It has been more than four years since I was last in Kolkata, a city I recall with extreme fondness from my first visit. There are, indeed, many good reason to love Kolkata. The name of one of them is Rosalie Giffoniello, and in 2002 we had come to Kolkata specifically to meet her.

Rosalie runs an NGO called Empower the Children, which addresses developmental, educational, nutritional, and shelter needs for some of Kolkata’s most vulnerable children – the physically and mentally disabled and the economically disadvantaged. For two weeks in the fall of 2002, we worked with her in orphanages and non-formal schools during the days, and helped her with capacity-building late into the nights. For five blessed days, the West Indies came to Kolkata’s fabled Eden Gardens Cricket Grounds for a test against India, and each of those afternoons, our butts were in the stands for the two afternoon sessions – a brief respite from our work, which also taught us a fair amount about Indian popular culture.

So for the past four years I have been telling people, “Kolkata has a reputation as a shit-hole, but really, it is a wonderful city.”

How disappointing, then, to turn up here and discover that, indeed, Kolkata is a shit-hole after all.

Don’t get me wrong: it is also a place of magic, full of vitality, good-hearted people tilting against the windmills of endemic poverty, excellent cuisine, and robust women. Just as I enjoyed every minute of Kolkata on my last visit, I am thoroughly engaged this time, and will be sorry to leave in two-day’s time – assuming waitlisted reservations on the Howrah – Ahmedabad Express come through.

But there is no getting around it: Kolkata is a disaster.

Following India’s violent partition, Kolkata (Calcutta in those days) absorbed more than 9 million refugees. Not even Bombay had to take in so many, so rapidly. The city’s infrastructure was pushed well beyond its breaking point; and in truth, in more than a half century, it has never come close to recovering. The faster the world – and India itself – advances, the farther behind Kolkata seems to fall.

Kolkata’s problems are hardly unique. The drifting dunes of trash in the streets, the snarled traffic, the decaying buildings, the every-dog-for-themselves selfishness of the population, and, of course, the desperate poverty are issues troubling every metro in India. Yet Kolkata somehow manages to put an even bleaker face on human misery that already seemed as bleak-as-bleak-can-be.

A few days before coming to Kolkata, I pulled up the weather forecast on the net: “Smoke.” “Smoke?” I thought, “Are you fucking kidding me! That’s not weather!” Sure enough, as dawn rose over the Bay of Bengal, we arrived to a sky that could only be described as, well, “smoke.” As our train rolled slowly toward Howrah Terminus, we watched women stoke their cooking fires in the slums that lined our route, and saw the chimney stacks of light industrial buildings belch to life. It looked as though the smoky weather front would be settling in for a while.

The poor who inhabit India’s metros have it hard, and not simply in economic terms. They are treated like garbage by the wealthy, and indeed by anyone who conceives of themselves as not poor. But the urban poor have an even more insidious enemy: themselves. The mundane violence meted out regularly within the families of the urban poor is always shocking. Men beat, maim, and kill their wives. Fathers and mothers alike beat their children senseless over minor infractions, real or imagined. Whether I am seeing clearly or am completely mistaken, my distinct impression is that scenes and stories of domestic violence in Kolkata are more visible, closer to the surface, than in other large cities in which I have spent substantial time.

As I said at the outset, I could have easily written an essay in this very space, detailing the wonderful people and inspiring things at work here. But so much of the merit one finds here exists purely in response to the prevalent desperation and want, it is probably dishonest to put a happy face on it. The excellent film, “Born into Brothels,” which told the story of a photojournalist working with the children of Kolkata’s sex workers, has the mix just about right. The social project is inspiring, and the children – like children everywhere – are funny, compassionate, perceptive, and lovable; but the hopeful narrative eventually crashes under the weight of Kolkata’s harsh realities. To my eye, there is simply far too little joy-for-joy’s-sake in Kolkata.

I apologize for such a disheartening post. It is especially hurtful to write in this way about a city for which I have genuine affection. For four years, however, I have been recalling Kolkata through a prism of distortion; and I need to set the record straight, if only in my own mind.

12 Responses to “Kolkata”

  1. 1 Kendall Mau 30 December 2006 at 8:45 am

    Mark, love your observations. My brother writes equally bad reviews of Kolkata. Check out my new blog, not as bleak as yours. http://www.microfinancetravels.typepad.com Kendall

  2. 2 Siddhartha De 16 February 2007 at 5:08 pm

    I hate to agree, but even a hard core Kalkatan found very little to cheer about after my recent visit. Can’t any magic transform my beloved city into a livable one ?

  3. 3 mbjesq 17 February 2007 at 9:08 am

    Kolkata suffers so profoundly because it had endured 60 years of coping with urban problems on a scale that even a city like Bombay was never forced to experience. The combination of Independence, which somewhat marginalized a city used to being a hub, and partition-related migration, which instantly and exponentially pushed the infrastructure beyond its breaking point, have meant that Kolkata has seen six decades of struggle. Cities can develop quickly or grow slowly; but in either event, the key is their ability to plan and build infrastructure. Without that, basic human needs go unmet and the other economic engines that drive an improved standard of living cannot be nurtured. Really, it is a wonder that Kolkata has been doing even as well as it has.

    The solution can only be found on a scale that could be implemented by the central government – something which will never happen. Long-term economic marginalization has created a political majority in West Bengal that is unlikely ever to hold sway in Delhi. One must also recognize that economic solutions in India historically occur despite the government, not because of it. India’s greatest leaders, like Jawaharlal Neru, and its most abominable, like his daughter, have all proven themselves singularly incompetent in managing economic growth. Even in the recent and present times, the BJP Vajpai government and Manmohan Singh’s Congress government have benefited from being in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time in the global economic cycle to see India take advantage of its scant (but somehow sufficient) entrepreneurism and foreign investment.

    So Kolkata will have to remain self-reliant for the foreseeable future. Sadly, Kolkata is in a hole from which it probably cannot extract itself.

  4. 4 little indian 24 February 2007 at 4:51 pm

    Overnight an imaginary line was drawn
    that changed that piece of land for ever.
    Where was the rest of the world,
    the rest of India,
    when the 9 million came in?

    Kolkata accepted and absorbed them without a grumble,
    if she hadn’t, do we ever think
    what would have happened to these people?
    Riches to rags by the millions, overnight!

    Kolkata has lived with them for more than 50 years.
    And she still takes in migrants
    from all neighbouring states
    either sides of the international border.

    If Kolkata is a disaster,
    I am proud of that disaster,
    where still is more humanity
    than some other places I have known.

    I would rather Kolkata kept her identity
    instead of being transformed into
    another steel and glass monster
    with shopping malls, McDonalds and Starbucks
    in every street corner.

    The world now is a small place.
    Those who do not wish to stay in,
    or visit this disaster zone
    are more than welcome to find their
    dream paradise elsewhere.

  5. 5 mbjesq 24 February 2007 at 5:06 pm

    This is a beautifully stated apologia for Kolkata.

    As I said from the outset, I have great affection for Kolkata; and I would also hate to see her descend into internationalized mediocrity as India’s once-beautiful, once-interesting cities Bangalore and Pune (to name just two) already have.

    The final point is telling: the distaster that is Kolkata will probably appeal to the few, not the many. And this is well and fine — except that it fails to suggest a way forward for a city and a people who have endured much and deserve much better.

  6. 6 little indian 24 February 2007 at 10:22 pm

    You misunderstand me.

    This was not an apology.
    Kolkata has nothing to apologise for.

    ‘Disaster zone’, not ‘livable’ are only relative terms.
    Its how you and the other writer perceive it.
    There are millions ‘living’ in Kolkata
    who will not agree or accept your views.

    It is fashionable to write ‘bad reviews’ about Kolkata.
    Dominique La Pierre showed the way
    and made money while doing so.
    Who knows what your own true motives are.

    You are being presumptive to think
    that Kolkata appeals to a few and not many?
    How many Kolkatans have you really met who has said so.
    When you say
    “people have endured much and deserve much better”
    I only hear a condescending whine.
    Better from what?
    and what is exactly that ‘better’ life that they do not now have?

    I shuttle between UK and Kolkata,
    and every time I am perfectly happy
    to return to my home city
    to meet my people and be with my people.

    Its my home, and I am proud of it.
    I am not ashamed of my home,
    neither do I ever apologise for what it is.

    You say “you recalled Kolkata through a prism of distortion;
    and I need to set the record straight, if only in my own mind”.
    Fair enough, you are entitled to your opinion.

    But do not say to the world that you know
    how or what the Kolkatans in Kolkata
    themselves think of their home.
    As you do not.

    Regardless of awful Kolkata is by western standards
    it is my home, my humble origin.
    When you try to convince me that my home is a disaster,
    you have overstayed your welcome.

    Oh, I agree.
    Kolkata has endured much, and deserves better;
    better than the condescending criticisms like expressed above.

  7. 7 mbjesq 25 February 2007 at 1:58 pm

    It bothers me not in the least to have Little Indian question my motives, and see condescension and whining in my writing. I confess to be a little pleased, though, that Little Indian does so with an admission of his own bias: that of pride-of-place. While I do not consider chauvinism a foolish emotion, exactly, I also do not consider it an analytically helpful one.

    As for the condescension and whining, I don’t see it; but perhaps I am just too close to judge fairly.

    My motives have far more to do with objectivity than anything else. I have no bone to pick with Kolkata. I like the city, I like its culture, I like its natives, and I like many of the people I’ve met who have come in from elsewhere to lend a hand.

    To set the record straight: I never suggested that Kolkata has anything for which to apologize. Any fair reading of my words, in fact, suggests the opposite. I described Little Indian’s fine piece as an “apologia”, not an “apology”. I expected folks to be literate enough to discern the difference.

    I think the ability to criticize works in a peculiar sinusoidal function with respect to affection. When we loathe a person, place, or thing, criticism flows easily. As we approach ambivalence, we tend to hold our negative comments. In the first throes of adoration we can see no faults at all, much less speak them. When we are comfortable in our admiration, we can begin to speak the truth about flaws. But when we are consumed in full ardor of love, we cannot accept others speaking ill, much less consider doing so ourselves. Where Kolkata is concerned, I think I fall into the next to last phase, and Little Indian falls into the final part of the curve. Both are happy positions to occupy.

  8. 8 little indian 25 February 2007 at 6:44 pm

    Being literate let us first discern the difference
    in the usage of words apologia and apology.

    My first comment to your blog was interpreted by you to be in defense of Kolkata,
    you called it apologia.
    It was my way of saying to you (and others like you)
    to seek for your ‘dream paradise’ elsewhere.
    It was meant as a subtle hint that you were
    no longer a welcomed visitor.

    I am telling the world
    and of course you and all others Kolkata criticisers like you
    that Kolkata has nothing to apologise for what she is….

    These are your comments about Kolkata…

    Kolkata is a shit-hole after all.
    Kolkata is a disaster.
    To my eye, there is simply far too little joy-for-joy’s-sake in Kolkata.
    Sadly, Kolkata is in a hole
    from which it probably cannot extract itself.
    …the distaster that is Kolkata will probably appeal to the few, not the many.
    …city and a people who have endured much and deserve much better.

    They are your opinion as a visitor
    what I say about Kolkata is my ‘apologia’ as a son of the soil.

    If ‘pride of place’ makes one biased, so be it,
    there are millions like me in Kolkata who are
    as much proud maybe more of their city,
    even if “it is a shit-hole after all”
    as you have so eloquently declared to the world.

    Let me say to you a bit bluntly this time,

    When you are the guest,
    you respect the feelings, the pride of the host,
    you respect the ‘shit hole’ he calls his home.

    You have the right to your thoughts and expression
    you have every right to say it out to the world.
    But you automatically lose the welcome of your host.

    Only arrogant indifference may make you believe that
    you continue to be welcome in that ‘shit hole’.

    Henceforth when you visit Kolkata,
    please remember you visit as a foreigner and an unwelcome guest.

  9. 9 mbjesq 25 February 2007 at 11:05 pm

    Little Indian’s premise is that only Westerners and Western-loving-self-hating Indians think disparagingly of Kolkata. This is utter nonsense. Kolkata is a shit-hole by any standard one can imagine, foreign or domestic. It is not only Western-influenced people who are capable of seeing this.

    And yet this discussion remains worthy of continuing precisely because Kolkata somehow retains its vestigial greatness, despite the Herculean (apologies for the Western allusion) challenges history has thrown at it for the past 60 years. I know of nowhere else in the world where the people and culture of a place have shown such classy resilience. Where Little Indian and I part company is in our willingness to judge – or perhaps just in the judgments we reach. I believe Little Indian comes from a blinkered, gosh-I’m-lucky-to-have-been-born-in-the-superest-place-ever, jingoistic point of view; he thinks I display “arrogant indifference” to Kolkata and am a rude guest.

    I may well-be arrogant, but certainly not for my criticisms of Kolkata. Little Indian is projecting a bit if he sees my descriptions of the squalor as yearning for an antiseptic, steel-and-glass, Starbuckian dystopia. Anyone who knows me even casually will have no difficulty in rejecting that notion. My point about filth is that it is a horrible condition in which to live. This seems not even minimally controversial; although Little Indian’s point seems to be that any right-thinking Kolkatan should be damned proud of their home-grown filth.

    I also demur to the charge of indifference. One can find ambivalence in my feelings for the city – in both my deliberately harsh and shocking words to describe its plight, and in the love I have demonstrated for it and its people with my physical sweat and intellectual toil over the years – but where is there any evidence of disregard? I encourage a broader discussion about the state of Kolkata, and its prospects for the future, precisely because I am concerned about the place. Concern is the antipathy of indifference.

    Little Indian seems to have nailed my ass, though, when he calls me a rude guest; but let’s not award the points quite so fast.

    Sure enough, a well-mannered guest does not accept an invitation, only to bad-mouth the host’s best, if humble, efforts. Appeals to candor and honesty only get one so far when the operative rule book is Emily Post’s.

    Indians, like people everywhere, are quick to launch into the host-guest metaphor when dealing with a foreigner in their country; and they are far more likely than most, in my experience, to actually extend such hospitality, whether your visit was anticipated or not. Yet, only twice have I been the beneficiary of anything remotely resembling the host-guest relationship vis-à-vis native Kolkatans. The two examples that come to mind could not be more different – one at an affluent wedding reception, the other in a two-room hovel in a busti in a poor Muslim neighborhood. The one thing the two hosts certainly have in common is that they agree with my belief that Kolkata is a disaster. So my quarrel with Little Indian is on two counts: first, that I have only rarely been received as a guest; and second, that those Kolkatans who have assumed the role of host find my comments accurate, not offensive.

    It looks as though my next visit will also be unbidden and, even worse, “unwelcomed”. Yikes! I’ll try to remember to feel badly about being there next year, when I’m once-again working day-and-night to build capacity in NGOs that are working for the welfare of the people, picking trash off the streets with rag-pickers, and finding service opportunities where they come.

  10. 10 little indian 26 February 2007 at 12:30 am

    You really believe that a Kolkatan born and brought
    up in the ‘shit hole’ cannot know more about his own home
    than a visitor from the civilised west
    who obviously has higher intellegence?

    You so arrogantly believe that you
    know more about the hearts and minds
    of Kolkatans (who are just ‘the natives’ to you)
    than I do.
    That you are more concerned about Kolkata, than I am.

    You are forgetting the reality here.
    I am the Kolkatan,
    while you are just a self-invited ‘visiter’

    You are not concerned about Kolkata at all,
    you are only interested in proving it to be a shit hole
    to the West and as evidence you present to them
    a single film by a photojournalist.

    You probably thought no shit-hole-native
    is capable of reading blogs
    and even if they do,
    will only be able to say,
    yes sahib, no sahib, you’ve got it spot on sahib.

    Oh, dear!
    Only twice have you had
    “host-guest relationship vis-à-vis ‘native’ Kolkatans”.
    From what you write about your beliefs,
    that was two occasions too many.

    I have known many ‘Westerners’ who loves Kolkata
    for what Kolkata is
    and never look down upon the city.

    I also know many do-gooders from the West, like yourself
    who believe that without them
    shit holes around the world cannot survive.
    They always have a motive,
    either make money for themselves, or
    get some rich suckers to donate money to a ‘good cause’.

    When will it ever sink into your arrogant psyche
    that India and Indians are far better off
    without the interference
    of arrogant patronisers just like yourself;
    who cannot stop their own country
    committing atrocities all around the globe?

    Why India?
    Why do you not go and clean up the shit hole
    that your motherland is creating as we speak,
    in Iraq, in the name of democracy?
    Or even better stop your twice!! elected President
    from turning it into another ‘disaster’ in the first place.
    Afraid of getting killed?

    It is no point trying to explain which is the real shit hole here,
    you see it in Kolkata
    the only one I see is your mind.

    The more you write,
    the more you expose your obnoxious and arrogant mentality.
    Please do not let me stop you showing
    the world who (or what) you really are.
    I do not wish to waste any more time on this shameless blogsite.

  11. 11 mbjesq 26 February 2007 at 8:33 am

    Actually, the more I write, the more opportunity I give you to turn from an incisive commentator into an uncivil slinger of unsupported ad hominem attacks. Since you would rather assail the person you believe me to be (wrongly, as it turns out) than confront the ideas I’ve actually committed to words about the city you profess to love, I’m calling it quits on this discussion.

  12. 12 curious_traveller 13 October 2008 at 7:46 pm

    Just chanced on this blog today, while searching for the site empower-kids – http://www.etc-empowerchildren.org/Organization.htm. I came with a totally different image in my mind. Some semblance to a few Satyajit Ray movies i saw as a child! Was put up at Salt Lake and somehow a lots of places that were visited reminded me of Bombay, my birthplace! On my vacation here for a week all I witnessed were empty roads and the city showed me it’s totally suave side! Is that lucky or what? A friend asked if I was enjoying the city or searching for the poverty? I did go to a mall or two! The restaurants however are terribly overpriced and packed! Ahem!
    Loved Park Street… it was a replica of Electric House, Mumbai! Went to the Bellur Math, with this friend Reena Das and actually dipped my feet at the Ganges@Dakineswar Temple! Wow!!! Met Rosalie thru (Reena)while I was here during Dussehra! Went along with her for this slum teaching programme and what can I say! The kind of social work that’s happening here at the basic level, as opposed to the more elite organizations in the metros is amazing! Hope my comments here doesn’t revive any round of verbal spates! Adieu!

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