Oh Calcutta!

by Theodore Dalrymple (December 2009)

A difficult lesson to learn and to accept, emotionally if not intellectually, is that there is rarely gain in society entirely without loss. That is surely one of the reasons why nostalgia is so common a response to the passage of time: it is not only lost youth that is regretted, but a lost world, at least in some or other of its aspects.

Nostalgia is generally derided as at best a useless, and at worst a harmful emotion or mood. It is useless when it leads to nothing except indulgence in itself; the nostalgic person is suspected of a kind of auto-intoxication. But nostalgia is harmful when it is made a guide to policy. The person who tries to recover the past in practice fails to understand one of the preconditions of the nostalgia which makes him want to do so, namely the irrecoverability of that very past.

On the other hand, nostalgia helps to counteract the Icarus view of life, which is that life is nothing but ascent nearer and nearer to the sun of perfection. The awareness that in some respect or other life was once better than it is now is a recognition, implicit at least, that a precondition of the possibility of improvement is the possibility of deterioration. There is no law written into the constitution of the universe that guarantees overall improvement, steady or sudden as the case may be; and that is why prudence is so great a political virtue.

Like any other virtue, prudence can be carried to excess, until it becomes the enemy of bravery, determination and daring; and even the most nostalgic among us do not wish for a return to the old days with regard, say, to medical treatment. What we really want is the pleasure of gain without the pain of loss. It is surely the role of prudence to minimise the latter while not discouraging the former.

There can hardly be a city in the world where improvement is more evident than Calcutta. When first I visited, forty years ago, it was still the city of dreadful night (Kipling’s story of that name referred to Lahore, but with how much more justice might it have been Calcutta!). In those days, what Kipling wrote seemed just as true a description of contemporary Calcutta:

The mat-weaver’s hut under the lee of the Hindu temple
was full of men who lay like sheeted corpses…

The difference between those who slept by the side of the roads and those who were dead seemed not so very great. It was said that fifty thousand people made their home each night in Howrah station. When your taxi stopped in traffic, beggars with leprosy would push their hideously disfigured limbs in at the open windows to solicit alms. One of the most unpleasant sensations one could ever experience, all the worse because one felt guilty for feeling it, was that of a beggar woman in the street, a baby in one arm, clawing or pawing lightly at one’s side with her other arm as one walked along, her voice uttering a supplication whose tone one also felt bad for finding melodramatic and not wholly truthful. This irritation, perhaps, was born of an awareness that one could not wave the terrible poverty away with a wand, that the money spent on an idle visit (little enough as it was by my present standards) would have been better spent on relieving the poverty of at least a handful of people.

Needless to say, there was far more to Calcutta than its poverty. Among other things, it was by far the most literary city in India. There was as much energy as despair, and the Bengalis prided themselves on their artistic refinement and creativity, and relative indifference to the grosser aspects of economic existence.

Forty years, and several visits later, the city is transformed. The lepers are gone, the beggars are few. Perhaps a first-time visitor would be struck by the poverty, but not absolutely horrified by it. The middle class has expanded enormously. Many of the cars are new. At night there are bright lights advertising the consumer goods that are available everywhere else in the world but a few years ago were unheard of in India. There are riverside marinas under construction and you can tell that, unlike many now in the west, people think that tomorrow will be better – that is to say, richer – than today. The age of the shopping mall has well and truly come to Calcutta for substantial numbers of people, who can at long last afford what they do not need.– a form of religious humbug or legerdemain that has always seemed to me rather unattractive.

I should rejoice at all this, of course, and in general I do, even if I have not looked sufficiently into the question of the remaining poverty and whether the worst of it has merely been ruthlessly pushed out of sight. The recrudescence of the Maoist Naxalite movement in India is a symptom that not everyone is content with the way things are going, and it is not difficult to find Indian commentators who regard the Indian economic miracle as a disaster, social and ecological. But no very poor society ever became rich in an instant, and it is probably unreasonable to expect that any should do so; India is no exception to this stony rule. Even if the progress has been uneven, therefore, there is no reason to deny that it has taken place.

But not every change is to be welcomed. A Bengali friend of mine, a doctor now practising abroad, said that he noticed a coarsening of the worldview his fellow-countrymen and an intense hunger for money that was not pleasant for him to behold. The refinement of people, still in many respects superior to that of westerners, was declining in favour of grossness and vulgarity. Fast food was making inroads into the local diet not because it was inherently better, cheaper or even more convenient for the middle classes (very far indeed from that, for they still had servants, including cooks), but because they thought it was modern and western: in other words, they lacked the proper discrimination to reject what was worthless.

Certainly the consumer goods on offer in the malls are often inferior to home-grown counterparts in point of elegance and beauty; the malls themselves are like any others, offering designer brands at high prices with inescapable rock music thrown in free of charge. It seems odd to criticise a public space in India for being blandly antiseptic and anonymous when outside people are inclined to drag up phlegm from somewhere near their ankles and spit it to the ground, but bland antisepsis and anonymity do not inspire affection. It is as if modernity dissolves critical faculties and involves throwing babies out with bathwater.

The street on which I stay with friends when I am in Calcutta, the Ballygunge Circular Road, has been renamed, in a delayed fit of nationalist re-naming, the Pramatesh Barua Sarani. Pramatesh Barua was the founder of the Bengali film industry, and it so happened that my friend’s flat overlooked Pramatesh Barua’s house, a grand and elegant two-storey Hindu-Palladian stucco villa in a state of charming decrepitude.

I used to enjoy looking into the house from the balcony of my friend’s flat. There were no curtains, and I watched the inhabitants padding about the dimly-lit and crumbling, but grand and beautiful, marble-floored rooms. They lived in a kind of luxurious penury.

Then, overnight, the current owner had the house of Pramatesh Barua, after whom the whole street had been renamed, demolished: by morning it was gone. I suspect that he had let the house fall into such disrepair so that it might be the more swiftly reduced to rubble. This was quite illegal, for the city council had placed a preservation order on the building; but the owner will almost certainly not suffer any consequences. The land on which Barua’s house was built was simply too valuable for the house to be preserved: in its place, a totally non-descript and charmless block will be built at great profit to the owner and those he has presumably bribed.

Perhaps it seems a trifle precious to mourn the loss of a mere building in a city still as rich in suffering as Calcutta. Not one in a hundred thousand of its inhabitants, perhaps, would care very deeply about it one way or the other; generations to come would not even know that Pramatesh Barua’s house had existed or what it was like. More people would live in relative comfort in the block that the businessman would build on the land than could ever have lived in Pramatesh Barua’s house. The thrusting kind of entrepreneur who behaved like this was precisely the type of unsentimental entrepreneur upon whom India’s present and future prosperity depended. All things considered, he did more good than harm.

None of these arguments lessened my regret, however. But the melancholy was as nothing compared with that which I felt on visiting the synagogues of Calcutta.

There was once a thriving community of Baghdadi and Armenian Jews in Calcutta, numbering several thousand. My friend’s elder brother lived in a building with two Jewish families during his early childhood, and remembers when he was very young being asked to turn on the lights in their flats when dusk fell

There are three synagogues in Calcutta, but one of them, the oldest, on Synagogue Street, is in such disrepair that it is said to be too dangerous to enter and is now closed. Nearly within sight of a Greek Orthodox church, an Anglican church and a mosque is the grandest of the three, the Mogen David synagogue, built much in the style of Calcuttan Anglican churches. On the nearest lamp-post was an intriguing advertisement for the Telenet Ultrasonic Pestrepeller: ‘Repel rat, mice, lizard, snake, fly, bird, bat, animals, etc.’ It was the etcetera that intrigued me.

The third synagogue is the Beth El, opposite what was once the Jewish school in Pollock Street, which had 800 pupils.

Both the Mogen David and the Beth El synagogues are very grand, capable of seating congregations of several hundred, and indicative of a once very prosperous community. The benches and chairs are beautifully-made and proportioned. There are pictures of the patriarchs of the powerful, wealthy and philanthropic Elias and Ezra families on the walls, who once dressed in Turkish costume and then adopted western costume. There are plaques commemorating their donations and in one case their sacrifice: killed over France in 1944, fighting in the RAF.

The synagogues have been declared historic monuments by the Indian government, and that is what they now are. The last cyclostyled notice posted on the notice-board of the Beth El synagogue, about a meeting of the committee, was dated May 21, 1989. No services are ever held there now, the community having dwindled to about six or eight people, mostly in their eighties, only one of whom is fit enough to come to the synagogues to light a candle on Friday evenings. Soon the Jewish community of Calcutta, more than two hundred years old, will be completely extinct.

The great majority of the community emigrated, not because of persecution, for India has never persecuted its Jews, but because of greater opportunity elsewhere. For them, the opening up of the Indian economy came too late; the community was by then too small to survive.

Both the Mogen David and Beth El synagogues were looked after by two elderly Moslem retainers. One of them showed us the women’s ritual bath and other features of Beth El with something akin to pride, not wanting to let us go until we had seen everything. I imagine he would have heard of the antipathy of Muslims for Jews with surprise, for he had worked in the synagogue since the days when there was still a large congregation.

Progress there has been, self-evidently so, but not in everything.


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