The drunken police detective and the equally drunk Bengali poet walked out of the Calcutta restaurant arm in arm. They were not exactly singing songs, but it appeared that a long night of poetry reading lay ahead.
With the possible exception of Dublin, Calcutta may be the only city in the world where no one could express surprise at a well-known detective hanging out with a poet. Scratch a Bengali, they say, and you will find a poet.
"Every unemployed Bengali is writing poetry," said S. C. Basu, the erudite public relations director for the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority in explaining the small poetry magazines flooding Calcutta these days.
Most of the poems have an ideological theme, focusing on injustice, which is easy to see in teeming Calcutta. "The love days are over now," commented Basu.
MENTION CALCUTTA and most Americans think of beggars, poverty, slums and the Black Hole, where 146 British colonialists were stuffed on a steamy June night during a 1756 mutiny into a room 22 by 14 feet. Only 23 were alive the next morning.
All that is true, but in many ways Calcutta suffers from a bad press. In fact, it is a lively, vibrant city, perhaps the most stimulating in India. "Calcutta is more of a state of mind than any other city in the country," said Kalyan Biswas, the 40-year-old Calcutta native who heads the city's Metropolitan Development Authority.
"In many ways," he said with the fervor of a booster, "Calcutta is one of the most livable cities in India. You have a sense of belonging in it."
This, he added, is in spite of its overcrowding, its 3,000 official slums, its poverty and its hundreds of thousands of residents whose only home is a strip of pavement or a corner of the railway station.
Satyish Chakraborty, an economist and planner, speaks of Calcutta in much the same way as many New Yorkers describe their home town -- as a place where he can get a meal at 3 a.m. or a drink at 4, and where no one would be surprised if he decided to take a late night stroll.
CALCUTTA IS one of the few cities in India where cow beef -- as differentiated from buffalo "beef," which is the staple meat of Westerners in this country -- is readily available. In most places the slaughter of cows is forbidden by law, but it is allowed here despite strong pressure from Hindu fundamentalists who regard cows as sacred.
In CALCUTTA, though, many Hindus eat cow beef. As long as 100 years ago, some young Bengali Hindus broadened their diet to include cow meat as a protest against the Brahmins who were running the religion, and that relaxed attitude persists today.
It has nothing to do with dietary habits here, but there seem to be fewer cows roaming the streets than in other Indian cities, especially Delhi. f
The Calcutta Metropolitan Development authority has worked hard to move cows out of the city for sanitary reasons, and the effort shows. Where as recently as eight years ago more than 40,000 cows meandered all over the streets and disrupted traffic, only a handful appear now. During a recent five-day visit to Calcutta, none was seen wandering loose.
CALCUTTA SEEMS to rely on leg power for transportation more than any other city in the country. The man-pulled rickshaw, outlawed in many cities of Asia, remains the most common form of transport here. There are 6,000 licensed rickshaws in Calcutta, but estimates of the number of rickshaws really on the streets -- most of them unlicensed -- vary from 20,000 (official) to 75,000 (unofficial).
To Westerners the work appears inhumane. Lean, well-muscled men strain in the traces to pull whole families at a dog trot. The cost of a ride of more than a mile clear across the city is about 25 cents.
Other men pull and push hand carts loaded with all manner of merchandise through the streets. While these exist in other Indian cities, there appear to be more of them in Calcutta and fewer animal-powered carts.
To Westerners who suggest that the man-powered carts and rickshaws should be replaced on humanitarian grounds, the practical Calcuttans reply, "What would the rickshaw pullers do for a living? They would starve."
There is money in the rickshaw business if you own a fleet of them. The economics run this way: a rickshaw with a folding hood to protect the rider from rain and sun costs about $44. It goes out daily. Th owner -- who usually runs a fleet -- charges the puller about 36 cents for a 12-hour shift. The puller, at the low end of the stick, is lucky to net $1 for a day's hard labor.
CALCUTTA IS looking to a new subway to ease its traffic congestion, but for the time being all the subway is doing is making it harder to get around. The subway was started in 1974 and is scheduled for completion in 1986. No one here is betting on that the target date will be met, however. i
Moreover, there is a fear that the entire tube will be taken over by pavement dwellers before the first train starts running.
CALCUTTA'S NEWEST Bengali newspaper, Ajkal (it means "In These Days") is published with the help of some of the latest technology from a sprawling, multi-arched building that once was the home of a zamindar, a rich feudal landlord who collected taxes for the British.
It is so strange to see young men hunched over modern photo-typesetting machines in an old-fashioned high-ceilinged room looking out over an inner courtyard. A second-story balcony with its grateful arches looks more the setting for a gala ball than the publication of a newspaper.
Ajkal is edited by Gour Kishore Ghosh, an idealistic Bengali who was jailed in 1975 for venting his views in a small Bengali magazine against the emergency rule established by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. When the paper he was working for then refused to publish his articles, he shaved his head, a traditional Hindu sign of mourning.
Ghosh is trying to run a different paper, concentrating on human problems instead of a stenographic recording of government actions. He ran a Degas racecourse picture with a story on a Calcutta horse racing meet to broaden his readers' knowledge and hired a special reporter to cover the fishermen and rural workers around Calcutta. This reporter, Ghosh explained, does not write the elegant Bengali of the intellectual set, but in a rougher, more homespun style that is compelling in its intensity.
The question is whether Ghosh's paper will succeed against the competition of the well-established Ananda Bazar Patrika, where he used to be feature editor. Ananda has the largest circulation of any newspaper in India.