Kolkata used to be named Calcutta under the British. But before and after their reign, it went by Kolkata. The city is an obvious capital and it has the architecture to prove it. There are mid-century terraces and lots of white-skinned tourists. There are Catholic churches and functioning traffic signals. It feels like the British were here. And it feels like they left in a hurry, without an exit plan and without a nod to what was left behind.
What does it feel like to be in a capital that is no more? It still feels regal, just without the new trinkets and shiny ornaments. But it’s the old ornaments that linger amidst the poor and fetid street scenes. It’s the backdrop to a place that seems to have been abandoned and re-purposed. It’s obviously more modern than it used to be, but it feels so much farther behind than it should be.
I thought this would be an antique lovers dream, but I learned that Kolkata natives have figured out that I am not alone. So the prices soar and the stock stays on the shelves, collecting dust. This is how the city feels – dusty, stuck in a rut, perhaps of identity, perhaps of evolution. It simply feels stagnant.
I have felt this stagnancy in other cities, but more in terms of mentality than in infrastructure. Kolkata, however, feels to be stopped in time. Its people seem more sophisticated, as if they’ve felt that way for a century. They’re not as pushy or demanding, as if they know that they will get their turn. They seem to know what they’re made of and, for what it’s worth, their most glorified ingredients are British.
So, there it is… colonialism embedded and lived. Most of the other cities I’ve visited in India hide a colonial past behind a layer of feigned modernity. You ask a Goan about the Portuguese and its as if you’ve asked to be shown where the cave men lived. But in cities like Kolkata and Pondicherry, what was left behind has a present day identity, a present day marker, and a present day cultural currency. Let’s face it, tourists aren’t visiting because they want to try Bengali food.
While they come to see Kolkata’s Mother House, they expect the highlight of the visit to be Calcutta’s Victoria Memorial and St. John’s church. And what would Kolkata be today were it not for this reality?
Will there ever be a time when this is not the reality?