For some 30 years, Calcutta, to any observant eye, seemed to illustrate all that was dismal and disappointing about Indian capitalism, a metropolis forever awash in twilight grey, grime-ridden and poorly lit, with sad and tired faces looking at nothing in particular, out of overflowing trams that trundled along at a pace that symbolised how much it had fallen behind the times.
The only images in the distant onlookers' minds were red flags and Mother Theresa and the decaying gentility of a bygone era, caricatured in the films of Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray. And industrial action, that deliciously ironic phrase which meant the opposite of action stoppage of all work was everywhere around you. Steadily through the 1970s and 1980s, companies thinned out their Calcutta offices or even head offices and eventually shifted them to Delhi or Bangalore, just so that they could carry on business as usual.
Power outage for hours was normal in West Bengal's capital city and stoically borne by an urban population while the government in power went about its priority of land reforms and the minimum steps needed to develop the rural hinterland.
Change in the air
A brief visit to Kolkata last week made me wonder whether the time had indeed not arrived to acknowledge a change that goes beyond the name to the very consciousness of the city. One feels good about visiting a place where the feeling in the air seems to be that things are indeed improving for the common man. Traffic moves with fewer snarls, the roads are cleaner, there is a second bridge across the historic Hooghly river, and the dreaded power-cuts and impromptu blackouts appear a distant memory.
The talk everywhere is about a fresh spurt in interest in investing in the State, thanks to a pragmatic Chief Minister. For a start, industrialists such as the Tatas are actively pursuing large-scale projects. There is a budding ICT sector, albeit on a smaller scale than in the southern States, and organised corporate retail, consumer durables, real estate and back-office operations have seen a sharp upturn in fortunes. One wishes this were supported with the right kind of administration to enable more industries to feel hopeful about investing in the region itself and not just in the megalopolis alone.
The region deserves a revival. Consider the facts. Bengal has been a pioneer, contributing richly towards thought and action in every era in India. Industrial India was born on the banks of the Hooghly, a busy waterway for trade and commerce for centuries, and the empire put down its roots there. So did the freedom movement through the Indian National Congress.
The State has given birth to outstanding stars of the performing arts, as well as prominent men in fields as diverse as journalism and theatre. While culture continues to be a hallmark of the city, science and research too had been led from the front by men such as C.V. Raman. Spiritual and intellectual fields spawned such reformers and liberals and towering personalities as Raja Ram Mohun Roy, Ramakrishna, and Vivekananda, Tagore and Aurobindo.
Perhaps, having led Indian society from the front in politics, culture and industry through at least three centuries, this great city was probably drained of its energies bearing the brunt of refugees twice over, both at the Partition and in the 1970s. It needed the time to recoup and redefine its purpose. Who knows, we might be on the verge of a splendid second innings.