In continuation of the “This is my Brian’s Calcutta“, author Brian Paul Bach shares some interesting observations on one of his favourite places in the world.
“As long as ‘Firenze’ appears on maps as ‘Florence’, ‘al-Iskandariyyah’ as ‘Alexandria’, and ‘Brasil’ as ‘Brazil’, I suppose I will still be referring to that great, beloved city in lower Bengal – the Star of the East – as CALCUTTA, whether spoken or writ.”
Table of Contents
Q: Your favourite Calcutta memories.
– I could fill several large volumes with Calcutta memories of all kinds, the vast majority of which are good, and all of which are – well –memorable. Just a few, off the top of my head:
Any Hooghly time, out on the river. Any crossing of Howrah Bridge. Any perambulation up/down Rabindra Sarani, through Kumartoli, along Shovabazar Street, Keshub Chandra Sen Street, Bepin Behari Ganguly Street, College Street… So many others. Tiretta Bazar. Armenian Street is always a revelation. Adda time at the Indian Coffee House, Albert Hall. Visiting Oxford Books. Hogg Market any time. Dining at the Khalsa, the Amber, the (old) Shamiana. Cemetery prowls. Appreciating underappreciated Howrah. Jadu Babu Bazar. The luxury of the Maidan. Finding any spellings of ‘Calcutta’ that still remain on signs, gates, etc. Banyan-root buildings. Ghat-walks. The Agri-Horticultural Gardens. So many others…
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One of my all-time favourite anecdotes is one of the briefest. On a hot summer day, I was on a crowded tram and wanted to get off at Lalbazar, one of the busiest places in the city. Almost as many people were entering the tram as those exiting. Time was short. An elderly gentleman, in classic dhoti attire, was positioned behind the crowd, so that he might not make it onto the tram. When I was just about to step down, we faced each other, and I equivocated as to whether I should allow him to enter first, or shamelessly barge forward. His decisive response was elegant, even courtly. He gestured for me to step down, and his one word was all that was needed: ‘Proceed’. Just then, the tram bell ding-dinged, and departure was imminent. I made sure he was safely aboard before I got out of the way of a tram coming in the opposite direction, the driver of which plainly sensed what I was trying to do, and waited with courtesy. Once the elder had squeezed with finesse into the ‘sardine tin’ conditions of the tram, he gave me a wave that implied ‘I’m quite all right, thank you very much’, and we were all on our way. Thus, I did indeed proceed with my exploration.I have always kept his high standards in mind all throughout Calcutta, and have witnessed countless examples, as a matter of course.
Q: This is a special one for you… Calcutta or Kolkata. Which one is close to your heart?
– No question could be easier for me to answer! (Or as engaging…) The very name of this immense Bengali metropolis on the Hooghly is a subject of much ongoing fascination to me. Great names in this world are always worth honouring, and India, of course, has some of the best. Needless to say, India – and many other nations –¬have undergone processes of revision regarding how they want their names to appear before the world. Within this context, as far as Calcutta is concerned, my approach has morphed: from the emotional (e.g. disappointed, sad) into the analytical (e.g. accepting, critical). Let me elucidate. I have observed, one-by-one, the Name Game being played across India. ‘Cawnpore’ into ‘Kanpur’ was expected and appropriate. ‘Poona’ into ‘Pune’ was not surprising. Then the biggies.. ‘Bombay’ into ‘Mumbai’, ‘Madras’ into ‘Chennai’, and on and on. Throughout it all, Calcutta remained Calcutta. But…to quote from my book, Calcutta’s Edifice:
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Calcutta memories or Kolkata memories. What is the fuss about anyway?
“And then there is the name of the great metropolis itself. In July 1999, the West Bengal State Assembly made its move: to follow Bombay (correction: Mumbai) and Madras (correction: Chennai) into the realm of proving a point through regional linguistics. A unanimous vote was taken to officially rename Calcutta as Kolkata, (variations considered: Kolikata, Kolikatta). The transformation is largely thought to have been a political move, as a Calcutta Telegraph poll showed that only 38% of those asked thought a name change was needed. 52% thought it was unnecessary, with 10% undecided. This move to Bengali usage was endorsed by the Bangla intelligentsia, including the respected author Sunil Gangopadhayay. They have a point, certainly. On the other hand, the number of Bengali speakers in Calcutta is slowly falling while the number of Hindi speakers is rising. The message seems to be sent primarily to New Delhi, rather than the world. If the name change is only an English transliteration of what Bengalis call their city anyway, what is all the fuss about? (Is there a fuss? The gesture was not exactly galvanizing.) They could at least spell it Kalikata instead of Kolkata, for Kali’s sake if nothing else.
This is not a travel guide. This is a love letter to my hometown from the author, Brian Paul Bach. For a proper Calcutta food guide, check out Calcutta Belly.
“Calcuttafication or Kolkatafication? Seems like local egos on parade.”
Changes like these seem usually to originate with conservative groups who wish to marshal their forces by rallying under something which passes as ancient, and whether it is true or not, who cares? The changes seem more like a reaction to the power of the Hindi language than to the English past. Despite the strong sentiment to consolidate a culture which is strong and vital as it is already, such a move indicates a lack of confidence. A bad sign in a multicultural city such as Calcutta. Besides, it seems rather late in the naming game to change such big-time appellations. Sounds like local egos on parade. Anyway, such a political move does not seem to be part of the intrinsic process of Calcuttafication (or should I say Kolkatafication?). Pretty curmudgeonly, I know…The city has long been noted for its activist changes of street names. In the depths of the Vietnam War, Harrington Street, in which the US Consulate is located, became Ho Chi Minh Sarani. Old names and spellings are still frequently relied on, quite automatically and cheerfully. Yet, the official-ness of the overarching name change took over in most conspicuous ways. Specifically, sign painters and providers enjoyed record success on a truly industrial scale.
“The Germans call it Kalkutta. How does it matter anyway?”
So now we have ‘Kolkata’ as the city’s official billing in the global scheme of things. Broadcasters in the West, even at the BBC, often aren’t sure how to pronounce the new spelling. Obviously, some timidity comes into play, as old spellings might have colonial/imperialist associations, so any offense should be avoided at all cost. Still, what to do with ‘Kolkata’? Should it be ‘Kaul-kattah’ or ‘Koal-ka-tah’, ‘Kall-kay-tah’, or what? Long ‘o’, short ‘o’, spoken as if one syllable, or split in half? Well, as every Calcuttan knows, it’s not the pronunciation that’s changed, it’s the spelling – or specifically Romanized spelling. Bengali, Hindi, Assamese, Oriya, etc. renditions are, presumably, unchanged. Same goes for Thai, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and Greek versions (to name a few), I should think. Many a German map brands it as ‘Kalkutta’…But non-Calcuttans (especially non-Bengali-speaking non-Calcuttans) are guided by spellings. Thus the mild confusion in accommodating that which appears in print.
” Calcutta’ does indeed sound exotic.”
For me though, aside from my romance with ‘Calcutta’ as one of the world’s great names, my preference is based on a rather more mundane principle. It’s not founded on a fondness for imperialist culture, or non-politically-correct haughtiness, conservative stubbornness, or a pining for things to stay the same. It’s simply an aesthetic appreciation for names that evoke some poetic or dramatic notion; names that imply something extraordinary, individualistic, noble. Even though ‘exotic’ is an unfashionable concept today, to me, things I enthusiastically deem Exotic are special – to be treasured, admired. ‘Calcutta’ does indeed sound exotic. But there is this: as long as ‘Firenze’ appears on maps as ‘Florence’, ‘al-Iskandariyyah’ as ‘Alexandria’, and ‘Brasil’ as ‘Brazil’, I suppose I will still be referring to that great, beloved city in lower Bengal – the Star of the East – as CALCUTTA, whether spoken or writ.
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PS: Recently, the Calcutta High Court was requested by the Central Government in Delhi to style itself as ‘Kolkata High Court’. In a glorious and dignified fashion, the request was resoundingly thrown out of court, so to speak. ‘Calcutta High Court’ forever!”
About the author –
Brian Paul Bach is a published writer, artist, photographer, filmmaker, and traveller. Additionally, he has been a worker in the theatre, an academic library, and the music business. He is a student of film and its lore, a casual dramatic performer and voice impressionist, an appreciator of theatre architecture and operation, and an architectural writer. Golden ages of film production, automotive design, and world architecture are of special interest, as are music, social culture, and most things concerning the Indian subcontinent. Brian’s published works, illustrated with his photos, drawings, and maps, include: THE GRAND TRUNK ROAD FROM THE FRONT SEAT, in two editions, 1993 and 2000 – the Author’s travels from Calcutta to the Afghan frontier; and CALCUTTA’S EDIFICE: THE BUILDINGS OF A GREAT CITY, 2006 – a major examination of this under-known city’s architecture and culture in over 700 pages, with almost as many illustrations. In numerous libraries worldwide, the book has been presented to two successive Chief Ministers of West Bengal state, at the 2006 and 2012 Calcutta Book Fairs, the latter attended by the Author. Lately, Brian has observed his own generation’s behavior, its choices and its outlooks, and the result is BUSTED BOOM: THE BUMMER OF BEING A BOOMER, his first e-book. Soon to become available are Brian’s works of fiction: FORWARD TO GLORY, a four-part ‘epic-noir-satire’ that charts the rise of an actor from obscurity to the biggest stardom in the world, and LURID, a thriller set in Calcutta, in which the city is threatened with total destruction by an ancient demonic force. Brian lives with his wife Sandra, an accomplished ceramicist and chef, independent cat Condell, and faithful hound Hudson.
You may check out these excellent Calcutta travel blog posts by Migrationology, Urban Adventures, and Vir Sanghvi.
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