|URBAN MAKEOVER: Street barbers in the Kalighat neighborhood of Kolkata|
Sealdah was my own private, childhood nightmare,” Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri told me, referring to the railway station that in the late 1940s, after the partition of India, housed thousands of Hindu refugees from Muslim East Bengal, who had arrived in Calcutta destitute, with nowhere to go. Even today, because it’s the terminus for trains arriving from India’s under-developed northeast, Sealdah remains unnerving, with its armies of people disgorged onto the platforms, fanning out amidst the other armies squatting with their suitcases on the station floor.
“But you know what?” the gray-haired English professor said. “Most of those people, with little or no help from the government, settled themselves somewhere. They didn’t just die or go begging.” The process continues today. The Calcutta street, Chaudhuri and others explained, is less a dead end than a way station, just as shantytowns are in Turkey. But since India is so much poorer than Turkey, the way station is that much harsher. “If you come back each decade,” notes Chaudhuri, “the poverty looks the same, so you think nothing has changed. But the individuals on the street are different. They come from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, and Bangladesh, with no place to live, because on the streets you can earn something, save something, and move on.” Opportunity, as much as poverty, creates slums. Indeed, if there is a trend in Calcutta’s slums, it is the fitful transition—gentrification, in its own way—from kutcha (mud) and jhupri (burlap and cardboard) temporary housing to the more-permanent pucca housing, made of cement and corrugated iron. Whole areas are changing their appearance, as Calcutta begins to look less like some subcontinental Dickensian nightmare and more like any other dynamic city with great disparities of wealth.
To a degree, Calcutta has always been like this: too often, our Western fixation on the visual brutality of its poverty has obscured its harsh, unsentimental upward mobility. In his novel Those Days (1981), a detailed, Proustian study of 19th-century Calcutta, Sunil Gangopadhyay writes:
Houses, big, small and medium had mushroomed everywhere to accommodate the new generation of working babus, freshly migrated from villages. Weavers, barbers, washermen and oil crushers followed in their wake to minister to their needs. The Permanent Settlement had robbed many poor peasants of their land, not only in Bengal but in Orissa, Bihar and even distant Uttar Pradesh. These landless labourers flocked to the city’s environs in thousands, ready to pick up any kind of menial work.