KOLKATA: ITS HISTORY, PEOPLE, INFRASTRUCTURE AND SLUMS

KOLKATA

Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) is dirty, hot, smoggy, friendly, green in many places, and "so humid even the buildings sweat." Despite its reputation for filth and poverty many people like it here. Even people sleeping on the sidewalks say they wouldn't live anywhere else. Located on the banks of the Hooghly (Ganges), it is a city full of poets, dancers, literary magazines and drama groups.

Kolkata is the capital of the State of West Bengal, and is the commercial and cultural capital of of eastern India. Kipling called Calcutta "the city of the dreadful night." Kolkata was capital of the colonial British India — and the base of the British East India Company — until the British moved the capital to New Delhi in 1911. It was also the commercial capital of colonial India until it was displaced by Bombay (Mumbai). In the old days Kolkata was nicknamed the "Second City of the British empire" and "City of Palaces" because so many rich Britons and Bengalis built their mansion here. Most of these majestic homes unfortunately have at best yellowed in the humidity and at worst fallen into ruin. A few have been preserved.

Kolkata is regarded as the intellectual and literary center of India. Some Bengalis say that it has more poets than Paris and Rome combined; more literary magazines than London or New York; and more theater companies and art galleries than anywhere else in Asia. The film industry here is second only to Mumbai; poetry readings are major events and "Full House" signs are often posted outside theaters. Many claim the theaters are so popular is because couple who want to hold hands and kiss have nowhere else to go."

Kolkata's colonial charms merge effortlessly with its modern culture. Slow-moving trams (the oldest in Asia) meander around the city, racing iconic black and yellow cabs; antique tea and coffee houses host lengthy sessions of adda (discussions on various subjects like politics and society). This bustling metropolis has the laid-back soul of a quaint town. The City of Joy, as Kolkata has been called, is especially lively during its festivities, which can be enjoyed throughout the year: be it the opulent Durga Puja pandals strewn across the city or the humbly sweet Christmas celebrations at Bow Barracks or the colorful Chinese New Year festivities at Chinatown.

Scenes from everyday life include women dressed in handwoven cotton sarees waiting in line at water taps to collect water or shampoo their hair; scavengers collecting bottles and scraps; and children dancing under the stuffing floating out of a bedding factory as if it were snow. Markets sell cooking oil pressed from mustard seeds and neem-tree twigs cut into six-inch sections to be used as toothbrushes. Shops have open fronts and are packed close together so that shoppers can find what they want quickly and bargain for the best price. In some places tea sellers set up shop underneath the counter of deep-fried sweets merchant. A doorway surrounded by Christmas-style lights indicate that the house that has been rented for a wedding ceremony.

Hometown Boys on the of Kolkata

Nobel-prize-winning writer Rabindranath Tagore wrote in “My Reminiscences”: “So in the streets of Calcutta I sometimes imagine myself a foreigner, and only then do I discover how much is to be seen, which is lost so long as its full value in attention is not paid. It is the hunger to really see which drives people to travel to strange places.”

Somini Sengupta wrote in New York Times: “To me, it has always been the city of green shutters. They are a singular fixture of old Kolkata houses. They glow in the steamy heat of the afternoon. Trees sometimes sprout from moldy ledges....I left Kolkata when I was small and promptly forgot what I knew...Every few summers, when my family returned for holidays, I would be escorted from one relative’s house to another, scolded for being too thin, and force-fed heaps of sweets. On Park Street, I would be invariably accosted by a hungry, barefoot child. [Source: Somini Sengupta, New York Times, April 29, 2009]

“Kolkata today is as parochial as it is modern. It lives in the past as much as it lets its past decay. India’s first global city, it is littered with the remains of many worlds: the rickshaws that the Chinese brought; an Armenian cemetery; dollops of jazz left by Americans in the war years. It is as much a walker’s city as a talker’s: It has great eavesdropping potential, even if you understand only English, and it is perfectly acceptable to start up a conversation with strangers, whether about the rain or Shakespeare.

“In an India awash in hurried ambition, Kolkata, with around 13 million residents, remains somewhat nonconformist, with glamour largely eschewed. Expect to see middle-aged men wearing the traditional dhoti-punjabi, a wrapped pantaloon-tunic combo, rather than Western clothes; typists-for-hire doing brisk business at sidewalk desks; and hand-pulled rickshaws.

“What the newing of Kolkata, as Mr. Kakkar puts it, will do to the soul of Kolkata is a matter of argument. Aveek Sen, a photography critic at The Telegraph, a Kolkata-based daily, was glum. “All the things that Kolkata is known for are on an irreversible — “he stopped to find the word, and then made a downward motion of the hand.Bengali theater is long past its glory days, he said. So too the Academy of Fine Arts, once a proud icon of Kolkata modernism, though several private galleries have opened in the last couple of years. The city’s biggest cultural event is an annual book fair, but new foreign books and journals, easily available in Delhi, are hard to come by here. Mr. Sen often spirits away to Delhi. He said the cultural life of Kolkata was “stifling.” “In Kolkata, people get used to deprivation and turn it into a virtue,” he concluded. Then he paused, offering a peephole into the soul of Kolkata. “I’m saying all these dreadful things about my city. But I love living here.”

History of Kolkata

Somini Sengupta wrote in New York Times: “On a rainy day in the late 17th century, an enterprising agent of the British East India Company named Job Charnock sailed along the Hooghly River, a tributary of the Ganges that flows from high in the Himalayas into the Bay of Bengal, and pitched a tent on its swampy banks. The company bought three riverside villages. Soon they would become a port — flowing with opium, muslin and jute — and then, as the capital of British India until 1912, draw conquerors, dreamers and hungry folk from all over the world. Kolkata, India’s first modern city, was born. Over the years, it acquired many names: City of Palaces, Black Hole, Graveyard of the British Empire. In 2001, it was christened Kolkata — slower, rounder, ostensibly more Bengali-sounding.” [Source: Somini Sengupta, New York Times, April 29, 2009] By Indian standards, Kolkata is a new city. It was the second city founded in India by the British after Madras. It was established as a trading port for the East India Company in 1690 around a malarial swamp near Kolkata, a village named after the fierce Hindu goddess Kali. The site of the city was occupied at that time by three villages, one of which had been developed by Portuguese traders as early as 1530. After the British came so many died of malaria and other diseases that the cemeteries were soon full.

In the early days on the British East India, Kolkata was the site of several important historical events involving Clive James and his crew. The basement where in famous Black Hole incident (See Below) occurred now is buried under the General Post Office building. In the 18th century, Kolkata became the capital of British India. During the industrial revolution in the 19th century the city grew rich from the weaving of jute into storage sacks and shipping opium to China.

Kolkata was a major trading center for the East India Company and the capital of British India from 1772 to 1912. Participants in the development of the were not only English and Indians, but also Greeks, Portuguese, Dutch, French, Swedes, Jews, Armenians, and Persians. Water from the Howry river and Bengali coal and iron powered the operation, and factory workers came from the countryside to live in bustees, special living quarters set up by the factories.

Kolkata was considered the jewel of India. It featured large Victorian building and opulent palaces built by merchant and traders who grew rich from the jute and opium trade. In 1912, the capital of British-India was moved from Kolkata to New Delhi. Kolkata was one of India's more affluent cities before World War II. The city began to decline when the British began leaving and were replaced by refugees. In 1943, the city was besieged by starving masses during a severe famine. Religious and political riots were common after World War II and only the efforts by Gandhi and others kept Muslims and Hindus from massacring one another.

After partition in 1947, over a million refugees from what is now Bangladesh migrated to the city because they had nowhere else to go. During the civil war that created Bangladesh in 1971 another wave of a million or more refugees descending on Kolkata. Kolkata's infrastructure was incapable of absorbing so many refugees and the city has never really recovered. Migrants from the countryside keep arriving today because there are more opportunities in Kolkata than in their home villages. Communists took over the city government in Kolkata in 1977.

Black Hole of Calcutta

The Black Hole of Calcutta was a dungeon in Fort William, Calcutta measuring 4.3-×-5.5 meters (14-×-18 feet), where British prisoners of war captured by troops of Siraj ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal, were held for three days in June 1756. Outrage over the incident and the conditions in the prison sparked an escalation of British presence and militarization in India,

At the time of the incident, the French and the British were fighting over control of different parts of India and backed different factions in the succession struggle for Mughal viceroyalty in Bengal. Suraj-ud-Dowlah, the Nawab (Mughal Prince) of Bengal, sided with the French. In 1756, he attacked the trading center of Calcutta with 30,000 foot soldiers, 20,000 horsemen and 400 war elephants. The British garrison, Fort William, which was defended by only 200 men, fell easily. The Nawab launched his infamous attack over British East India Company's decision to strengthen the fortifications around Fort Williams.

After the defeat the captured 146 British officers and civilians were placed in a 18-x-14-foot prison cell later known as the "Black Hole," where they were left with no water and forgotten about. A total 123 of the 146 prisoners died after one night in the sweltering, suffocating, crushing conditions. Survivors reportedly stayed alive by sucking their own sweat and, in the case of 16-year-old Mary Carey, by drinking her own tears.

One of the survivors J.Z Holwell later wrote: "Many unsuccessful attempts were made to force open the door; for having nothing but our hands to work with, and the door opening inward, all endeavors were vain and fruitless...We had been but few minutes confined before every one fell into a perspiration so profuse, you can form no idea of it. This brought on a raging thirst, which increased in proportion as the body was drained of its moisture." [Source: Eyewitness to History, edited by John Carey, 1987, Avon Books]

"Various expedients were thought of to give more room and air. To obtain the former, it was moved to take off their clothes...and in a few minutes every man was stripped...every hat was put in motion to produce a circulation of air...Before nine o'clock every man's thirst grew intolerable, and perspiration difficult...Now every body, excepting those situated in and near the windows, began to grow outrageous, and many delirious: Water, water, became the general cry...The water appeared...Though we brought full hats within the bars, their issued such violent struggles, and frequent contest to get at it, that before it reached the lips of any one, there would be scarcely a small tea cup full left in them.”

Death and Survival in the Black Hole of Calcutta

Holwell wrote: "From about nine to near eleven...my legs were almost broke with all the weight against them. By this time I myself was near pressed to death, and my two companions...were really so...My friends...for whom I had a real esteem and affection, had for some time been dead at my feet: and were now trampled upon by every corporal or common soldier, who by the help of more robust constitutions, had forced their way to the window." [Source: Eyewitness to History, edited by John Carey, 1987, Avon Books]

"With much difficulty I forced a passage to the center of the prison...I traveled over the dead...My poor friend Mr Edward Eyre staggered over the dead to me, and with his usual coolness and good-nature, asked me how I did? but he expired before I had time to make him a reply. I laid myself down on some of the dead behind me. Many to my right and left were sunk with violent pressure, and were soon suffocated; for now a steam rose from the living and the dead...and the stench of the dead bodies was growing so intolerable."

I "kept my mouth moist from time to time by sucking the perspiration out of my shirt sleeves, and catching the drops as they fell, like heavy rain, from my head and face...Whilst I was at this second window, I was observed by one of my miserable companions...allaying my thirst by sucking my shirt-sleeve. He took the hint, and robbed me from time to time of a considerable part of my store... I had in an ungovernable fit of thirst attempted drinking my urine but it was so intensely bitter, there was no enduring a second taste."

Finally "an order came for our release, it being then near six in the morning. As the door was opened inwards, and as the dead were piled up against it, and covered all the rest of the floor, it was impossible to open it by any efforts without; it was therefor necessary that the dead should be removed by the few that were living within, who had become so feeble, that the task, though it was the condition for life, was not performed without the utmost difficulty... About a quarter after six in the morning, the poor remains of 146 souls, being no more than three and twenty, came out of the black hole alive...The bodies were dragged out of the hole by the soldiers, and thrown promiscuously into the ditch of an unfinished raveling, which was afterwards filled with earth.

“Some doubted the veracity of the account, saying as few as 43 actually died. But that didn’t really matter. Everyone in British knew about the Black Hole of Calcutta and it helped marshaled a nasty retaliatory response against the French and their Begal allies sort of the like the one against the American Indians after the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Kolkata Population and People

According to the 2011 Indian census, Kolkata is the seventh most populous city and the third largest metropolitan area in India after Delhi and Mumbai. Kolkata city proper had a population of 4.5 million, and a metro population of 14.1 million in 2011. Kolkata is now ranked the 23rd largest city in the world with about 15.2 million people. Delhi is fifth with 28.1 million people and Mumbai is seventh with 23.6 million people

The Kolkata metropolitan area grew from 4.5 million in 1950 to 12.5 million in 2000. The city proper today has a population density if 22,000 people per square kilometer (57,000 square mile). Some parts of the city have a population density of 30,500 people per square kilometer (79,000 people per square mile).

People from Kolkata are Calcuttans and Kolkatans. The sex ratio is about nine females per ten males, at least partly explained by the influx of males from surrounding rural areas looking for work, leaving their families behind. Kolkata's literacy rate of 87.14 percent exceeds the national average of 74 percent. Hindus make up 76.51 percent of the population of Kolkata, followed by Muslims, 20.60 percent; Christians, 0.88 percent; Jains, 0.47 percent and others: 1.54 percent. Bengali, the official language of West Bengal state, is the dominant language in Kolkata. English is also used, particularly in the tourism industry and by the white-collar workforce. Hindi and Urdu are spoken by a sizeable minority. Most signs and advertisements are written in English and Hindi, not Bengali.

Bengali Hindus form the majority of Kolkata's population; Marwaris, Biharis and Muslims compose large minorities. Among Kolkata's smaller communities are Chinese, Tamils, Nepalis, Odias, Telugus, Assamese, Gujaratis, Anglo-Indians, Armenians, Greeks, Tibetans, Maharashtrians, Konkanis, Malayalees, Punjabis, and Parsis. The number of Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and other foreign-origin groups declined during the 20th century. The Jewish population of Kolkata was 5,000 during World War II, but declined after Indian independence and the establishment of Israel; by 2013, there were 25 Jews in the city. India's sole Chinatown is in eastern Kolkata; once home to 20,000 ethnic Chinese, its population dropped to around 2,000 as of 2009 as a result of multiple factors including repatriation and denial of Indian citizenship following the 1962 Sino-Indian War, and immigration to foreign countries for better economic opportunities. The Chinese community traditionally worked in the local tanning industry and ran Chinese restaurants. [Source: Wikipedia]

The parade of humanity in Kolkata includes snake charmers, astrologers, holy men, street dentists, performing monkeys, folk medicine sellers, street minstrels performing for free, and rats doing slapstick comedy in Maidan Park to the delight of crowds. Rickshaw pullers are largely gone now. Many used to come for six months to earn money and spend the rest of their time at their villages helping with agricultural chores there.

Marwaris have traditionally run the show in Kolkata. Hailing from Rajasthan, they are the merchants and businessmen that replaced the British when they left. Perhaps the richest Marwaris are the Birla family. They run the Birla Planetarium and Birla Industrial and Technological Museum. In the early 1970s there were 100,000 Marwaris in Kolkata and they controled 50 percent of the business and 60 percent of the private industry. The Bengalis called them underhanded and greedy. [Source: Peter White, National Geographic April 1973]

Kolkata Infrastructure, Urban Life, Pollution and Communism

Problems associated with overpopulation and crowding — poverty, poor sanitation, and lack of housing — are visible everywhere. Because the city was built on near sea-level marshland, Kolkata and its suburbs suffer from poor drainage and periodic flooding, especially during the monsoon, June to October.

Kolkata's problems include insufficient drainage, which causes Kolkata to fill with knee-deep water during the monsoon season; inadequate sanitation (a fifth of the population uses "service privies"); and the third of the population that lives in slums lives primarily in housing which consists of one story huts, buildings or hovels on narrow lanes that often flood during the monsoons. But despite Kolkata’s problems, the people there are remarkably resilient and friendly.

The potholes on some Kolkata streets are so big that buses get stuck in them and trucks tip over. They are nicknamed elephant holes. To get the holes in their neighborhood fixed one group blockaded the rail road headquarters and they were fixed the next day. Service privies are brick sheds with a platform over a earthenware bowl. The bowls are occasionally emptied by service workers into a truck.

Cows and water buffalo in Kolkata are kept in massive indoor pens. Since refrigeration is rare and milk goes bad in the hot climate in about five hours, this system allows the bovines to be milked and the product delivered before it goes bad. The stalls are called khatals are the animals are fed straw mixed with molasses.

From November through February, temperatures are pleasant, however the city suffers from considerable air pollution and smog at this time of the year. As of 2008, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide concentrations were within Indian air quality standards of India, but suspended particulate levels were high. Severe air pollution in the city has been linked pollution-related respiratory ailments, including lung cancer. The water in Kolkata isn’t so great either. The hot season begins in March. Occasional "nor'westers" bring cool winds and rain from the Himalayas through May. The monsoon seasons runs from June to September.

Somini Sengupta wrote in New York Times: “Kolkata from the start has confronted some of the most acute debates of modernity. Over three centuries, the folly and ingenuity of global capitalism have left their mark on my city, and then, too, so have the Communists, who have been elected to power for an uninterrupted 31 years. Now New India pokes its finger into Kolkata’s languid belly. The old houses are making way for tall glass and steel, their Kolkata Deco details tossed away like fish-heads. Flury’s, once a classic European patisserie, serves American-style lasagna instead of the white bread cucumber sandwiches of my childhood. The hammer and sickle remains the refrain of Kolkata graffiti, interrupted now by posters for English classes, the hammer and sickle, you might say, of Indian aspiration today. “Great cities get old and somehow renew themselves,” said Mani Sankar Mukherji, whose remarkable 1962 novel, “Chowringhee,” chronicled life inside a roaring midcentury Kolkata hotel. Kolkata, he confessed, cannot be called a great city.[Source: Somini Sengupta, New York Times, April 29, 2009]

“Pradip Kakkar, who, with his wife, Bonani, leads a citizens’ lobby called Public, short for People United for Better Living in Kolkata, was somewhat more generous. “Kolkata is newing itself,” he said. Public has campaigned to remove billboards that obscure heritage buildings and save the wetlands that naturally drain and clean Kolkata’s waste. Kolkata has no sewage treatment plant. The wetlands, Mrs. Kakkar said, are like the city’s kidney. They are also a sanctuary of cormorants and wagtails, where fishermen and farmers grow food on a patchwork of ponds and fields.

Kolkata Poverty and Slums

About 5 million people in Kolkata live in slums, called bustees, and another quarter million live on the streets. Kolkata’s housing problem began with the flood of refugees after Partition in 1947 and the Bangladesh War in 1971. With no housing, they set up cardboard shacks on sidewalks, on empty places in parks and urinated in vacant lots. Huts were erected on swampy land; houses were subdivided and thousands of people squeezed into apartments like passengers on a crowded bus, the source of the word bustee. In some slums one room thatched huts with 600 people were set up around a stagnant pond. The worst slums contain massive heaps of garbage and the odd dead body that are picked up by crews that make regular rounds.

The Communists took over Kolkata in 1977 and they helped the poor some but not so much. In the early 1990s as part of a campaign to attract foreign investors, the Kolkata government began taking steps to clean up the city. Shanties were bulldozed down, trash was burned in electricity-generating plants, people who spit and urinated in public were fined, and rickshaws and smoke-belching trucks were banned. The government made great strides cleaning up the city by encouraging people to take the initiative themselves and take part in community project to clean up streets, pave street, recycle garbage, purify drinking water, and install toilets.

The homeless in Kolkata have traditionally been refugees from Bangladesh or poor people from the countryside looking for work. So many men came to Kolkata from the countryside looking for work that at one time there three men for every two women in the city. The men made their living as factory workers, laborers or rickshaw pullers. Even begging is more lucrative than the money-making opportunities in the villages. In the 1980s, a man who earns 60 cent a day on the sidewalks of Kolkata feed his family of four thin patties of dried roasted chickpeas. One Kolkata man made a living selling peas and peanuts to feed his wire-walking rats.

Many Kolkata residents like hanging out on the street because sometimes their overcrowded homes are rooms the size of an average American bedroom with 16 men sleeping on the floor. Many of those living on the streets are landless farmers from Bengali countryside who are happy to in Kolkata and have a chance to make some money. But many of them have to pay a rent just for a place on the sidewalk. If there is money left over it is sent home. [Source: Peter White, National Geographic April 1973]

The people in Kolkata look vibrant and healthy. Many slum dwellers take two bathes a day. Cholera deaths in Kolkata were reduced with chlorinated water and better treatment for combating the disease. As part of Operation Sunshine bulldozers raised sidewalk shacks and food stalls on major roads and a new highway was built from the airport, The Ford Foundation, the World Bank and the World Health Organization drew up a master plan to fix Kolkata in 1966 but there was no money to carry it out.

Beggars often gather where they are likely to run into tourists. Outside the Indian Museum emaciated women with children hold out their hands. Sometimes beggars with no hands wander about with buckets hanging from their forearms.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: India tourism website ( incredibleindia.org), India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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