People who come here for the first time often say that this is what hell must be like. Calcutta is a city in cardiac arrest. More than 150,000 people live, die and procreate in the streets. Millions more are crammed into mud huts and tarpaper shacks. Even the state government tourist guidebook observes that "Calcutta appears to lie helpless, like a prostrate, disembowelled Gulliver."
During the monsoon, men wade barefoot with their rickshaws through knee-deep, fetid water. Pigs root through reeking garbage near the city's most expensive hotel. Power failures are massive and routine. On one morning this summer, four young boys arrived at a crematorium with their dead grandmother, her neck draped with garlands of flowers and her face peaceful against the tumult of the city, only to be told to wait with the body in the street because the electricity was off.
Some months back, Rajiv Gandhi casually referred to Calcutta as "a dying city," provoking an uproar and an angry demand for a retraction from the communist-led city government. But people have been denigrating Calcutta for years. More than a century ago, Rudyard Kipling had already called it "the city of dreadful night."
And yet, Calcutta today remains India's thriving center of culture and thought, the nation's largest and most alive city, proud to have been the breeding ground for three Nobel laureates. It has one of the world's largest concentrations of poets, artists, film- makers, novelists, actors and thinkers. Very few actually create for a living, but meet an accountant and he'll tell you he's a writer, or get to know a surgeon and he'll soon invite you to his latest play.
Once the capital of all of British India and now of the state of West Bengal, Calcutta is dominated by the Bengalis -- creative, passionate, deeply intellectual, sensitive, a stereotype that is in many ways true.
This is the city that has produced Satyajit Ray, India's premier maker of art films, who says that his work "has been possible only because I have lived here, and have loved Calcutta." The city is also home to Moni Sankar Mukherjee, one of India's most successful novelists, who says that it has been such rich material for his work that "minus Calcutta, I'm nobody." Bikash Bhattacharya, an important young artist whose paintings of the city are haunting in their satire and desperation, says simply, "Calcutta is my mother."
To a newcomer, Calcutta is a numbing shock. "How could this have happened?" is often the first question. Then the guilt sets in. Strolling through Calcutta is like walking onto the site of a plane crash. The visitor feels the need to do something, anything, and not just stand there and observe another human being's degradation, or worse, take notes. Then, after a time, the guilt gives way to fascination. Calcutta is considered the most "Indian" of the big cities. New Delhi is the sterile seat of government; Bombay is too European and obsessed with money, but here are all of the nation's complexities, a national microcosm.
Calcutta then becomes such an intellectual exercise that the newcomer begins to feel corrupted and impotent. Talk is cheap. After all, the rest of India has no patience with the greatest talkers of them all, the Bengalis -- famous for spending too much time reflecting on Calcutta's problems in the city' s crowded coffee houses and not enough time acting to clean up the wretchedness around them.
How do Calcutta's intellectuals not only manage to live in this environment, but thrive? They work under conditions unimaginable in the West, but say they could never be happy living anywhere else. Some, of course, romanticize the squalor, some feel guilty about it, some hate it. Yet many of the city's writers and artists have blossomed not in spite of, but because of the poverty around them. It is the source of their strength, and it always appears in some form in their work.
The city has become a living character in their lives, the other half of a stormy relationship in which the two partners slowly realize that the years traveled and battles waged have evolved, amazingly, into love. In the end, Calcutta is a case study of the connection between misery and creativity, and how one produces the other. To understand that relationship is to understand a little bit more how artists are inseparable from their environment, and a little bit more about India itself.
One way to look at Calcutta, and to come to terms with living there, is to see in it the city that must have been, the English imperial capital of neo-Grecian mansions and gothic churches, of wrought-iron gates and palm-shaded balconies, of Sunday afternoon promenades along the lush green expanse of trees and grass of the cental maidan. How accurate this picture is remains open to question.
After all, Kipling made his remark about "the city of dreadful night" in the middle of the 19th century. But what is more important is that Calcutta's writers and artists prefer to remember it that way. Satyajit Ray becomes nostalgic about the city that once was even as late as the 1930s. "It was extremely relaxed and pleasant and everything was cheap," he recalls. "They used to clean the roads with a hose pipe twice a day."
One artist who loves that romantic Calcutta is Aparna Sen, a well-known actress who directed the highly praised film "36 Chowringhee Lane" about an Anglo-Indian schoolteacher and the girls she instructs in Shakespeare. The film was a hit among the city's intelligentsia, but was criticized for its nostalgia. There are no crowds in the Calcutta of Chowringhee Lane, only magical little side streets, pastoral scenes of the central maidan and soft afternoon light.
"This is the Calcutta I remember of my childhood," says Sen. "You had totally empty streets. Your grandmother and your mother were sleeping. You weren't allowed to go out until 4 o'clock, when they woke up. There were all sorts of rooms with big shutters, and light coming through. To me, Calcutta is not the dirtied-up place it is now. There's no point showing that."
Ganesh Pyne, one of Calcutta's finest painters, is quite honest in the way he looks outward toward a romantic, mythical Calcutta as inspiration for his work. His fond memories of childhood are of the statues of the Hindu gods in the temple across the street from his home, and of the beautiful marble courtyard there that he used to play in as a child.
In reality, he lives on an alley of potholes, mud and ragged children, in a house with the outside walls covered with peeling political posters and graffiti. He spends part of each day keeping a lonely woman company in a decrepit tenement nearby. As a child, his less fond memories are of the bloody pre-independence riots of 1946, and how he and his family went for safety to the hospital, only to see "heaps of dead bodies, bleeding still."
Now he says that "as a Calcuttan I've experienced a very horrible side of life, and maybe I want to take refuge from that in my painting. Most of the critics complain of the fantasy in my painting. They always consider it an escape. But I do it for my own purposes." His subjects are often creatures of whimsy; only the shades of gray and brown, and the broken, distorted shapes are Calcutta. "If Calcutta does not appear in my paintings directly," he says, "she has a tremendous indirect presence. I love this city. And someday I hope the old beauties of Calcutta will return."
Today, even the mansions of the rich are blackened with mold, and the maidan choked with the fumes of taxis and buses, but some of the old world is still there. Turn off a main thoroughfare lined with buildings that look like they've been bombed, and suddenly, there is a lovely and grimy old alley, filled with 100-year-old row houses, windows with wooden shutters and hanging flowers in pots.
Mahasveta Devi, whose work among the villagers of Bengal and the near by state of Bihar has inspired her short stories, lives in an alley like this, in a small, cramped flat, and says that one of the reasons she rented it was because of the bright red, wrought- iron spiral staircase that curls up to her door.
Then there is the flower market near the Hooghly River, and the men bathing on its banks, and the packed theaters and poetry readings, and the book stalls along College Street that display Nietzsche and Kant, and the temples and the mosques and the smell of incense and fruit and smoke and the heavy air and the noise. Maybe it's the heat, maybe it's the gray monsoon skies, but Calcutta, incredibly, becomes an insidious seducer.
"There is a secret charm to this city which you have to discover," says Sunil Gangopadhyay, a Bengali novelist and poet who is considered one of the best young writers in India. "I remember how we used to spend time near the Ganges, at the burning ghats. We would spend hours at night with a Sadhu (or holy man), smoking ganga. Drinking was taboo in our family, so we would buy bottles and take them to the brothels and stay all night. This sort of atmosphere you couldn't find anywhere."
Gangopadhyay swears that he and the prostitutes used to discuss his poetry late into the night, and that one of them knew by heart many of the poems of Rabindranath Tagore, the great poet laureate of Bengal and its most famous Nobel prize winner.
This story may not be as implausible as it sounds. Bengalis are Bengalis, no matter what walk of life. Ask one of the men who pulls a rickshaw where the house of Moni Sankar Mukherjee is, and he will tell you to follow him, he's his favorite novelist, so he knows just the place. And he does.
Meet an accountant who writes novels and his friend, the surgeon, at a Sunday afternoon "adda," a Bengali word for the hours of informal talk and debate the Bengalis love so much, and the surgeon will say fondly of the accountant, "In his professional capacity, he saves the rich from getting scalped, and in his literary capacity, he's always for the underdog."
Even the Bengalis are hard-pressed to explain their intellectual tradition. There was dissent and ferment in Calcutta long before the British made it their capital, and once they did, the Bengalis were not only the first Indians to receive an English education, but also the ones who most passionately absorbed the new world of literature and liberalism. As Tagore said of that time, "Their days and nights were eloquent with the stately declamations of Burke, with Macaulay's long rolling sentences, discussions centered upon Shakespeare's drama and Byron's poetry and above all upon the large- hearted liberalism of the 19th century English politics."
As Sunil Gangopadhyay says, "the world doesn't care about Calcutta, but the Calcuttan thinks he is a citizen of the world."
Certainly, it is easier to focus on the world than the realities of Calcutta. The city was first ruled by the British and then by Indira Gandhi's Congress (I) Party, but since 1977 West Bengal has had one of the world's only popularly elected communist governments. What this means is that this state government provides more subsidies and employment schemes than the others in India, and that it has cast its lot with the workers, a large portion of whom are on strike at any one time. But people say it was the same or even worse before, so it it is hard not to conclude that neither imperialism, democratic socialism nor Marxism has worked here.
The metropolitan area of Calcutta has a population of more than 10 million -- too many people and not enough jobs in a city that has been slowly strangled to death. The partition of East Pakistan from India cut it off from the source of jute for its mills, and the 1971 Bangladesh war sent millions of refugees flooding in across the border. These days, desperate job hunters come from all over India. In Calcutta, picking scraps of paper out of trash heaps for recycling is a legitimate occupation.
Sunil Gangopadhyay writes about this Calcutta in his novel "Pratidwandi," or in the English translation, "The Adversary." Later made into a film by Satyajit Ray, it is the story of an alienated, unemployed Bengali youth. In one powerful chapter, his discontent turns to rage at a job interview where he has been waiting in suffocating heat for six hours. There are 300 competing for four positions. As the tension of the day and his fury builds, Siddhartha, the youth, bursts into the interview room, screams "You fatbellied swine, you sons of bitches," then runs out to the street.
Romance isn't easy, either, when the traffic crawls at four miles an hour, or when the authorities announce, as they did in April, that 55,000 dead phone lines will be down for two years. Calcutta is one of the four or five largest cities in the world, yet so many basic services have deteriorated that it can take on the character of a rural environment. People have almost stopped depending on the phone as a means of communication.
"Probably without our knowing it, we are going back to a more primitive time," says Satyajit Ray.
Newcomers are baffled by how anything gets done at all. Midan Mitra, the editor of the Bengali Daily, Aajkaal, says his newspaper has missed major news of a particularly severe power breakdown because his reporters were unable to get through on the phone to the official with the information, and would have missed the deadline if they'd tried to reach him in person.
M.J. Akbar, the editor of the newspaper The Telegraph, takes the attitude that it is easier not to use his two home phones at all than to subject himself to the frustration of dialing for hours without making a connection.
What seems to happen in Calcutta is that the writers and artists live in particularly isolated environments, even more so than the intelligentsia of the West, seeing only their immediate circle of friends at an evening "adda," or those who feel comfortable enough to drop by the flat. It is difficult to know how much is because of the phone problems and how much is by choice, but what strikes an outsider is how the solitary lives force even more than usual the inward reflection that is necessary for their work.
Just the intensity of the city alone is enough to drive people inward. Many of the writers and artists do live as if in retreat, tucked away at the top of some dank stairwell, safe in a nest of books, comfortable furniture, old rugs and a rooftop that looks out on Calcutta but keeps it at bay. Of course, it is difficult to say whether Calcutta has caused the flight inward, or whether the already-existing inwardness of the Bengali mind has caused the mess that is Calcutta today.
Either way, the inwardness is part of a passivity that can be bewildering to an outsider.
When Meera Mukherjee, one of the best sculptors in India, was without water for the three hottest months of the year, she didn't bother writing letters and screaming at city officials. She just gave up. "I decided I would just face it," she says. She gave a man 10 rupees a day, a little less than a dollar, to bring her water in a bucket. "At least the poor man could earn some money," she says.
Sometimes that passivity turns up as anger in her work. One of her pieces is of people waiting patiently in line in front of a closed window.
Protesting through art is one of the ways that Calcutta intellectuals handle the guilt of living in an environment from which they often take more than they give. This may be no different from any intellectual. Bengalis, in fact, like to say that the only difference between their lives and those of New Yorkers is that Calcutta is just further decayed. But there is such a quantitative difference in the environment of the two cities that there is no qualitative comparison.
Poverty can be a concept on the East Side of New York, but never in Calcutta. Every day, even the very rich and very isolated can't help but be engulfed by it, and be forced to think about it. So how do they rationalize what they do?
"We don't rationalize," says Aparna Sen. Periodically we feel guilty. We don't like to think about it too much, because you can't live like that. You do feel responsible, though. So what do you do? Often you don't do anything, or you try to do it through your work, or you try to contribute through various charities. But most people feel so pressured just by having to live here."
Ultimately, Calcutta suggests that misery not only produces creativity, it may even be necessary, no matter how lyricized, for art. "Comfort can sometimes be an enemy," says Meera Mukherjee, "because you forget the people around you. Here, there are so many people struggling, and that struggle itself inspires me." Or as Shakt Chattopadhyay, one of Calcutta's greatest poets, writes:
"Now I know I am not alone. there are others who have greater sorrows than I . . . "
Of course, whether or not Calcutta's intellectuals are inspired by their environment may be beside the point. They have not chosen their misery as much as had it forced upon them.
An outsider is drawn to Calcutta again and again, trying to find answers, but in the end realizes that analyzing the artist's bond with the city leaves out the element of mystery that exists in any passionate relationship, and which gives it its magic. Bengalis talk more about Calcutta than anyone else, but even they say the city can never be adequately understood or explained. That is itsappeal, and its point. "It's like love," says Sunil Gangopadhyay. "Do you know why you love a person? You can't say."