Jun 2, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities

In Calcutta, the Indian Museum is my favourite colonial-era building. As a child, I would be fascinated by it, but not only because of the Egyptian sarcophagus or the Gandhara Buddhas in its collection. This grand European building – neoclassical layout, lofted arches, Ionic pillars, sparkling white walls and tall wooden doors and windows the colour of dark chocolate – not only dominated the landscape of the Chowringhee area, it also had a characteristic way of slipping and growing into view every time one approached it. This is what caught my fancy.

If you moved towards the Chowringhee – Park Street crossing from Dalhousie Square, the museum would glide into view from between the trees; it would then grow bigger and bigger (the view, better and better) as you came closer and closer. And because the road curved and curled in a certain fashion, this majestic specimen of colonial architecture would also twist and turn to keep up with you. This was my first brush with magic realism, long before Jorge Luis Borges happened to me. And each time I approached it thus, I felt I knew exactly why we Bengalis call the museum jadughar – literally, the House of Wonder.

Last month when I was in Calcutta, I happened to travel down that much travelled path toward the Indian Museum after many years. As my cab approached Chowringhee I looked out, hoping to see the building do what it had so many times during my years in that city.

I saw nothing. Actually, I saw a gigantic slab of concrete suspended in mid-air. A flyover had grown in between my museum and me.

This is the new Calcutta, one that has dropped magic realism for hard-nosed naturalism. The Communist city is busy telling the world it is reforming; progress has arrived here, cast in concrete and reinforced steel.

As the city reforms, its landscape – and its mindscape – are also being re-formed. For flyovers do more than just add that extra layer to a city’s roads. They alter a city quite fundamentally – the way it looks, the way it feels – and most crucially – the way those living and moving through, relate to it. For instance, generations of Calcuttans will now never experience the Indian Museum doing the shimmy when they come down towards Chowringhee. That visual, and decidedly spatial, experience is lost forever. It’s a relationship (between the city and its user) that could have been, but now will never be. Flyovers are building distances between the city and its people.

The most persuasive exemplar of Calcutta’s progress, however, is a mammoth flyover linking the city’s airport bypass road to one of the bridges across the Ganges. This elevated road, that straddles much of South Calcutta, also happens to pass by the first floor window of Seagull Books, a publishing house run by my friend Sue. Earlier, Sue would look out to a giant neem tree, whose shady branches – apart from strong, black, bitter coffee – helped calm her fraying nerves at the time of desperate deadlines. Nowadays, she relies only on coffee.

Her tree has been felled to make way for the flyover; looking out entails a strange visual communion with stranger commuters in varying stages of animated suspension. Flyovers are engendering new (and perhaps more dramatic) ways of seeing in the city.

I don’t hate flyovers. This lofty concept in urban planning has its uses, especially if you need a quick-fix solution to traffic congestion. But then, not all cities lend themselves to flyovers with effortless ease. Delhi thrives on flyovers, adding a new one every six months or so. Strangely enough, I never seem to mind those flyovers. In fact, I quite like the perspective I get of Humayun’s Tomb while travelling up (and down) the Mathura Road – Nizamuddin one to and from my workplace.

I have often wondered about this peculiar paradox of mine. Why do I loathe flyovers in one city and love them in another? I am now beginning to think it’s not about flyovers as much as it is about Calcutta and I.

Calcutta is my city of memory; the city of my memories – of a group of people and a clutch of places. Like me, most of these people have moved out of the city in search of pastures new. What have been left behind are hazy memories of random conversations in sunlit rooms and porticos; the scent of smoke-filled laughter among cafes and eateries. The places remain, etched in the map of my mind.

Every time I return, the city allows me the comfort of a familiarity that almost never breeds contempt. Calcutta, the physical city, for me is the joy of familiar expectation: of seeing the known, of knowing what one will see and how.

Flyovers do not have a place in that cognitive map of mine. They may be helping Calcuttans drive that bit faster but for me they hinder the unfurling of the remembrance of times past. They disrupt the way I have grown to see and know my city unfold before me. The new flyovers sprouting in Calcutta violate my known ways of seeing the city and therefore my relationship with it. Perhaps I am being selfish, but then I cannot help my desire to cling on to my city of memory; the city of my imagination.

In Delhi I began life as an outsider, mostly in the company of other outsiders. This accorded me the luxury of detached observation. So the city which I thought an overgrown village at first, I now acknowledge mine. And I have grown to love it: its brashness, the rude and abusive residents, the cafes, bars and bookstores, and above all its ability to coexist in history and in the present with an inimitable ease.

But Delhi does not come with this (sometimes oppressive) baggage of nostalgia that I feel for Calcutta. Delhi for me is a city of new beginnings, a city that I am only now beginning to see. The flyovers of this city are little more than the warts and pimples on an acquaintance, an acquaintance who has all the makings of becoming a good friend.

Images: (c) Bibek Bhattacharya - All Rights Reserved