Calcutta-A Great City in Decay

M G Singh By M G Singh, 21st Dec 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Travel>Asia>India>Calcutta & West Bengal

Calcutta is a great city and owes its origin to the British, but now it has gone in decay and will need a herculean effort to rise up again

Calcutta the Largest City in East India

Sir Winston Churchill served in the British Indian Army and has many memories of India. One of these concerns Calcutta. He is reported to have remarked that he was glad he had seen Calcutta once, as it will be unnecessary to see it again. This is the epitome of Calcutta a city that is overcrowded and in decay. But it was not so always. Yet, negative comments about Calcutta abound and they came to the fore right from early times with the famous ‘black hole ‘tragedy. 146 employees were shut in a small room in fort William and about 46 died due to suffocation. This black hole occurred much before astronomers discovered their own black hole in space and linked it to red giants and white dwarfs.

Calcutta however remains India’s second largest city and occupies a dominant place in the industrial, commercial and artistic life of the sub-continent.

Origin of the City

Calcutta saw the light of the day in the 17 Th century when the East India Company set up its factories here. It was ‘kalkata’ then as the Europeans set up their manufacturing units here. However politics took a hand and in 1757 it was captured by Nawab Siraj ud Dowlah followed by its recoveryby the famous Robert Clive. It then became the centre of the East India Company and remained so till 2011. It was the capital of India and Calcutta had its brief moment of Glory at that time. It was the second city in the British Empire after London. Its port was thriving but that glory was also short lived as it was dethroned by Bombay with its fine natural harbor. The Port still is there and greatly used, but there are inherent problems of access through the Hooghly river and the famous tidal wave called the bore that occurs twice a day. There are also innumerable sandbanks and a pilot is to be taken on board to navigate the ship through the Hooghly to the docks.

Calcutta and its Love with the Old

A visit to Calcutta shows a large number of dillipated buildings, some more than 200 years old. One wonders what is there use, but the Bengali “Bhadralok’ reside in them and they are loathe to raze them .Calcutta also has archaic trams that trundle at abysmally low speeds and hold up traffic in the narrow streets. It is a pity that Basu and his ilk ruled this state for 4 decades and has nothing to show in return. They more than anybody else have had a hand in the decline of Calcutta. They were the ones with misguided notions of Internationalism that allowed a flood of Muslim refugees to enter Calcutta and that added to its burdon.

Some Development

Yet, Calcutta is the most thriving metropolis in the east. It has a metro rail, but its poorly managed and the rakes in poor condition. But business and trade is at an all time high as it is the center of the Jute and tea trade. The tea auctions at Calcutta are legendary and show cases the best tea from India for the foreign markets. But the over all picture of crumbling mansions, traffic jams, monsoon flooding, narrow lanes from the days of the Raj and overcrowded slums remains. Mother Teresa and her home for the poor and infirm left by the Bengalis to die in the street is a silver lining, but credit for this goes only to the missionaries and Mother Teresa. Alas, why couldn’t the ‘bhadralok’the Bengali middle class do something like this. Thus it is sad to say that Calcutta is a museum of urban decay. The shabbiness invests the potpourri of styles from Bengali Ek- Bangla to Bauhaus, with at best a poignant unity.

But Calcutta breathes history. Innumerable monuments to the Raj adorn the city. The Victoria memorial, the Alipur Zoo, the Esplanade, Chowringhee, writers building, Fort William and Kidderpore are places to see and visit. It is sad that Prince Charles on his visit to the Victoria Memorial commented on its poor upkeep. Who is responsible?

Intellectual Capital

But Calcutta leads in one field. It is the intellectual capital of India. Writers and artists flock here and the plays and dramas are part of everyday life. One can’t forget the famous quote of Gopal Krishna Gokhale “What Bengal does today, India does tomorrow”.

The city becomes alive during Durga Puja and that perhaps is the best time to visit Calcutta. It is the time of festivities when all problems of this mega city are buried and people look to the future.

There is political change now and the Marxists have been ousted. But it is a moot point whether’didi’ will be able to galvanize this city which at one time was the second City in the British Empire when Bombay was nothing.

However despite its problems a visit to India can never be complete without a visit o Calcutta. Now renamed as Kolkata, it has one the finest specimen of engineering in the shape of the Howrah Bridge that spans the Hooghly. It has the oldest Museum in India the national Museum which came up in 1814 and the National Library. But all these remind us that the Raj was omnipotent and did a lot of good. It’s a pity the local people did not carry on what the British left behind. Has it something to do with Indian Character?


Bengal, Calcutta, Imperial Capital, Old City, The Raj

Meet the author

author avatar M G Singh
A man who spent his early years in Air Force. An avid writer with over 6000 articles and 60 short stories published.Two novels on the anvil for publication.

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
21st Dec 2011 (#)

Have never been to Calcutta, but I have heard so much about the place, both good and bad.

My father told me about it being a city full of cutthroats and bandits from his experience of being posted their during part of World War 2. Yet the other side of this city is there support for the gentlemanly game of cricket and how thousands wait outside test matches simply to experience the feel of being there as their beloved India take on another nation in the sport of aristocracy.

As with many cities around the world they face gigantic challenges, particularly as the recession bites. I like the Metro rail that it has - clear signs that things are not all bad.

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author avatar M G Singh
22nd Dec 2011 (#)

Thank you Peter. Great of you to have commented

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author avatar Buzz
22nd Dec 2011 (#)

Calcutta is where Mother Teresa spread her love and good work. Thank you for the info.

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author avatar Tara Tandon
30th May 2013 (#)

good writing

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