City of Joy

Khare (
Mon, 29 Dec 1997 09:44:14 +0530


I'm here in the hostel at ISI (Indian Statistical Institute) in Calcutta.
Today, after the obligatory three-hour delay for a 90-minute flight, we got
bumped from the new guest house to the boy's hostel (no running hot water,
no TV, etc). We set out in the afternoon to tour the downtown area:
Victoria Memorial, the Indian Museum, the crafts mela, the New Market, the
11th India Industrial Fair (a kind of World's Fair for West Bengal: tyres,
steel, rubber, and coal mfrs alongside cheap textiles, pottery and
handicrafts. Didn't realize that WB was one of the only states with an
electricity *surplus*...). Calcutta was the capital back in the East India
Co. days, so it has some planning and some grace and some reasonable
builidngs, all in states of extended disrepair (except for the stunningly
repaired, which therefore look like holodeck creations, e.g. the East
German-optics Birla Planetarium or the posh hotels.)

The main lesson has been that I've developed a very one-sided view of India
from my experience in Varanasi (and UP in general) over the years. Calcutta
has been an eye-opener: a modern city without the gray international
homogenization of Bombay or the sprawling inefficiency of Delhi. The
utilities appear to work, there are palm trees throughout, and, for the
moment, the weather is perfect.

Yesterday, I was in Nagpur, which was also a first for me. I got to see a
functional, relatively sanitary industrial city where the government
appears to work. I've been spending a huge chunk of my time here reading
the latest Indian newspapers and fashion magazines (Elle is amazing! :-)
and watching TV ads. Yes, there is a consumer India, one far richer than
the boondocks of Benares, the dollar-economy India of Rs200 cocktails at
the disco. More than that, though, there is a confident India, one that
does not see the outside world in terms of exclusively either fawning or
arrogance. Yes, the latest in world fashion and media is here at the
doorstep: yet people remain in India, proud of what's being done here. How
anyone can retain their national pride under this circus of a government, I
don't know, but there is a respectable foudation underneath the rubble of
50 years' nation-building.

good night,

PS. A shot of Johnny Walker Blue Label at the Oberoi Grand is $30... I
don't know whether to be shocked at the outrageous overpricing or its
availability at all -- much less by-the-shot. As a PPS, the Australian and
English women's cricket teams were camping out there -- oh my, what
specimens! [I'll spare you any sticky-wicket jokes :-]


OK, Reality Check. I was in an awfully good mood last night. I'm at the
airport now, and, yes, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Domestic Terminal is one
of those holodeck creations, but not so much else.

The road network devolves to a roller coaster ride off the main highways.
The congestion becomes unbelievable -- though at least it's mainly vehicles
with only a trace of horses, cattle, and elephants. Delhi has 23% of its
surface area as roads or parking; Mumbai 16%, but Calcutta as it
haphazardly grew with the post-Partition refugees and its aging
white-town-only infrastructure, 6%. Wipe your nose on the linen at the
latest-postmodern-Indian-cuisine spot, Saffron at the Park, and you'll
leave a black trail of inhaled particulate soot. Pollution is indeed that
bad -- worse than anywhere else I've been. It simply doesn't have the lungs
to keep going sometime. This info is from the only information booklet I
could wheedle out of the Calcutta Metro Dev Auth -- their 19*8*6 annual

Customer service constinues to reach Indian standards. The New guest house
-- running hot water and all -- is a gorgeous building that opened up last
week -- though its foundation stone was set in 1991. The white guests are
there; the rest of us are scattered in dorm rooms. The tap water is brown,
the filtered water is "Imported English Filter" seemingly from colonial
days, and you have to buy buckets of shower water from passing hawkers in
the morning.

Anyhow, this laptop's attracting too much attention here in the airport.
Off to Bombay...

Rohit Khare