Laid-back and vibrant, complacent and ambitious, politically charged but curiously indifferent, this is a city that contradicts itself at every turn of its famously winding alleys. A day in the life of Kolkata is India in all its colors, sound, chaos, and creativity—just one of the many reasons why a trip to the city is so essential.
Kolkata has been home to three Nobel Laureates—the
authors and intellectuals Rabindranath Tagore and Amartya Sen, and Mother Teresa—as well as the world-famous director Satyajit Ray, and many other notable authors, filmmakers, musicians, actors, scientists, reformers, freedom fighters, and famous athletes. In its three centuries of existence, it has been a jewel in the crown of the British Empire, a muse for many artists, the heart of India’s freedom movement, and a symbol of everything that was wrong with colonialism and politics of divisiveness. It is a home of the homeless, who sleep on the pavements at night, and some of India’s richest, living in restored heritage mansions and condos in skyscrapers. Although the name was officially changed from Calcutta to Kolkata in 2001, both names are used more or less interchangeably.
In 1690, Job Charnock, an agent for the British East India Company, leased the villages of Sutanati, Gobindpur, and Kalikutta and formed a trading post to supply his firm. Legend has it that Charnock had won the hearts of Bengalis when he married a local widow, thus saving her from suttee (the custom that called for a widow to throw herself on her husband's funeral pyre). (Recent research has suggested that the story of Charnock founding Calcutta is more lore than fact, and that the city existed in some form before the British East India Company agent arrived here in 1690.) Through Charnock's venture, the British gained a foothold in what had been the Sultanate of Delhi under the Moghuls, and the directors of the East India Company became Indian zamindars (landowners) for the first time. It was here, as traders and landowners, that British entrepreneurs and adventurers began what would amount to the conquest of India and the establishment of the British Raj. More than any other city in India, including New Delhi, Kolkata is tied to the evolution and the British presence. Having embraced 19th-century European humanism, such Bengalis as the poet Rabindranath Tagore and others revived their indigenous culture and made the first organized efforts to oust the British. Emotions here ran high early on, and agitation in Bengal broke away from what would later be called Gandhian politics to choose terrorism—one reason the British moved their capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911.
Bengalis take serious pride in their intellectual and artistic legacy. Do not be mislead by their calm demeanor—many Bengalis love to debate, and the topic may sometimes seem irrelevant. As a people, they love their rituals and tradition, despite the fact that they have also become stubborn iconoclasts and anarchists. They love their food, soccer (they are zealous fans of Brazil and Argentina), films, politics (political graffiti and political posters are all over the city), music, and books. Some of the country’s finest singers and musicians are from here, including the classical musicians Rashid Khan and Ajoy Chakraborty (classical musicians); Bickram Ghosh (classical and fusion); and Arijit Singh, who has sung on many a Bollywood soundtrack. In recent times the city has contributed to the talent pool of Bollywood singers and musicians, with many artists moving to Mumbai and in some cases winning reality shows.
Calcutta remained cosmopolitan and prosperous throughout the British period. But after Independence and Partition, in 1947, trouble began when the world's center of jute processing and distribution (Calcutta) was politically separated from its actual production center (the eastern Bengali hinterland). For Calcutta and the new East Pakistan, Partition was equivalent to separating the fingers of an industry from the thumb. Natural disasters—commonly cyclones and droughts, but also, as in 1937, earthquakes—had long sent millions from East Bengal (which later became East Pakistan) to Calcutta in search of shelter and sustenance; after Partition, a wave of 4 million political refugees from East Pakistan compounded and complicated the pressure. Conflict with China and Pakistan created millions more throughout the 1960s, and Pakistan's 1971 military crackdown alone sent 10 million temporary refugees into the city from what would soon become Bangladesh. By the mid-1970s, Calcutta was widely seen as the ultimate urban disaster. Riddled with disease and squalor, plagued by garbage and decay, the former heart of the British Raj, the "Paris of Asia," had quickly and dramatically collapsed.
However, the city kept on growing, and these days, greater Kolkata's entire metropolitan district covers more than 426 square km (264 square miles) and has more than 12 million people.It now has two municipal corporation areas (Kolkata and the near suburb of Howrah), 32 municipalities, 62 nonmunicipal urban centers, and more than 500 villages.
The tenure of the Marxist government in Bengal, which lasted for more than 30 years, from 1977 to 2011, pushed the state to the margins of contemporary India’s power and economic structure. Many of its people had resigned themselves to being treated as second-class citizens, wistfully and passionately holding on to the city’s glorious past. The government did try to infuse some life into the state’s economy by inviting big-scale and IT industries to the state. But it also suffered serious backlashes in the form of violent clashes with the farmers, whose land the government had acquired for new industrial hubs. The change of regime to that of the All India Trinamool Congress, marked by the election of Mamata Banerjee to the position of Chief Minister of West Bengal in 2011, has brought a certain vigor and enthusiasm to the city. Buildings have received fresh coats of paint, and malls, IT hubs, restaurants, and small businesses seem invigorated. After a few unpardonable instances of violence against women, policing has been stepped up in certain areas, and the government is keen to put its best face forward.
Traffic policing may even be better than Mumbai and Delhi (motorists actually stop where they are supposed to at most signals) and police officers are able to fine errant motorists on the spot. Traffic signals in town play the music of Tagore, and some effort has been made to beautify the city, with varying results. In fact, some recent travelers have observed that in some ways Kolkata is cleaner, prettier, and less shabby than Mumbai, despite still being often used as the ultimate symbol of human strife. History may not always have been kind to the city, but Kolkata remains warm, rooted, thoughtful, and remarkably earnest.