City, Shitty, Bang , Bang
Like Indrajit Hazra, I was born and bred in Kolkata. Unlike him, I was a bokhate chele (mildly put, a wayward boy) and have lived the city not through books, music, movies and cultured talks, but by lapping its seamy side up. So it was interesting to find in Grand Delusions, his short biography of Kolkata, several reference points that took me back to the skinny alleys of my boyhood past.
Like Chhaya cinema for example, ‘near the crossing of Vivekananda Road and the seemingly endless Acharya Prafulla Chandra Road’, a once-respectable movie theatre that now survives by showing South Indian smut dubbed in Hindi. It was in one such old hall showing ‘fresh skin’, where I, some twenty two years ago, discovered Silk Smitha on screen and my South Point School teacher at a far corner among ice cream vendors, autorickshaw drivers and an assortment of cat-whistlers gorging on the goings on in front of him. The grand delusion of the teacher being a father figure and more ended that day.
In his characteristic style that has sustained his Sunday column in a leading national daily for many years now, Hazra looks beyond the image of Kolkata as the culture capital by revisiting Chhaya cinema and walking through boi para or the famed ‘book neighbourhood of College Street that’s now merely a row of tin shacks selling Objective Chemistry, Objective Physics, Test Papers IIT/AIIJEE 2011 and other such samples of world literature to crowds of parents whose kids must be too delicate, too busy, too precious to come and line up to buy their own books’.
There was Ghatak of course, and Ray, and the hair splitting on whether he was a ‘bhadralok making English movies in Bengali’, and the new crop that has revived the Bengali film industry by merging art house with popular cinema giving Kolkata ‘a fuck-you quotient far removed from both the film-club heritage of Ray, Ghatak, Mrinal et al as well as the D-movie embarrassment that very few seem to be embarrassed about’.
Hazra is at his best when he is talking culture, and food, the other grand obsession of the city and its people. It is when he talks politics and traces the history of the city as well as its north-south divide that he falters.
And that is because a) Hazra is a North Kolkata boy and largely misses out on the South Kolkata story, and b) he too is a bhadralok, though he relates himself to writer Nabarun Bhattacharya’s Fyatarus, ‘a subaltern breed of ‘men-boys’ who sit about the neighbourhood rock... smoking, drinking tea from narrow glasses and commenting on everything and more.’
Bhattacharya’s Fyatarus are the underclass that Kolkata, its politics and its culture vultures have ignored down the ages. A people that have been betrayed by the very party, the CPI(M), that had once vouched to speak for them and have now reposed faith in Mamata Banerjee. Hazra is not one of them.
He writes at length on how Left politics drove industry away from the city and the state, the party’s ‘roughshod ways and its use of muscle ‘n’ moron power’ as also the mindset of the voters that is ‘remarkably conservative, being at times shockingly content at things that anywhere else would have been perceived as woefully inadequate and downright scandalous’.
But he misses out largely on how the CPI(M) cadre infiltrated every inch of cultural, social and even academic space in the city. How every school and college level appointment and promotion was decided by the party headquartered at Alimuddin Street. How the violence they unleashed time to time on political opponents (the Sain Bari murders are a case in point where an entire family of Congress supporters were hacked to death by party goons one of whom went to become a minister), critics and even religious sects (16 monks and a nun belonging to Ananda Marga were burnt to death in daylight at Bijon Setu, on 30 April, 1982) helped the party retain power for more than three decades even as most of Kolkata was content electing Bhadralok Marxists who could talk the cultured talk while pushing the state towards moral and financial bankruptcy.
Hazra also talks about the South as the envy of the older, decrepit North. ‘…the bulk of the move away from North Kolkata has been to the South – from houses to apartments, from joint families to nuclear ones, from rooftop views to balcony ones.’ What he fails to locate in this newer, swankier part of the city is the history of the great refugee influx from East Pakistan and subsequently Bangladesh to this side of the border, a homeless, hearth-less mass that made the southern fringes of the city home. Hazra fawns over Naxalbari, but forgets the great Marichjhanpi massacre, perhaps the bloodiest pogrom post Independence that took place some distance away from the city. Where 10,000 Bengali refugees from newly-formed Bangladesh were reportedly raped, maimed and killed by the police on the instruction of the Jyoti Basu government for trying to settle in an uninhabited Sunderban island. And how cultured Kolkata kept quiet because those men and women were lower castes. For all the glib talk on being a classless, casteless city, Kolkata is anything but.
I remember when I joined the team of edit writers in the first newspaper I worked for, my boss asked me to read Hazra to find out how style works wonders in shifting the focus of a genuine debate. Hazra is what they call a ‘talk-circuit liberal’ and at the end of this finely written book you cannot but ponder what could have been if some more research and understanding went into penning the Kolkata story.