nationalist activism—all of which were discussed in the city’s intellectual salons (or addas). But the city of the mind was every bit as much a city of money. Under company rule it flourished on the trade in textiles, saltpeter, indigo, and opium. After the 1857 revolt, when the East India Company was dissolved and the government taken over by the British Crown, Calcutta continued to thrive as India’s business capital, a prominent shipping hub, a financial services center, and a major industrial city oriented around the processing of jute, a vital material in the pre-plastics age. Grand houses built by the merchant elite gave Calcutta the nickname “the city of palaces.”

During his 1906 visit the Prince of Wales declared that “there is nothing…more typical of the relations between the British and the nations of India than Calcutta, which has grown from a swamp to be the second city of our Empire.” But before the Victoria Memorial Hall had even been completed, in 1921, the prince—by then King George V—had moved the capital of British India from Calcutta to Delhi to spite the city’s vocal nationalists. And by the 1970s no one would have called it the city of palaces. Calcutta had become synonymous with extreme poverty, labor unrest, and political violence. It was a city of lepers, beggars, ragpickers, and pavement-dwellers, associated not with imperial splendor but with Mother Teresa.

To understand this Calcutta—a city in decline—it’s helpful to start from a different beginning. In her innovative new book, Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta, Debjani Bhattacharyya, a professor of history at Drexel University, describes how Bengalis had their own story about Calcutta’s origins. “Legend has it that the city was born when the ocean started churning, and a tortoise,” pressed between the mountains and the force of Ananta, the infinite, “gasped out a deep breath.” Its breath made the Bengal Delta, a vast 40,000-square-mile area where the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers seep into the Bay of Bengal. This legend, like the legend of Job Charnock, also carries an element of truth: Calcutta rests on shifting ground. It should be no surprise that its fortunes have shifted too.

Bengalis have many words for the kinds of terrain that emerge and disappear between the river’s shifting channels, including char, for the new sedimentary deposits turned up by every monsoon; chechra bhanga, for the silt that emerges when the floodwaters recede; and chapa bhanga, for large chunks of land that the water breaks off and carries away. In the early nineteenth century, East India Company engineers started building embankments and canals to dry out the delta, turning it into solid ground, and solid ground into real estate.

One often says that empires are “built,” but Bhattacharyya’s book implies that it would be more accurate to say the British drained Bengal. The draining of the soil reflected the draining of the region’s wealth. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, Bengal’s valuable textile trade was largely wiped out with the rise of industrial textile production in Britain. The rural economy was shifted toward the production of raw materials for export, including silk, indigo, and especially jute.

The notion that imperialism constituted a “drain of wealth” from India became a founding principle of Indian anticolonialism. But as the economic historian Tirthankar Roy has shown, the effects of British colonial rule on India’s development were in fact highly varied and uneven, and while poverty increased in rural Bengal, the city of Calcutta flourished as a manufacturing hub and center of maritime trade.1 Bhattacharyya makes clear, however, that although business boomed for the elite, the working classes struggled. During the years between the world wars, the city’s laboring population surged, and since land has always been scarce in Calcutta, rents skyrocketed. A vigorous Communist movement grew out of popular outrage against land speculators and profiteers. Meanwhile, in rural Bengal, a series of ecological and market shocks impoverished jute cultivators, so that when rice prices soared during World War II, the countryside plunged into famine. Tens of thousands of starving peasants staggered into Calcutta in desperation, only to die of hunger in the streets.2

The first visit I made to Calcutta that I can remember was over Christmas in 1981. I was seven. It had been exactly twenty-five years since my grandfather Sudhir had taken a job at the United Nations, moving my grandmother and their three children from India to New York. They had left India expecting to return, but now all five were non-resident Indians with American lives who emerged every few years onto the sweating tarmac of Calcutta’s Dum Dum Airport bearing duty-free chocolate and perfume.

Our base in the city was Ballygunge, a neighborhood of turreted and shuttered bungalows on streets with English names: Iron Side Road, Queens Park, Dover Lane. Not far from my mother’s childhood home, a new concrete apartment block called Hemchhaya—Bengali for “golden shadow”—rose above the colonial-era rooftops. My mother’s uncle Ajit lived there, in a three-bedroom flat on the fifth floor, with his mother, his wife, their three grown sons, a daughter-in-law, and two granddaughters.

My brother and I played Ludo in the living room with the youngest son, Toto, a warm-eyed young man in his twenties. We had little contact with Bappa, the eldest, who kept to himself in the side bedroom, but my parents were close to the middle son, Rana, a handsome man with wavy, film-star hair, and his lively fiancée, Neela.

My great-grandmother reclined on a daybed dressed in a Hindu widow’s pure white. This was her second widowhood, for she had been married at twelve to a boy who died before they lived together. Hindu widows, even child widows, might traditionally be consigned to social death—but fortunately for her, a reform-minded man came along, my great-grandfather, who wanted to break the taboo against marrying a widow. She was the only close relative I ever knew who kept a faith, from her self-abnegating attire and strict vegetarian diet to the shrine she maintained in her bedroom, bedecked with tiny vessels and figurines that delighted me. After her prayers she fed me and my brother little round sugar cakes from the prasad (offerings).

We bounced through the lanes of Ballygunge on the squeaking back seat of Rana’s Ambassador sedan, paying calls on relatives in high-ceilinged houses with red oxide floors and walls painted in aqueous pastels. My brother and I drank Campa Cola and ate ersatz chocolate ice cream. We slept under mosquito nets and mimicked the cries of the hawkers on the street below. Standing on the rear balcony of Hemchhaya, I saw the shikharas, or towers, of a new Hindu temple being constructed under a bamboo scaffold and watched kites wheel over trash heaps.

Later on I came to realize that all the things I had found so distinctive about Calcutta were entirely typical of a certain Bengali bourgeois milieu. You could practically derive my family’s story, caste, and lifestyle from their surnames, Sen and Gupta. My relatives had migrated from East Bengal between the wars for education and jobs, and settled into the stylish Art Deco flats of South Calcutta, a contrast to the rococo mansions in the north of the city. They spoke English fluently but proudly used only Bengali at home. They loved literature and revered “Gurudev” (“saintly teacher”) Rabindranath Tagore, whose words they memorized in verse and song, but they studied economics (my grandmother earned an MA and my grandfather a Ph.D. in the field) because they believed it would help them lead India into a postcolonial future.

There were some affinities with Apu, the hero of Satyajit Ray’s celebrated film trilogy, who moves to Calcutta to pursue his literary dreams—and more, perhaps, with Ray himself, schooled in Ballygunge and at Presidency College (my grandfather’s alma mater), where he too studied economics. My relatives might have chuckled at but quietly agreed with the early-twentieth-century nationalist Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s statement that “what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow,” flattering Bengalis’ sense of themselves as social progressives. They were midnight’s parents, to twist Salman Rushdie’s expression for Indians born in the year of independence, raising the new India in their educated, secular, technocratic, anticolonial image.

But by the time I learned any of that, the golden shadow had darkened. My mother’s uncle, Ajit, had died suddenly of a heart attack. My great-grandmother died of old age, and Toto jumped off the balcony and killed himself.

In 1999 I returned to Calcutta as a graduate student in history. During the 1990s, after decades of protectionism and import substitution, economic liberalization had arrived in India on the wheels of Japanese cars and a tide of American soft drinks, transforming consumer culture. Politics had changed too. The lotus symbol of the Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist party that had come to power in 1998, now appeared on walls around the city alongside the open hand of the Congress Party and the hammer and sickle of the Communists—the traditional power-holders at the national and the West Bengal state level, respectively. The BJP promptly asserted itself on the international stage by launching a nuclear weapons test—a brash declaration of India’s military capacity—and then a short border war with Pakistan. A “new India” had arrived, and it demanded a larger place in world affairs. In early 2000 Bill Clinton became the first US president to visit India in twenty-two years, marking a new stage in what has grown into a significant Indo-American relationship.

Mother Teresa was dead. In Ballygunge, another apartment block had been built next door to Hemchhaya with a glossy black marble façade and the name “Windsor Palace” in ornate silver letters. The temple I’d seen slowly rising in the 1980s had been finished and had replaced the colonial-era post office as the neighborhood landmark you would tell taxi drivers to head for. ATMs marked the end of the age of travelers’ checks and the half-day process of cashing them at the bank, in which one was shunted from one unsmiling clerk to another in obeisance to their almighty rubber stamps.3 There were Internet cafés and a new downtown shopping center, and hand-painted signage was replaced by slick printed posters. On a billboard I saw none other than a great-aunt who was a former actress; she had a sleek silver bob and a plump, grandmotherly smile, and was modeling finely wrought gold on her ears, fingers, and wrists.

But I scarcely recognized that face in the fat, lanky-haired, betel nut–chewing woman I visited, who lurched about her house in a sleeveless gown, shouting “down!” at the dogs leaping against the bars of their cage. The “new India” seemed like a surface hastily applied, easily rubbed off. While the high-tech economy of the 1990s had made boomtowns out of the southern cities Bangalore and Hyderabad, Calcutta’s central business district moldered into ruin. Trees grew out of the upper stories of what had once been buzzing corporate offices. There were Japanese cars on the streets and an expanded subway under them, but there were also still thousands of hand-pulled rickshaws, a holdover from colonial times that were as stunning as they were necessary, since monsoons often flooded the streets so badly that no motor vehicles could get through.

Juxtapositions like this gave the city its unique character, rich in distinctive architecture and street life. They also signaled systemic problems: power cuts (“load-shedding”) were commonplace and telephone calls rarely connected on the first try. My grandparents’ generation was dying off and with them, it seemed, had collapsed a bridge into their vision of India’s future, as a country that could attain first-world prosperity on its own postcolonial terms.

Most explanations for Calcutta’s decline start with independence in 1947. The Partition of India and Pakistan drew a border through Bengal—dividing it into the Hindu-majority West Bengal and the Muslim-majority East Pakistan—and a wave of refugees poured into the congested city. “Partition was the defining event for every man and woman in this city,” Siddhartha Mukherjee quotes one refugee—his father—saying, in his book The Gene (2016). “Either you lost your own home, or your home became a shelter for someone else.” (Another wave followed in 1971, when East Pakistan fought a war to become present-day Bangladesh.) Partition also cut Calcutta’s jute mills off from supply chains in the hinterlands, decimating manufacturing at the same time that British businesses began to withdraw from the city. The story typically continues with critiques of the Left Front government that held power in West Bengal from 1977 to 2011. It has been widely blamed for ruining business and manufacturing with a toxic combination of labor militancy and neglect of infrastructure.

But reading Empire and Ecology encourages one to speculate about the broader environment, so to speak, of Calcutta’s condition. After all, Calcutta’s deindustrialization is roughly contemporary with that of the British and American Rust Belts (to say nothing of other Indian cities such as Bombay or Kanpur), with their experiences of factory closures, capital flight, and the migration of talent. All of these centers of nineteenth-century heavy industry were out of step with later-twentieth-century technologies and undercut by cheaper manufacturing elsewhere. Ecological change also played a part in Calcutta’s decline, as the river silted up and shipping moved elsewhere. In his recent memoir of Calcutta, The Epic City, the journalist Kushanava Choudhury gives a poignant image of those riverbanks, once so deliberately reclaimed and developed, now an industrial graveyard 45,000 acres wide, “strewn with the skeletons of [Calcutta’s] machine-age past.”4

Every evening when I went to Hemchhaya, I couldn’t help feeling that the plight of the city outside had its counterpart within the Gupta family flat. The living room walls were streaked by soot, the glass in the barristers’ bookcases cloudy. Rana’s Ambassador sat in a parking area on piles of bricks. He and Bappa, his elder brother, hadn’t spoken to each other in years. The brothers stuck to their respective quarters and ate their meals in shifts. And while Bappa had long been a temperamental, troubled figure, Rana had not left the apartment in months. Sick with a chronic respiratory illness—he was a longtime smoker in a heavily polluted city—he had become a shut-in. It was as if the family had become a metaphor for the city: divided, choked off, left behind.

In 2018 I was invited to attend a literary festival in Calcutta—or Kolkata, as the city was renamed in 2001. (In 2003 the Calcutta High Court went a step further by declaring that it had not been founded by Job Charnock after all, because no single person could be said to have established the city at any specific time.)

I was put up in a hotel in New Town, a brand-new satellite city of skyscrapers and overpasses rising from what I remembered as a pungent wetland of fisheries and pools clogged by water hyacinths. Designed to be a tech hub and part of a nationwide network of “smart cities,” Kolkata New Town is the latest iteration of the new India under the BJP prime minister Narendra Modi, committed to entrepreneurship and efficient management: an India of indoor toilets, high-speed trains, and equal education for girls. West Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee, a prominent opponent of Modi’s, has worked successfully to reverse the image of West Bengal as a state hostile to business and industry, and won plaudits for her measures to improve public health—though she is also known for her entourage of goons, at the ready to rough up her critics.

The festival was staffed by students wearing green polo shirts embossed with the shield of the Candid School of Communication, founded in 2011 with the mission of “enlightening students with knowledge to take a proactive role in improving their lives and people they care about.” The young staff might as well have stepped out of Dreamers by Snigdha Poonam, a superbly reported study of aspirational Indian millennials and one of the best books about Modi’s India to date. Many of her subjects are the first in their families to receive any higher education and to learn English, which is crucial for upward mobility. In place of the colonial-era English-language schools to which only an elite had access, the rising generation studies so-called Spoken English, a shortcut to fluency.

Poonam interviewed Moin Khan, a teacher at the nationally franchised American Academy of Spoken English, who offers dialogue-based classes with the evangelism of a motivational speaker. “Wherever I might be in India, knowing in my heart that I can speak in English gives me confidence to face anything,” he told Poonam. Such a message reverberates in India, where self-help literature is wildly popular, and which has more than twenty official languages. “If you realize what is your power, you can do anything,” one of Khan’s students said.

“What happens when 100 million people suddenly start dreaming big, in a place where no one is prepared for it?” Poonam asks. They might support the prejudices that come with Modi’s promises: against Muslims, against intellectuals, against troublesome minorities. That’s why, in addition to would-be Elon Musks and Steve Jobses, aspiring fashion models and film stars, Poonam’s Dreamers also includes members of the self-declared Cow Protection Army, which has been known to lynch suspected (invariably Muslim) beef-eaters, and far-right student activists who have turned campuses into battlegrounds against “anti-national behavior.”

It’s impossible not to be impressed by the speed and ambition with which the new Kolkata has mushroomed. But when I looked out the hotel window at New Town’s vacant skyscrapers and deserted streets, dingy in the smog, I felt hollow and sad. Back in the 1960s, Calcutta administrators had tried to rebrand the city by patriotically renaming imperial monuments and streets; Harrington Street, on which the US and British consulates were located, famously became Ho Chi Minh Street. But the victims of today’s urban development include New Town’s previous occupants, tens of thousands of peasants who were forced out by Left Front toughs wielding intimidation tactics and armed with colonial-era laws.

To make matters worse for the poor, the ecology of the entire region has suffered. Bhattacharyya warns of the damage “as vast amounts of farmland are salinated by the encroaching seas” and “devastating cyclones and storm surges are reshaping the coastline.” Climate refugees will surely follow. Neighboring Bangladesh has already been declared the most climate-vulnerable nation in the world, in response to which, says historian Sunil Amrith, “Indian officials talk regularly of constructing a wall along the border with Bangladesh as a deterrent to migration.”5

Other casualties include the buildings of my grandparents’ era: the Art Deco structures of South Calcutta are being knocked down in favor of the architectural equivalent of fast food. (The new landmark for getting to my mother’s Ballygunge neighborhood is Haldiram Food City, a brash, glassy food court.) The novelist Amit Chaudhuri has argued forcefully for the preservation of these twentieth-century buildings, which represent a “unique cosmopolitan modernity,” and launched an organization called Calcutta Architectural Legacies to save them. Preserving these structures is about more than aesthetics or a sense of history. It is a fight to preserve the architectural legacy of an era in which secularist, democratic values prevailed, as compared to the rising authoritarianism and bigotry of the present.

One morning I went to Ballygunge for old times’ sake. The same giant banyan outside the Hemchhaya gate drooped over the same red-lettered sign, and a chowkidar (watchman) sat, as always, on a stool just inside. But I had no reason to go upstairs. Bappa’s daughters were with their husbands’ families. Ajit’s widow, the last member of my grandparents’ generation, died two years ago, and less than two months after performing her last rites, Bappa collapsed and died suddenly himself. Another generation is disappearing, and the next one has dispersed.

As I walked away from the building, I met an elderly couple who were climbing into a rickshaw on the corner. They asked where I was from. “My mother is from Ballygunge,” I told them. “Our daughter lives in New York,” they said. “Queens.” We exchanged smiles, they and the rickshaw-wallah posed for a photograph, and they clattered away down the lane.

  1. 1

    Tirthankar Roy, The Economic History of India, 1857–1947, third edition (Oxford University Press, 2011). 

  2. 2

    I draw here on Tariq Omar Ali’s superb analysis of the jute industry, A Local History of Global Capital: Jute and Peasant Life in the Bengal Delta (Princeton University Press, 2018). 

  3. 3

    In 1999 there were still only around eight hundred ATMs in the whole country; just four years later there were 10,000. See “Here’s the Story of ATMs Over the Years,” The Economic Times, November 19, 2016. 

  4. 4

    Kushanava Chaudhury, The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta (Bloomsbury, 2018).  

  5. 5

    Sunil Amrith, Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants (Harvard University Press, 2013), p. 268. See also Arastoo Khan, “Bangladesh—The Most Climate Vulnerable Country,” World Bank Blog, November 21, 2013.