Growing up in Calcutta was an interesting experience. I was there from late 1957 to late 1980. Twenty-three whole years and a little bit more. Never lived anywhere else during that time, though I visited most of the usual places, not just the Delhi, Bombay, Madras “presidencies”, not just the Bangalore, Hyderabad, Lucknow, Nagpur “satellites” but including the Durgapurs and the Dindiguls, the Asansols and the Agras, the Puris and the Pondicherrys, the Kanpurs and Kharagpurs and Kodaikanals, the Bhopals and the Burdwans.
But I never lived anywhere else. Just Calcutta. Formative years, formative times. Times where there were relatively few real influences on me, few that had a lasting impact: my family; my friends; the school and college I went to; and the city of Calcutta.
Since leaving Calcutta, I’ve spent the next 36 years living in and around London, particularly west London and west of London. Nearly thirty of those years have been in one place, Windsor.
On my next birthday I shall complete six decades on earth. By then I hope to have become a grandfather for the second time.
I love walking. Not just in order to go somewhere. Sometimes the somewhere I want to go is not a somewhere at all, the reason for the walk is the walk. When I go for a walk walk, I think about many things. One of those things is to understand my influences, what makes me do what I do, how long I’ve been doing it, why it matters.
Of late much of my soul-searching has been on the topic of tolerance. Sometimes I think of it as a sense of inclusiveness, as an avoidance of disenfranchisement. But most of the time it’s about not being judgmental. It’s something deep in me, something I can remember as being part of me for a very long time. It made me treat emotions like malice and jealousy as anathema. I could see that my family had a lot to do with my feeling that way, we were a tolerant and inclusive lot. We still are. I could see that my friends and neighbours clearly added to that influence. The school and college I went to definitely played their part. All this seems clear to me.
But there had to be something more. And the more I think about it, I come to the conclusion that that something more was Calcutta. The city of Calcutta. Its people. The ambience and atmosphere. Whatever was in the water.
When I was there it was the capital of tolerance. Passionate argument about anything and everything, but rarely coming to blows. It was normal for me to be in a class with Hindus and Christians, Parsis and Sikhs, Jews and Muslims, Buddhists and atheists. It was normal for me to go one week to a Navjote and the next to a Punjabi wedding. It was normal for me to go get intrinsically Jewish food from Nahoums one evening and then to go to Nizams for an as intrinsically Muslim a dish as a beef kati roll.
The city had clear quarters and districts along cultural, even race, lines. You knew when you were in a Bengali part of town, a Marwari area, an Anglo-Indian locality or the ubiquitous Chinatown. Yet you were never an interloper when you went to any and all of them.
You knew when you were in a rich part of the city; you knew when you were deep in the slums; sometimes they were so close they nearly overlapped. But you could move from one to the other without let or hindrance.
There was always something “political” going on. The shadow of the Naxalite movement was strong during my teens, though I’d been too young to really experience it at its peak. And there was always a “democratically elected Communist party” doing what it could, niggling forever at the central “Congress”. [My father had brought me up reading, and enjoying reading, the Don Camillo series by Giovanni Guareschi. I tend to think we had our own little Po valley village in Bengal, with our own Don Camillo and our own Peppone.]
The last time I visited Calcutta with my family was six years ago, Christmas 2010. [I have been since, but on my own]. We had our Christmas meal as an extended family, the Rangaswamis and the Subramaniams (our cousins) with the Sillimans and the Kapoors (neighbours we’ve known since the late 1960s). South Indians and Punjabis and Baghdadis, Christians and Hindus and Jews, Calcuttans to the core, friends for over fifty years, breaking bread together. [Flower Silliman, who hosted us, could have served me cardboard and not only would I have eaten it, I’d probably have asked for the recipe. An amazing cook].
Maybe I’m looking back at that past, at those formative years in Calcutta, with spectacles tinted deep rose. Maybe.
But I think it’s something else. I really do think that there was something unjudgmental, inclusive, tolerant about the place, something in the very ethos of Calcutta.
I’ve often wondered as to where that ethos came from, what that communal spirit was founded on.
I have a hypothesis.
That very tolerance, the love that characterises Calcutta, is actually the consequence of of dealing with the victims of hate.
There was an attempt at partitioning Bengal in 1905, with all kinds of political reasons, but with the consequence of fomenting hate on sectarian lines. The attempt didn’t last long. But it was resuscitated forty years later, with terrible consequences. Man being very inhuman to man. The Partition Riots scarred everyone who was alive then.
The house I was born in had this unusual sculpture in the driveway. if you looked at it from the right angle, the fused mess of metal pottage resembled an old car. For good reason. It used to be a car. Until it was set alight during the riots, a decade before I was born. The doors of that house (and they seem massive in my memory) bore partition riot scars as well, the marks of battering rams as Hindu hunted Muslim and vice versa.
Whenever I tried to speak to my father about those days, there was silence. And a thousand-yard stare.
That was before I was born.
When I was a teenager, something else happened, tangentially rooted in the same Partition. East Pakistan decided that enough was enough, that it no longer wanted to be connected to West Pakistan, separated as they were by the breadth of India. And Bangladesh was born.
For the third time in Bengal history, for the third time in Calcutta history, we had visitors arriving suddenly and at scale. Millions of visitors.
Millions of visitors, taking refuge from the bloodshed of politics and religion.
When people pour over open land “borders”, men, women and children, carrying what little they can, it’s hard to keep count. When people literally run away from death, it’s hard to stop them.
All I know about the 1905 and 1946-47 Partitions I know from book-learning and from a few rare conversations with eyewitnesses. Estimates vary, but it appears that three or four million people came over the border. And stayed.
I was 13 when the war for Bangladesh took place. When over 10 million people fled the war and crossed over into India. When at least three million of them came to Calcutta (though it felt like thirty).
Everyone mobilised. Refugee camps all over the city. Collections in schools and neighbourhoods. This was a large scale operation. The city was literally overrun.
A crisis. But no drama.
Calcutta just took it in its stride.
That’s how it felt, anyway. Rose-tinted spectacles or not.
The best way I can describe how Calcutta reacted is to tell this story:
Millions of refugees. A city overrun. There are many things that happen during such an event, to do with shortages in food, clothing, shelter and well-being.
One such thing was an outbreak of conjunctivitis.
Suddenly everyone had extremely itchy, streaming, red eyes, crusting over with goo. Very uncomfortable, often quite painful.
And what did Calcutta do?
The conjunctivitis outbreak was named “Joi Bangla”. Humorously, with just a hint of sardonic. After the slogan and war cry of the Mukti Bahini, the Bangladeshi freedom fighters.
Where I learnt about tolerance and about not being judgmental and about seeking to act inclusive to all and disenfranchising of none.
I’m still learning. Events over the past 15 years, ever since the lead-up to the Bush/Blair Iraq War and the various elections held on either side of the Atlantic, these events have tested my resolve. I’ve had to learn not to be judgmental about people being judgmental. Easier said than done. But I’m learning.
We live in interesting times. Whatever your politics, one thing’s for sure. There are problems the world faces that need us to act as one, united, humankind. People can decide that globalisation has had its day and needs to be rolled back. People can decide that the politics of liberals have become irrelevant. People can decide that it’s time to start a second Cold War.
People can decide many things.
But issues to do with climate change aren’t going to go away. Challenges to do with fresh water aren’t going to go away. Challenges to do with nutrition and illness, obesity and immune system deficiencies, aren’t going to go away. Challenges to do with what we’ve done to our food chain aren’t going to go away.
People can decide many things. Yet many critical issues that affect all of us aren’t going to go away.
We’re going to have to work on these issues together. Together.
Without being judgmental of each other, while being tolerant of each other. While making sure we listen to everyone. Not just the 48% or the 52% or the 1% or the 99%. Everyone.