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   Newsletter of the Indian Progressive Study Group, Los Angeles

                             August 1996

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OF COKE AND CURRY
by Nathan

Calcutta is probably amongst the most written about cities in the world; 
yet every traveler has more to add to this saga of poverty, prose and 
politics. Ones judgment is often choked by the myriad images that a 
theatrical representation of the city is usually far simpler than a 
coherent and realistic analysis of its problems.

The dominating image during my visit this year was one of indifference 
and empty symbolism of a confused and proud city. Porters at the Howrah 
railway station burdened with overloaded steel trunks furiously dodging 
the squatting travelers and three legged dogs are now presented with a 
new problem. They need to work their way through pockets of people 
gathered under the closed circuit TVs immersed in the American Wrestling 
Federation Exhibition Matches. With no more than a feeble murmur they 
work their way through this intrusion, just as the other thousand odd 
hawkers, pilgrims and beggars. Perhaps the most graphic scene of muted 
acceptance and adaptation is visible at the historic Vidyasagar Pool 
touted by many as a symbol of Bengali pride. The huge potholes of 
stagnant water, the varied mass of traffic from handcarts and rickshaws 
to autos and trucks working their way through four over-crowded lanes and 
the incessant yells and shouts from the drivers do not seem to disturb 
anybody to fight for another bridge or mode of transport over the river.  
Deeper in the city, the emissions and fumes from charcoal and kerosene 
burning locomotives combines with the dense fog from the Ganges (Hoogly) 
to form an alarming soot that makes the residents cough like tuberculosis 
patients.

Where in all this mess is the legendary radical and defiant spirit of the 
city that I had heard so often about?  Has the Bengali pride been 
transformed to just one more of the many empty symbols that I see rampant 
over the rest of India? Like the indigenously made cannons and guns 
included as part of the Indian exhibit for the recently held South Asian 
Federation (SAF) games, where the motto ironically is peace. Or the anti-
imperialist rally I see at upscale Eden Gardens (where there is little 
greenery), where speakers unabashedly use foreign-made microphones. Or 
the stenciled wall notices at railway stations, in three languages 
warning against alms-giving with the footer of the by now infamous Indira 
Gandhi election manifesto slogan Gharibi Hatao - eradicate poverty as if 
it were a disease!

The insensitivity of the politicians is best depicted at the Central 
square in Esplanade, where statues of the three monkeys that see no evil, 
hear no evil and speak no evil are aptly labeled the Mayor, the Chief 
minister and the Home Minister. I see in here no traces of the city that 
at one time was known to mock and fulfill the Maoist prophesy that the 
road to world revolution lies through Peking, Shanghai and Calcutta. I 
see in here a withdrawal, denial and confusion of values that to 
residents lend a faceless background, where the obvious must be ignored.

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