The New Calcutta

The international merchants raised Calcutta from the mud of the Ganges; the British nurtured, shaped, and christened it. The “Black Hole,” site of some brutal treatment of British military hostages which made the city infamous, has become virtually its synonym. Last year Newsweek called it the “City of Death.”

British edifices give the city its backbone, from Dalhousie Square, an imposing complex housing all of Bengal’s bureaucrats, to the Victoria Memorial, a squat museum people say was meant to be a nineteenthcentury Taj Mahal. Calcutta’s railroad connection with the rest of the country arrives at Howrah Station, a vast, gloomy, cobwebbed Crystal Palace.

The hub and night life arc still mostly foreign. Luxury-seekers congregate on a two-block strip of Park Street and spend their money at Trinca’s, the Peiping, the Bar-B-Q, or Kwality Restaurant — “nightclubs” which close at 1 A.M. and where painfully adolescent imitation Beatles play out-of-date Western music. A Polish mother-and-daughter team in Mexican costumes striptease at the Moulin Rouge. Rickshaw-pullers offer their customers “English girls?” as a matter of course.

The times change. The old euphony of street names, Harrison, Lansdowne, Bow, Braeburne, Wellesley, gives way to a new one: Gandhi, Sarat Bose, Bepin Bihar Ganguly, Gariahat, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai. But taxi drivers still respond more quickly to “Central Avenue” than to “Chittaronjon,” and no two stores agree on the spelling of “Dharamtola” in English.

The Grand Hotel, prohibitively expensive at $10 and up a night, does a good business with American expense-account journalists, jet setters come to Calcutta for the maharajas’ Christmas polo match, Indian businessmen, and movie stars. Around the corner, though, in the smaller, more modest European hotels, the ghost of the old days hangs heavily from the rafters. Dining rooms stand empty, their rows of straightbacked chairs the only thing left of imperial consultations and card games. An Armenian hotelkeeper, who long ago lost all reason for going home, corners his few guests one by one to tell them in a low, tired voice that India has gone to hell since independence.

At the YMCA and Salvation Army the silent missionaries gather, with their pale, pale skin and pastel clothes, eating their mild English breakfasts of porridge, toast, and tea, and revealing in their eyes and shoulders the hopeless, spiritual invincibility that is their reward for decades spent in leper colonies and rural schools.

A new Calcutta is rising beside the dusty corpse of the old, an Indian Calcutta that was always there but never before conscious of itself. For more than a century British gentlemen ruled from the governor’s palace; now a Bengali lady presides there. The native upper class has taken up convivial socializing in the formerly all-Western country clubs. The middle classes have deified the Bengali poet and musician Rabindranath Tagore: they fill their homes with his books and recordings, send their children to his university, Shantihniketan, and crowd the month-long annual Bengali Cultural Festival, where Tagore becomes their Chaucer and Shakespeare in the open air. Communism and modern poetry, in their distinctly Calcuttan incarnations, invigorate the lower and lower-middle classes.

Bengali culture

Calcutta is Paris and Jerusalem to the Bengalis, the soul of a culture divided into two geographic entities. East and West Bengalis feel more loyalty to each other than to their respective countries, Pakistan and India. Nearly every Calcuttan has immediate family across the border.

Bengalis think of themselves as literary and intellectual. They say their language is the most mellifluous and refined in all India; for evidence they point out that the national anthem is in Bengali, though more people speak Hindi. The culture produced India’s most famous nineteenth-century poet, Tagore, its best twentieth-century film-maker, Satyajit Ray, and perhaps the two most important modern Hindu mystics, Ramakrishna and his pupil Vivekenanda. Bengal’s Sarojini Naidu, late poet and stateswoman, was known as the “nightingale of India,” and her daughter Padmaja now serves as governor of the state. Bengalis are plentiful among yogis and other holy men, and also among the Indians who are studying medicine and engineering abroad.

Other Indian nationalities do not question the Bengali claim to spiritual prowess, but they tend to devalue it insofar as it differs from their own communal stereotypes. Punjabis, for instance, priding themselves on health, strength, industriousness, and military skills, acknowledge the mental gifts of the Bengalis, but scorn them as “soft” and “cowardly.” Punjabis are in turn dismissed by the Bengalis as “big and stupid.”

Bengalis think of themselves as emotional, sensitive, argumentative, and dramatic, and feel that they resemble Italians more than any other European nationals.

Compared with the Hindi movies made in Bombay, the Calcutta-made Bengali films have a Zolaesque, melodramatic realism. Instead of postulating economic security and dealing with the theme of marriage, Bengali films frequently treat the theme of suffering, either as inherent to the human condition or as a product of a socioeconomic system. Hindi films have happy, musical endings; Bengali films have sad, thoughtful ones.

Bengalis fill out all the middle social strata from upper-lower class to lower-upper. Above them are foreigners and non-Bengali maharajas with a palace in every city. Below them are Hindi-speaking people, attracted to the metropolis from all the surrounding rural areas. With few skills, this lower class aspires to jobs in Calcutta’s factories, such as the Dum Dum Munitions Plant, but more often they work as sellers of betel nuts, domestic or municipal servants, and rickshaw-pullers. With home and family in the distant states of Orissa and Assam, thousands of men sleep on a patch of sidewalk they have appropriated, some on string cots but many just on blankets.

Begging a way of life

Below the lowest class there is still another group, with no nationality: the beggars. A great part of this immense, uncounted army is blind, deformed, or diseased, beings driven out by their families and communities as bearers of a curse. They beg with a macabre vehemence, appealing directly to the shudders of horror and guilt their bodies evoke among the healthy. In this surreal world, where one involuntarily counts the fingers of every beggar, the line is not always easy to draw between healthy and sick. Old men and women sit dejectedly in corners wailing “Son! Daughter!” Young mothers push their babies into the faces of the passersby and whisper eerily, “He is hungry.” Children caked in filth and wearing only shreds of clothing whine “Ma! Ma!” or “Daddy! Daddy!” in an agonizing, teary singsong for hours, pursuing their benefactors through the streets, pulling at their jackets, knowing that they will be given money to go away. Other children, however, run around their “beat” friskily, laughing and appealing for money with flirtatious looks, or singing.

Leftists contend that entrepreneurs manage these beggars, assign them locations, and pocket a large cut of their take; that greedy parents maim their own children, cutting off a hand or an arm, twisting a foot, because they will earn more at beggary that way. Conservative Indians de-emphasize the problem, saying either that beggars have existed all through history and the rich have always given them alms as a religious duty, or that beggary, a character defect, must not be encouraged with handouts, or that they envy the men sleeping in the streets because it is so hot inside. A foreigner who takes a snapshot of a beggar profoundly offends all Indians. They agree to a man that beggars are private dirty linen.

Compared with the poverty of an American city, Calcutta’s poverty seems extraordinarily peaceful. Huge shipments of bread can stand unguarded outdoors in the street all night, and no one thinks to steal any. Calcutta policemen swear that there is no murder and no rape. Narcotics are legal, and so cause no criminal problems. (The closest thing to prohibition and criminal black-marketeering in Calcutta developed last year when a popular Bengali candy was banned by the government to economize on milk.) Faces on the commuter trains are sleepy or blankly resigned; the commuters give coins automatically to singing beggars making their rounds; a New-YorkCity-type subway murder would be unthinkable. After midnight the huge city goes to sleep; five million men and women are afraid of the dark — which becomes, in consequence, perfectly safe.

The lure of Communism

Communism has more hold in Calcutta than anywhere in India outside the state of Kerala. The prestigious Calcutta universities graduate large numbers of pro-Russian and pro-Chinese radicals. This intelligentsia, eloquent and vociferous because it is Bengali, engages in complicated ideological disputes in the pages of newspapers and writes political poetry and drama. Placards all over town attack India’s collusion with the United States and urge the nationalization of India’s basic industries.

In practice, the Communists have as many planks as there are problems in Calcutta. In India generally, but particularly in Bengal, college graduates far outnumber the available white-collar jobs. (A joke tells of a graduate in Bengali literature who is reduced to taking employment as the monkey in the Calcutta zoo — one day he falls into the tiger’s cage and waits to be devoured, until he discovers that the tiger is also a graduate in Bengali literature.) Hence the enormous Bengali civil service is filled with educated men who hate their busy-work occupations, their outrageously low salaries, and their uncomfortable lives. The discontent of this intellectual proletariat makes Calcutta volatile — agitators stage wage strikes, parades, boycotts, and riots, and are sent to jail. For these men the Party offers dignity. For the slum-dweller and rickshaw-puller, the Party offers a comforting ear into which they can lament their miserable housing and sanitation. For the peasant and villager the Party offers the whispered rumor that American wheat is poisoned, that it makes you sterile, that it won’t make good chapatties.

Poetry in Calcutta

When Allen Ginsberg came to India four years ago, he spent nearly all his time in Calcutta and made friends with some poets recently out of college. He bolstered an incipient, antiestablishment literary movement, the Hangries — “hungry and angry” — who were demanding economic, sexual, and aesthetic freedom from the old order. They published works widely condemned as “obscene,” and threatened to hold a nude parade. Most were politically leftist or anarchic. Hangries met in Coffee House, across the street from Presidency College, a big, ascetic, room looking like an empty gymnasium.

Now Ginsberg is a memory, and public fury has died down. West Bengal fined the last Hangry revolutionary a token sum after a protracted suit. But poetry in Calcutta continues at a fever pitch, and the literary scene in that city is doubtless the most active in the world. According to several Bengali intellectuals, approximately five hundred poetry magazines are being published in Calcutta. As one fades away, another appears in its place. Last year an important group of poets, former Hangries or friends of Ginsberg’s, began a daily poetry magazine as a publicity stunt; for a short time during the spring cultural festival, they published hourly.

Although he is neither obscene nor Communistic, Tarapada Ray is one of the leading young Calcutta poets. He writes about the emotions, love, nature, and Calcutta; nearly every poem contains a trace of gentle humor.

Ginsberg nicknamed Tarapada “Torpedo” because of the way he talks. He is ferociously, demonically alive, almost munching on the cigarette clenched in his fist, spewing forth ideas, running his torchlike, wild black eyes over everything around him. He recites his own and his friends’ poetry by heart in an oceanic bass voice that rolls devastatingly over the round Bengali syllables. Then he switches into English, with apologies, to do an impromptu translation for the Americans, exquisite in its awkward syntax. And grinning, he exuberantly launches again into a machinegun conversation. Sometimes his words spill out so fast that he can only stutter gibberish for a moment until he regains control. Tarapada supports an insane brother, but jokes about madness.

When Tarapada says or hears something funny, he slaps himself, rolls over, flings his head around till he gets a glimpse of the enigmatically smiling, hedonistic god Krishna on his wall. Tarapada’s home is poor: two small rooms and an outdoor latrine for himself, wife, and baby in a crowded part of town. He has few clothes, and cats almost nothing but rice with a bit of fish or vegetables. He has few nonessential items around his apartment, except for a collection of books and a sprawl of newspapers in Bengali and English, a calendar, a huge map of Bengal, and the portrait of Krishna.

Tarapada’s two-year-old son is named Kritibash after Tarapada’s pet poetry magazine. His wife was selected for him by his parents, a traditionalism that marks him as a conservative among his friends, all of whom are either bachelors or married to love choices. But he and his wife arc so gay together that they are often mistaken for lovers. He boasts of her singing talent, though he is tone-deaf, and she doles on his poetry. Gloating at his own heresy, Tarapada sleeps till nearly noon every day, and stays up talking and joking with friends nearly all night. He knows the only two tea stalls in Calcutta that can be persuaded to remain open after twelve.

The office clown

The poet holds down a steady job in a government office in Dalhousie Square, earning about $60 a month. Generally he arrives at work in the middle of the afternoon, finishes his business in a well-spent hour or two, and breezes out again. In the summer he works shirtless, and otherwise earns for himself the reputation of office clown. He hasn’t told his co-workers that he’s a poet, he says, out of fear that they will make him write ceremonial poems.

His office is a mammoth, grim structure housing over ten thousand government employees, the major concern of whom these days is to translate all the old documents from English into Bengali. Tarapada’s department keeps records of payments to landlords for land nationalized at independence. Hundreds of clerks sit on high stools along long tables in one great room; before them are amassed heaps of thick, Dickensian ledgers with colored swirls on the page ends; everything appears to be handwritten. The papers are in stunning disarray, but no one seems to be doing anything. Occasionally someone scrawls a note in a file explaining why a previous memo was lost. Tarapada estimates that the work of this office might easily be accomplished by one sixth as many people.

A respectable beatnik

Though Tarapada seems a beatnik to the Calcutta bourgeoisie, he is a force for respectability among his poet companions. Alcoholic colleagues sometimes arrive drunk at his house in the middle of the night; he pays for their taxi and lets them stay till they can go home. Once a number of them took LSD and suffered a long night of violent convulsions; Tarapada thought they were dying, but kept his sober vigil as best he could. He does not participate, but neither does he condemn them for their behavior.

The gatherings of the young poets are always gay. As one pastime, they read aloud the headlines in an English newspaper, adding “by a staff reporter” to every dire deed. They relish the memory of Ginsberg’s visit, recalling the time he made fun of a pompous Bengali artist by using the man’s original script as a table napkin. Tarapada relates his dreams: in one, he is trying to knock down the Taj Mahal with a hammer, but he comes across a man who says “No use. I’ve been trying to do it myself for twenty-five years.” They appreciate the esteemed Rabindranath Tagore only in a Camp fashion. They dismiss Gandhi as “unhealthy.”

When war broke out with Pakistan last year, Tarapada was more of a pacifist than a patriot. A Hindu, he has no anti-Muslim feelings whatsoever. The only way he could communicate with the half of his family on the other side of the national boundary was to write to them through a friend in America, a Muslim. He sympathized with the American boys who did not want to fight in Vietnam; he only asked why they didn’t, instead of burning their draft cards, cut off their firing thumbs?

A Brahman, like many of the poets, Tarapada nevertheless does not worship in any formal way; nor does he wear the rigidly prescribed “sacred thread.” Yet at thirty-two, he will not smoke in front of his elders. If he were to come into a large sum of money suddenly, he hypothesizes, he would give a third to support his parents forever, a third to support his wife forever, and make the rest into a prize for the best young poet each year. After that, he says, he might kill himself, for he lives only for his responsibilities. “There is no such thing as happiness,” Tarapada says, in a rare moment in which he is not grinning; “It is not possible.”

Tarapada loves Bengal (he has never traveled outside his state) and Calcutta with a violent, defiant pride. In the evening he often strolls through the streets of his quarter, Kalighat, the oldest, dirtiest, most religious part of town. He stops at a tea stall down the street for some foamy tea, yogurt, a soft cookie that blissfully combines the virtues of coconut and cheesecake; he and his friends drink from red-clay cups and then smash them on the floor. He is most at home here, the smells of darkening Calcutta around him, expounding a theory or reciting a poem over the rough wooden table of the tea stall.

The Kalighat merchants light up their wares with lanterns: an orange cloth with a thousand names of god written on it, two-inch statues of Ganesh, the elephant god, red and white bangles for women’s wrists, long sticks of dizzily sweet, endlessly burning incense, bits of glass cut to look like jewels, enormous flower wreaths of yellow, orange, and white to honor a god or a parent. One man sells guaranteed magical aphrodisiacs: deer testicles, powdered musk, oily stones, green and black substances to mix with milk and nutmeg and drink during thirty nights of abstinence.

The burning grounds are not far, just past the modern square crematorium. Walking to the burning ghat, Tarapada catches sight of the bonfires under the night sky: twelve? thirteen? The number seems to change from moment to moment. The stray dogs of the city have gathered, barking and howling at the melting corpses. A family of mourners poses for a photograph with their charge just before he is laid on the wood. The employees of the burning ghat walk about blankfaced, stoking up a fire, building now a new one, small for a child, carrying a body through the required religious rituals. The smell of burning flesh rises in the air.

Faye Levine