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Rise and Fall

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Three judges (including myself) – gathered together in May this year at a posh Edwardian hotel on Bloomsbury Street to argue over a book prize – would emerge at different times to stroll about the area. All of us had glanced at our neighbour, the Socialist Bookshop, but Jane Smiley, the tallest (in every sense) among us, had noticed an air of quiet celebration in its window-displays. The effects of the crash were still reverberating in the Western world (though India had recovered more quickly than expected); and a new complex of emotions seemed to have surfaced in the bourgeois of almost every political persuasion – a mix of panic; rage; a strange, sweet schadenfreude; a nostalgia for erstwhile simplicity; a sudden premonition of the inevitable.

In Calcutta, however (where I’ve been spending most of each year since the turn of the century), socialism had never gone away. Hemmed in on every side by an onward-marching, post-liberalisation capitalism, compromised by its own exhaustion and self-doubt, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was, nevertheless, still in power in the state of West Bengal after more than thirty years. It was, in fact, trying madly to attract investment. And the bludgeoning way it went about doing this – snatching land from the peasantry it had once ‘redistributed’ it to, giving it to Tata for his ‘small car’ factory – finally alienated its long-suffering, tolerant electorate. Just when people in the West have begun to luxuriantly fiddle with the notion of bringing back some form of socialism to their economies and lives (see the latest issue of N+1), the people of West Bengal seem finally to have made their mind up (on the evidence of several by-elections in the past few months) that they’ve had enough of socialism.

This is not the only way in which Bengal and Calcutta have made it a point to be out of tune with the rest of the world. While the other big cities in India have been increasingly inlaid with the textures of globalisation, Calcutta resists, even while being transformed by them inescapably. New shopping malls appear near the wetlands every few months; but, while Bombay and Delhi have several flights to London every day, Calcutta has not one direct flight out to Heathrow. And that’s why, of late, I have been passing through Dubai.

In Nehruvian India, with its envious foreign-exchange regulations, its life of parsimony and high thinking, Dubai was famous for its airport and duty-free shopping. J.G. Ballard, reflecting on Heathrow, said that surely cities in the future would be suburbs of airports, rather than airports inhabiting the suburbs of cities. Dubai, at least from the aerial vantage-point of a cabin window, appears to have been planned on this principle well before Ballard arrived at his formulation. Among Western travellers, there is a noticeable intake of breath, an air of arrested wonder, as the plane descends into the city and then the airport itself.

Two months ago, before the so-called (and oft-denied) crash in Dubai’s economy, I saw, rushing to catch a connecting flight, Western tourists gaping at, even photographing, the immense granite walls in the airport, with perfectly measured sheets of water cascading down them. I was reminded briefly of a Bengali proverb descended from colonial modernity: ‘To show a Bangal the High Court’. ‘Bangal’, in Bengali, means, strictly speaking, ‘East Bengali’ (someone from the region that’s now Bangladesh). But, just as north and south, east and west, have country-specific, often prejudicial connotations in, say, the US or in England, so too, in Bengal, ‘Bangal’ denoted a villager, or the opposite of a sophisticate. Calcutta was in West Bengal, and the East, for historical reasons, was seen to be agrarian, feudal, and less developed in ideas and institutions; notwithstanding the fact that a great deal of Bengali ‘high’ modernism was the work of East Bengali migrants.

To take a ‘Bangal’ to see the High Court, then, was to confront the oaf with modernity and power. While watching Western tourists at Dubai airport, I reflected on how many Europeans remain ‘Bangals’ at heart. Development generates its own simple but profound enchantment. I, on the other hand (and this too is an oafish anomaly), look out for old buildings and doors when I find myself in new cities. In Fribourg in Switzerland, I found versions of the specked mosaic floors we have in middle-class apartments in India; in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels there were red stone floors identical to those in my uncle’s (now destroyed) house in South Calcutta; in Cheltenham, noticing balconies, I couldn’t decide whether some memory of light among retired colonials had led to these (for England) unique additions, or whether the balconies themselves produced a special effect of light in Cheltenham. In turn, I’m surprised that more people who visit India – or Dubai, for that matter – don’t chance upon buildings, cornices, and windows that stir some buried, unlooked-for memory that tells them more about themselves and their histories than their guide books (which are about famous monuments) can. Dan Jacobson once told me that this was a habit of looking that migrants have: as we stopped to stare at an astonishing old bench on Hampstead Heath, he observed resignedly: ‘The locals don’t see this.’ In a few days, on my way back to Calcutta, I will be flying through Dubai. I can’t think that it will be any different from how I now imagine it.

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