U for Über-Chic

Our Jet airways flight landed amid darkness at the Indira Gandhi International airport last Wednesday night. Most of us were tired, achy, yearning for a final destination. The family kitty-corner from us had a particularly disturbing trip, having a four-year-old who wet his pants, a baby who screamed for a good couple of hours, and finally the kicker – a lost cell phone. They were every parent’s traveling nightmare incarnate, and I hoped, for their sake, that New Delhi was the last stop.

Surya, however, perked up as we taxied towards the gate.

“Look!” he said, and everyone did. Then, ever so slightly, half smiles brightened the droopy eyes in our small section of the plane. A sky bridge had been set up for our de-planing.

Sure enough, the New Delhi airport had received a sprucing up. We no longer would have to clang down narrow metal steps, a load of carry-on luggage on our backs. We wouldn’t brace ourselves against the blast of Delhi heat and herd, like cattle, into a slow-moving bus, where the odor of a hundred bodies was stronger then the smell of exhaust. Nope. Delhi was moving up. No doubt a result of the Commonwealth Games the year before. So, it wasn’t all a disaster.

I wished for a while that home was in Delhi. Delhi is a nice city. Surya thinks it’s a little “fast” and impersonal. “Capitalism,” he says, like it’s some kind of greenhouse gas. But I like its wide, tree-lined streets, its old forts preserved right in the city itself. It’s got no shortage of restaurants, and even Kolkata’s most famous restaurant – Oh Kolkata! – now has a branch in the city. Since it’s the political capital of the country, Delhi is kept a bit shinier than most cities in India, and the place fills up every day with both Indians from all parts and people from all over the world. It’s energetic and cosmopolitan.

The Delhi airport had moving walkways now, too. It had new shops and restaurants, and an airport hotel, where you can shower, take a nap or receive a massage. It even had bathrooms with sensor-activated faucets. Very cool.

Kolkata, on the other hand, takes its cue from the last century, when the British Raj ruled with a confident and disciplined, albeit, unhurried hand. Then the British moved the capital to Delhi, and Kolkata’s gentility slid into the 21st century as a kind of provincialism. Kolkata’s airport is too small for its size, its bathrooms are best avoided, and the shopping consists of a small kiosk filled with ties. One doesn’t even think about taking a walk down a sky bridge. Netjai Subhash Chandra Bose Airport, I hate to admit, is worse than the desert airport in Rajasthan. Perhaps that’s what you get for naming your airport after an armed militant who collaborated with the Nazis. Against the British, mind you. Needless to say, his independence movement did not win over many Indians.

I was thinking about all this for the next ten hours as we languished overnight in New Delhi (Not even pretty airports can soothe a long layover). There are only so many times you can take a turn around the waiting area with your luggage cart. There are only so many cups of Coffee Day cappuccino you can have. By six in the morning, I was eager to head to our gate. One more flight. One more two-hour car ride from the airport to home. Then a cold drink or tea in the sitting room where I could listen to bird tweets and savor a freshly cut, juicy Bengal mango, or a hot shingara. And sleep. Kolkata may no longer be India’s capital, but provincial can be pleasant.

Those thoughts lasted for the first ten minutes of our stroll to Gate 63. We were at about the middle of a pack of commuters, trying to keep ahead of their pace when, the next minute, gone. The crowd thinned. We reached our tenth moving walkway, and Surya joked that once we reached the end of the airport, we’d have to take a bus five miles out to reach the Kolkata flights. It was funny until, as we stepped off, we stared directly into the towering glass panes that did mark the airport’s end. Reaching gate 63, the second to last gate in the airport, was like finally realizing what it meant to hail from Charleston, West Virginia. Yeah. I bet you didn’t know that was the capital either.

Of course, my natural instinct to support the underdog kicked in. What’s so bad about Kolkata? It isn’t West Virginia, after all. It’s the third-largest city in India. Is it lacking for culture? No. Is it lacking entertainment? No. It may not be the center of Bollywood. It may not be the political capital or the business capital as Mumbai and Delhi are. Maybe it’s not an immediately beautiful city, but it has resonance, a sort of historical mystique coursing through its soot-covered, peeling buildings. It’s beyond conventional definitions. It’s beyond chic. It’s über-chic. And I wondered out loud why no one else could see that.

“Communists,” Surya reminded me.

Oh yeah. Damn those communists. Calcutta certainly wasn’t helped by a British move to New Delhi and then, later, a partitioning of their region in 1947, mass migration from East Bengal and a few waves of famine. But ever since Bengalis voted in the Communists in 1977, snubbing the ruling Congress party, their fate has been in steady decline. In the 80s then Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi called Calcutta a dying city. To some extent, he was following the Western script that characterized Calcutta as, in the words of Gunther Grass, a, “bloody great mess that was dropped by God.” Bengalis came out in protest.

There is truth to that image from the West. When I first arrived in Kolkata I was overcome with the same sick and frightened reaction that nearly every Westerner has. From the airport, I looked through glass doors to see a tussle of palm trees, and other waxy green, jungle vegetation. Kolkata looked lush. But that idea was quickly eclipsed by the tarp-covered shacks that huddled in a ravine not far outside the airport grounds. Old raj-style buildings suffered from a paint job that had been slowly scrubbed away by the monsoon grime and a lack of tender care. The ubiquitous box-like housing that seems to predominate developing countries easily dwarfed that earlier, more delicate architecture. Exposed wires hung limply in every direction across the skyline. And I would have to return to the city, I thought, every year. When I heard the story of how Surya’s academic father watched all of his colleagues migrate to the U.K. or the U.S., while he refused to leave, I sometimes wanted to curse him for shortsightedness.

Kolkata is a small space teeming with too many people. The population and pollution grow but the economy does not. Its internal infrastructure –water pipes, electricity, roads, you name it – requires a massive, and overdue, renovation. Poverty, poisoned waterways, and monsoons that incapacitate the sewage system are real problems. Yet the image is not a complete one. You never learn that it is Mumbai and Delhi, by far, that host the largest slums, and that those same cities face similar consequences of overpopulation (Read Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City). You never learn that Kolkatans are perhaps the most cultured, the most intellectual, and the most engaged citizens of their country. Everyone who can reads a paper. Everyone votes. And these characteristics are not simply self-flattery. The idea that, “what Bengalis think today, India thinks tomorrow,” has become a platitude throughout India, however resentfully quoted it may be.

And so here I sit, having made it through the two-hour morning traffic to Kaku and Kakima’s house in Behala. The rains have yet to fall this June, and the fan whirs above me, shooing the heat away as I work. Later, we will take a walk through the market. We’ll pick up toiletries and milk, and dosa for lunch. And I’ll poke around to see just what is über out in the city today.


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