Archive for August, 1999

Amusing them to death

Wednesday, August 25th, 1999

Aug 25, 1999

Calcutta’s streets may be cleaner now than ever before — but they’re going nowhere.

Where are you from?” Common question, but difficult for me to answer. I’ve spent the largest chunk of my life in Delhi, but that’s because I work here. Mumbai is where I spent the most enjoyable years of my life-my teens. And, well, I am a Bengali, but I have never lived in Calcutta for more than four years at a stretch. So… But as I say all this to my questioner, I know that whatever my intricate rational response to the query, the gut answer is Calcutta. It is the city where people speak in the language that we have taken pains to teach our four-year-old daughter.

This time, visiting Calcutta after two years, the first thing that struck me was that the city is remarkably cleaner. The roads are devoid of hawkers and hutments, and the Strand is a revelation. Was the Left Front finally doing something worthwhile, after 22 years of mucking around? Maybe, in a few years time, I could even find a job here and settle down?

But when I boarded my train back, I knew that my daughter would grow up in an alien city.

Calcutta’s roads are clean, but they’re going nowhere. Look up from the asphalt to the buildings, and their decrepit seediness is a different and more valid reality. With no industrial investment coming in, there are no new jobs, and even if there were, the Left Front has created a whole generation of unemployables by abolishing English till Class VI in all government-aided schools. Unless you can get your child into one of the few convents and private schools, she will never in her life be able to communicate anything other than the simplest sentiments in English with confidence. Who will employ her? To get these poor children through their board exams, examiners are told not to deduct marks for wrong grammar, to just check that the sense is okay.

Recently, the government partly rescinded this ruinous early eighties diktat by introducing English from Class III. In protest, economist Ashok Mitra refused a CPI(M) Rajya Sabha nomination. This man, who has made his money by teaching and consulting in the West!

In his press interviews, the boy who has topped the Class X state board exams, made it clear that he wanted to get out of India. I’m sure thousands of Indian teenagers have the same ambition, but I’ve never seen such a categorical statement from a board topper from any other state. ÒThere’s too much leg-pulling here,” he told The Statesman. If this boy can’t express himself in English, think of the rest!

So how do these lakhs of unemployables make their living? Well, the law and order situation is abysmal, extortion is sky-high (just try building a house), and the latest widespread racket is charging for parking space in totally public areas.

Meanwhile, there are six amusement parks and several entertainment multiplexes being planned on the outskirts, there’s even a proposal for a Formula One car racing track! Calcuttans may not have money or jobs, but they will definitely have entertainment! I’m sorry, but I don’t get the logic; must be something to do with Òthe opium of the masses”.

And, of course, since you have nothing positive to show for all your years in power, since you have no credible promises left to conjure up, you stoke the wretched fires of Bengaliness, and rename Calcutta, Kolkata. Well, I suppose it puts some money in the pockets of the letterhead printing industry. Maybe they’ll even recruit a few young men who could have been in Silicon Valley, but have been reduced by an evil State to unauthorised parking lot attendants.