One may ask what is it in Kolkata that we hold so close to our heart that cannot be replicated in other cities? Is it the cultural values that define the unique identity of the city or is it the colonial legacy it carries in its historical past (which to some extent still pervades the city) or is it just the character that the city bestows on all its inhabitants amidst seemingly insurmountable economic, social, and political problems? I have often questioned myself why is it that I love Kolkata even though the city refuses to look ahead? Compare it to other ambitious cities where swanky cars, plastic money and branded clothes reign supreme and then the character of Kolkata emerges strong. Why, because it is only in Kolkata do you find a man (the famous Bengali bhadrolok ) not hesitating to offer his seat to a lady in a bus, or a man willing to assume full responsibility of any woman on the street if she refers to him as “dada” for help, or even the fact that the masses rule the city and would collectively never tolerate any injustice shown towards anybody.
I recently read a book called The Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. The novel revolves around four characters, who keep meeting new challenges and problems in living their life as commoners. The plot dwindles between momentary phases of happiness and long pervasive situations of hardships and yet there’s an undercurrent of undying hope in the strength and sacrifice that the characters show in the other’s moment of distress. The author has left the city anonymous, sufficing to say that it’s “a city by the sea”. And throughout the novel it seemed to me that the story would be most befitting to the nature of Calcuttans, the problems that they face and the spirit with which they confront their problems. Since humanity comes so easily to the people, it isn’t any wonder why Mother Teresa felt so much at home in this city. The city’s energy, penetrates even to the meanest of slums, as a large number of Calcuttans sincerely support the efforts of those who minister to the poor and suffering.
As a student of social sciences, I have always thought that Economic Development leads to more social well being in the sense that sharing the economic pie wouldn’t be a zero-sum game if there was enough for everybody. (Probably, that is why Americans are not so corrupt as Indians.) By this token, cash strapped Calcuttans should be the most corrupt people in India. Strangely enough, you would find more honesty amidst all that poverty than anywhere else in the country. It is incredible how Calcuttans seem to be so happy living within their meager means. There is certainly much more to this place than huge corporate or MNC profits.
In short, Calcutta remains an enigma to many Indians as well as to foreigners. It continues to puzzle newcomers and to arouse an abiding nostalgia in the minds of those who have lived there.