History of Kolkata

As part of their academic engagement with the history of Christianity in India, students research and provide presentations to the entire cohort on topics of interest and relevance.

Anindya Kar, 3rd year M.Div student, presented on The History of Kolkata. Here is a reference used as part of her presentation:

From the book “Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata” by Indrajit Hazra

“The world, unfortunately, is real.”

- From A New Refutation of Time by Jorge Luis Borges

When the Germans got their hands on the Soviet T-34 tank as a war trophy during World War II, they examined, reverse-engineered and improved it and came up with the Panzer.  Had the Germans got hold of Kolkata instead, and opened it up, even their finest engineers would have been stumped to put it back again, let alone improve on it.

For this city is opened up and splayed in its natural form.  The only way to make any sense of it is to make sense of its parts. Kolkata contains many Kolkatas to choose from and not all of them fit clik-clok-clik into each other. Some of these versions chew on cliches, while some others bear such bitter tastes that cliches come as welcome palate-cleansers.

But to deny the undisputed rule of filth and astounding tardiness in Kolkata is to be in denial about what’s unpleasant but real. Of late, Kolkata has caught up with Rajiv Gandhi’s 1985 observation of it being a ‘dying city’, the indefinite article meant to soften the blow. But the literal-minded Kolkatans are bound to take joy in the fact that the city has not closed upon itself or gone down Samson-like, taking its people with it. These little pleasures are not to be scoffed at.

Kolkata is like no other city that exists. And that’s not the whole-hearted compliment or recommendation that it may sound like to compliment-collectors. To make a piecemeal comparison of it with other cities is as heartless as it is pointless. There have been occasions when I’ve walked the streets of Mumbai and, with a strange kind of sadness, I’ve reckoned parts of that city to resemble parts of Kolkata – if Kolkata could take care of itself, if Kolkata had the money. If Kolkata was rich.

Despite its colonial architectures, Kolkata everywhere, in all its wetness and ooze, seems like a city built, or in the process of being built, on the remains of another city that someone left behind. Much of the ugliness stems from disrepair. There is a dilapidated two-storeyed red brick house in Tiretta Bazar near Central Avenue in the city’s old Chinatown. Since 1924, Nanking, Kolkata’s first Chinese restaurant, was run on the ground floor of this Edwardian Building. On the first floor was the Toong On Church. The building is now derelict and its doors have been locked since the late 1970s because of a property dispute. With its windows shattered and its rag-and-cobwebs interiors throwing back little light, it is surrounded on all sides by a living rubbish dump. The building cannot be saved, because to save it, one would have to clear the area around it. And to do that one would have to clear the neighborhood. And for that purpose, one would have to clear that part of the city. And the concentric circles cascading beyond.

And yet, this moth-eaten and slapdash city exists, as a gigantic papier-mâché cobbled out of concrete, bones, rubbish heaps, tar, wood, plywood, steel, cloth, bricks, flesh, rice, silk, stones, smoke, piss, grass, glass, water, vegetables, blood, metal, shit, plastic and bamboo that slowly but surely encroached and settled on a pretend-metropolis raised by foreigners three hundred years ago.  The Kolkata that bears the two hallmarks of a true city – the presence of utilitarian comforts and beautiful buildings – is overwhelmingly a hand-me-down, most of which exists in a state of disrepair, or perversely haughty neglect.