I arrived in Dubai after midnight on 22 April, nervous about missing my connecting flight. Passing through security for the second time in nine hours, rehearsing the whole belt-discarding, shoe-and-wallet-jettisoning routine with a bunch of Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Europeans, I plunged into the capitalist wakefulness that is Dubai airport. I was on my way to Calcutta from London. Assembly elections were taking place in India – they have been taking place, phase by phase, since the beginning of April – and there would be new governments in at least some states. In most states there is a shift in control every five or ten years; the non-ideological alliances of compromise and mutual opportunity have proved, since the 1990s, to be surprisingly resilient. In West Bengal, though, there has been no alteration for 34 years; the electorate, steadfast at first, then increasingly hapless, has voted the Left Front coalition into power seven times. But, in the 2009 general elections, the Front, unprecedentedly, incurred heavy losses. The volatile opposition leader Mamata Banerjee’s great vision for Bengal – the vision of decisively booting the Left Front out – suddenly seemed not just a possibility, but the most likely outcome.
The London to Dubai flight had been uncomfortably full. Next to me was an Asian couple of Muslim origin (I could tell by the names with which they fondly addressed each other, and the repeated use of ‘inshallah’ in their London English), but predominantly British in identity, excited at the prospect of India, where they’d never been, and their imminent holiday in Kerala. The woman watched Hindi films (I had a sense she’d seen most of them before) and, when she was bored, consulted her copy of Hello!. She was surprised at how slim Kate Middleton was. I eavesdropped, read, watched a film, slept a little.
The Dubai to Calcutta flight, on a smaller aircraft, was three-quarters full. My neighbour was a 28-year-old man who worked in Leeds for Tata Consultancy Services, which was doing cheap software programming for the British government. He’d caught a flight from Manchester, reached Dubai half an hour late at 1 a.m., worried about making it to this plane, and now leaned back. Adults, like children, forget with remarkable ease, and live gratefully for the most part in the present. This, at least, is how people who have anything to do with Bengal approach existence. The man’s father had had a second stroke at the age of 64, and he was on his way to visit him for ten days: he’d be taking a train from Calcutta to Kalyani, the small town where his parents lived, on the day, 23 April, when Kalyani would vote. ‘What do you think will happen?’ I asked him. ‘There seems little doubt that there will be a paribartan,’ he said, giggling because he was repeating the word – meaning ‘change’ – that had been put into currency by Banerjee’s party, the Trinamool Congress.
The man not only represented the Bengal of the last three decades, he was it. Intelligence, capability and marginality marked him equally – the moderate privileges he’d grown up with in Kalyani, and the most he’d made of them. The Left Front government abolished the teaching of English in state-funded primary schools in 1983, seeing it as an impediment to, rather than an opportunity for, the disadvantaged. It formally reversed that decision in 2010, well after the experiment had been judged a failure. Its legacy was audible in my neighbour’s inflected English, which we continued to use until we gave up the pretence of being pan-Indian individuals, and confessed to each other that we were Bengali. We talked about Calcutta, how it made flying hard work. Part amateur anthropologist, part yokel, I told him stories of flights out of Bombay and Delhi, that two British Airways planes depart each day from both cities, not to mention competitors like Jet Airways, Virgin and Air India, and yet the flights to London are always full, the business-class section not only chock a block with the Indian rich and their children, but with their children’s nannies. Before we landed into the palm and plantain trees, low houses and ponds that constitute the outskirts of the city, I said, fogeyishly, to my new friend: ‘Where, after all, was Dubai 50 years ago, or for that matter Hong Kong, Delhi or Bombay? Calcutta was India’s premier city, and one of the world’s greatest.’ I think we both felt a quickening on viewing the familiar scene from above in the morning light. Partly it was to do with the return to family; partly, at least for me, it was the memory of some inexplicable source of excitement in the city itself.
Growing up in Bombay, I used to feel a charge of anticipation on visiting Calcutta as a child. This had little to do with actually knowing anything about the transformation in the 19th century that had made the city what it was: a completely contemporary thing. The Bengalis had no recognisable grand history, in the way the Rajasthanis or Biharis did. ‘Even the Oriyas have a history,’ said Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, the first major Bengali novelist, scathingly: Bengalis had to make their own history; they did it in their houses and rented rooms, and in neighbourhoods connected to each other by stifling alleys. This is what I must have had an intuition of, even as a child. And this is why I feel, even now, that the most revealing places in Calcutta are not the museums or the monuments (there aren’t many of those), but the houses and lanes. ‘I like this city,’ the novelist Akhil Sharma told me on his second trip. ‘You feel that something happened here.’