Category Archives: economics

What to Do about Squatters in Calcutta

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 2595-2615:

Slowly, I realised something about the squatters. Unlike the millions who lived in slums, these were people who had not been organised by any political party. No one had arranged their birth certificates or ration cards. No one had got them voter cards. The census-takers did not come to their door. Along the canal, on the Maniktala side, the squatters were Hindu. On the Rajabazar side they were Muslim. But otherwise they were precariously the same. No one knew how many people were going to be evicted because no one had bothered to count how many people lived there in the first place. They were people unaccounted for, people who were not people at all.

The settlements along the canal stretched several miles. Taken together, they were as many as 50,000 people. If they had lived in one dense patch and formed a great slum, some leader would surely have come along and got them fake birth certificates and arranged their voter cards, turned them into a constituency and championed their cause. But they were stretched thin across several city wards, and so they did not count as a voting bloc, and hence did not count at all.

All the politicians I called, the ministers, municipality officials and Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), said something had to be done, of course. A local MLA met me at Flury’s, the gaudy bakery on Park Street, to discuss his grand vision for the canal. Over pastries and tea, he showed me plans that looked like a fantasy from a children’s colouring book. In his plan, an elevated highway would rise above what was now a row of toilets upon a river of shit. In the drawings, there were of course no shacks nor workshops, and no plans for the people who lived and worked there. They had been wiped out of the picture.

What I saw was this: a democratically elected Communist government was following a colonial law that denied its people a basic foothold in the city. The Communists had even stopped working with the World Bank, because it had a policy of providing resettlement to all affected squatters on its projects while the government did not. In my Princeton days, I had supported the anti-globalisation protests, which targeted the World Bank as the very symbol of capitalist exploitation in the Third World. Now ‘capitalism’ and ‘Communism’, ‘democracy’ and ‘development’ all seemed like terms whose meanings had been unmoored from their original forms. They were just empty words used by politicians with which we filled the pages of our newspapers and stuffed our brains.

What mattered was power, the power of having bodies you could put in the street to block traffic and votes you could stuff in a ballot box. Who got what was determined by who could make the most noise, who could block the most roads, who could show the most power. Each would be compensated according to their nuisance value. The meek would lose their hearths.

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Religious Segregation in Calcutta

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 2495-2525:

Imran lived in Kidderpur, a vast Muslim area around the port. His coordinates in the city were thoroughly different from mine, and that difference was coded by religion. Hindus lived among Hindus. Muslims lived with Muslims. Calcutta was a segregated city, and at least the Hindu side, the side that ruled, had long ago decided not to see this fact. One in four people in the state of Bengal was Muslim. At least one in five people in the city was Muslim. But you rarely found Muslims in newspapers, on television channels, on university faculties or even in government offices. A generation of Communist rule had stopped the riots and killings that happened elsewhere in India. The Hindu right couldn’t spew its ideology here. It was considered odious ‘cowbelt politics’, the madness of people from the North, with their backward, fanatical ways. When Bengali Hindus, whether Congress or Communist, spoke, they sounded like Frenchmen, parroting abstract universals. But like Frenchmen, they protected their bounded society with wordless codes.

The Statesman staff was full of Muslims. They worked in the kitchen, delivered tea, ran the presses. There were no Muslims in the newsroom until Imran arrived. There were no Americans either, until I did. But somehow I could slide back uneasily into a former self, Bengali, Hindu, bhodrolok. Imran had no such fallback. Our friendship, in turn, was often suspect. Was I a CIA agent sent by the Americans to uncover terrorist plots, recruiting a young Muslim to help me penetrate clandestine worlds? Such were the divisions in Calcutta that this sort of theorising seemed more plausible than the friendship of young reporters. The city to which I returned as a reporter was caught in a conspiracy of silence. The lines drawn by Partition went right through the city, pulling some people in and cutting others out. But everyone pretended not to see those lines at all. In the paper, there was no coverage of the Muslim parts of the city, unless there was a ‘communal’ issue, meaning when Muslims complained that their religion had been offended and took to the loudspeakers and the streets. What was the need? Everyone knew all there was to know.

One’s name and one’s neighbourhood are the dead giveaways. I was read as Bengali and Hindu. Doors opened and closed based on those two signifiers. Trust was given and taken away based on them. There were many times when a man would begin talking and then change his tune once he had found out your name and your neighbourhood. When I reported on problems at the Calcutta madrasa, Muslim students would complain about Hindus until they discovered I was not Muslim, at which point the mask would come on. They would mouth the rhetoric learned from political speeches and schoolbooks about how all of us were brothers.

What was unsayable politically was enacted everywhere else. In Hindu paras [= neighborhoods], a Muslim couldn’t rent a house. In many Hindu firms, a Muslim couldn’t get a job any more. In many Hindu homes, a Muslim couldn’t even work as a cook or a driver without taking on a fake Hindu name. There were no Muslim quotas for government jobs or college admission as there were for lower-caste Hindus, and little legal recourse for the daily discrimination, which was quite straightforward.

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Keeping the Poor Nearby in Calcutta

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 2165-2185:

When I worked at the Statesman, I had visited the palace grounds with Sumitro during Rath, when the gardens and aviary were opened to the public and turned into a fairground. The para’s rickshaw-pullers and street vendors milled about with their families, bought wind-up toys, rode ferris wheels and took aim with BB guns at balloons. As in the villages, a big man’s power counted in feudal and not capitalist terms. Money was not the main measure. When traders and landlords moved from villages to Calcutta to form the Bengali elite, they had brought with them entire entourages of servants, guards, punkah-pullers, cooks, nurses, weavers, potters, shoemakers, jewellers, and so on. The retainers settled around the big man’s house, in mini urban villages which today we call ‘slums’. The more people you had around at your behest, the more servants, peons and underlings, the more prosperous you were considered to be. Power was defined by the capricious use of kindness and cruelty upon the many.

How different it was from Paris or Versailles, where the Marble Palace would otherwise not be out of place. Rajendralal’s wondrous collection may have seemed a shameless exercise in mimicry of Europe. Yet this motherlode of all things European resembled no place in Europe. It was a phenomenon possible only in nineteenth-century Calcutta. When Baron Haussmann redesigned Paris in the mid nineteenth century, and in so doing producing the template of the modern city, he widened the boulevards and opened up vistas to the grand monuments, and moved the slums to the urban fringe, out of sight. To create a picturesque city, the rich were sifted from the poor, the filth removed from the gates of mansions. In Paris, even today, the housing projects on its urban fringe are full of immigrants from the former colonies, unseen and unvisited by other Parisians unless they riot and appear on television screens.

For Calcutta’s rich, the poor were an asset, not a problem. The aristocrats needed to live among their gophers, underlings and retinues of servants. Mullick’s Patronage was the basis of the big man’s bigness, as it still is today for the political bosses in Calcutta’s paras [= neighborhoods]. The city’s design follows a logic entirely at odds with what we expect modern cities to be. All those forces and peoples that other cities have struggled to segregate and sequester have been here together from the start.

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Why Write about Calcutta?

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 1380-1405:

Sumitro and I were sitting in the last row of a minibus, bouncing from Ballygunge to Rajabazar, travelling northward up the city’s spine.

‘Who are you writing for? Why are you writing about Calcutta? And whose Calcutta?’ Sumitro fired those questions away with his piercing intelligence.

The minibus was idling in the traffic snarl at Park Circus when Sumitro asked: ‘Why is it that representations of Calcutta seem unchanged for centuries?’

The first Europeans who came to these shores had refused to get out of their boats. They called the settlement in the swamp Golgotha. Most accounts of Calcutta since have hardly varied. Calcutta to Western eyes was the epitome of urban hell, the Detroit of the world, the punchline to a joke: your room looks like the slums of Calcutta. Every visitor, even those who came to slum it in Calcutta, seemed to take away the same city, I said, the same crumbling mansions of colonial elites, graveyards full of dead Englishmen who could not survive the tropics, and everywhere, like a disease, the suffering of the poor. Ultimately the slummers all fell back upon the idea of the urban hellhole, the city as a place of darkness and death. Even Louis Malle and Allen Ginsberg arrived as gleeful voyeurs and headed to the cremation ghats at Nimtala, as if the last rites were a morbid spectator sport, as if they came from places where no one died. Had any of them ever been to Nimtala to give shoulder to the dead? Had they any idea how it might have felt to be on the other side?

‘Where in the representations of Calcutta is the jumble-tangle human clot of Baguiati?’ Sumitro asked, its intersection throbbing at every hour of the day with careening autos and overtaking buses and people rushing away in every lane clutching polythene bags from Ma Sarada Stores full of moong dal and Surf Excel?

‘Why not the Maniktala Market?’ I said, ‘With its fishmongers seated on their concrete plinths like sultans, surrounded by mounds of hilsa, pomfret and koi.’ ‘What about all the shops and little village-worlds in Bowbazar, in the heart of Calcutta?’ Sumitro asked.

At Sealdah, the bus roared up the overpass we called ‘the Flyover’. To our right, the suburban train station was bright with fluorescent lights; its orange neon signs were flashing SEALDAH, SEALDAH, SEALDAH, alternately in English, Hindi and Bengali, as they have eternally in my memory. To our left, the evening rush at Baithakkhana Bazar spilled out onto Bowbazar Street. Three centuries ago, the English trader Job Charnock, who is said to have founded the city, had sat under a banyan tree there and turned it into his parlour, hence the name Baithak Khana, Living Room. The street was barely visible now, covered over by the evening vegetable sellers squatting with their goods spread out on tarps, backlit by the beckoning glow of the jewellery shops that lured in wedding shoppers. Under a canopy of sulphur street lights stretching all the way to Dalhousie, was the perpetual human parade.

From atop the Flyover, Sumitro surveyed the sweeping view of all that was revealed below, and asked, ‘Where has anyone represented all this?’

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Bengal’s New Bourgeoisie

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 560-580:

Each summer, I had returned to Calcutta for months at a time, without a project or a purpose, just to be there. The Statesman looked worse with each passing year. Most of my Statesman friends – those who weren’t lifers like Mike – had fled to the Telegraph or one of the national papers that had opened up offices in Calcutta. The times were changing. India’s corporate boom was trickling into the city. New jobs were emerging. Some friends had left journalism altogether to work in back offices, writing content and doing design for American corporations. On the verdant eastern edge of the city, a whole planned suburb called Sector Five had sprouted to accommodate them. Next to grazing fields dotted with palms and cows, the likes of IBM, GE and Pricewaterhouse-Coopers had built glittering glass temples to global capitalism. Premodern and postmodern India headbutted each other as if waiting to deliver the punchline to a cruel joke. A peasant and a programmer walk into a bar . . .

I met a friend who had found such a position in an American firm at Sector Five. As she was showing me around her glass temple, she took me to a room full of rolled-up mats. They reminded me of the mats that some of the Muslim waiters used to spread out during prayer times at the Statesman canteen.

‘Are the mats for namaz?’ I asked.

‘No,’ she said, ‘they are for yoga.’

It was the first time I had heard anyone in Calcutta utter the word. She didn’t say joge, which is the Bengali term for the breathing exercises and body contortions that we had all been forced to practise as kids, exercises that were the realm of old geezers, much like consulting astrological charts, performing exorcisms or taking snuff. Joge to us was some grandpa forcing you to sit still for fifteen minutes and pretend to ‘meditate’. This avatar of grandpa’s joge as yuppie yoga was part of a prepackaged global lifestyle imported from America.

At six o’clock, Sector Five was lined with more coach buses than South Point School. As those glass temples emptied into the streets, throngs of twenty- and thirty-somethings all lit Filter Wills cigarettes and fired off that last text message. And new masses replaced them, for another shift would start soon enough. It may have been quitting time in Calcutta, but somewhere in New York or California, the day had just begun. Sector Five was staffed by my people, my generation of the middle class. It employed thousands of men in Moustache jeans and women in Fab India salwars, the types that in my time would idle for years, having passed their college exams, offering tutoring, writing Charminar-fuelled poetry before finally giving up or moving out of the city. Those multitudes represented something unprecedented in my lifetime. Before, I had only seen such crowds of the young middle classes at cricket matches and during student demonstrations. This was new. They were not jeering Pakistani cricketers or attacking tuition hikes. They were working. In Sector Five, on parade was Bengal’s new bourgeoisie.

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Unchanged Calcutta

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 320-340:

Everything that could possibly be wrong with a city was wrong with Calcutta. The city is situated between a river and a swamp. Its weather, Mark Twain had said, ‘was enough to make a brass doorknob mushy.’ For six months out of the year, you are never dry. You take two to three showers a day to keep cool, but start sweating the moment you turn off the tap. The dry winter months, when I arrived, were worse. I woke up some mornings feeling my chest was on fire. Breathing in Calcutta, Manash, the neighbourhood doctor told me, was like smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Keeping the dust and grime off my body, out of my nails, hair and lungs was a daily struggle. Then there were the mosquitoes, which arrived in swarms at sundown and often came bearing malaria.

I could look forward to the monsoons, of course, when floodwaters regularly reached your waist in parts of the city. When they weren’t flooded, the streets were blocked by marches, rallies, barricades and bus burnings, all of which passed for normal politics in the city. Staying cool, dry, healthy and sane took up so much effort that it left little enthusiasm for much else.

Nothing had changed since my childhood. The paanwallas still ruled the street corners, perched on stoops with their bottles of soft drinks and neatly arrayed cigarette packets. On the streets, the pushers and pullers of various types of carts still transported most of the city’s goods. The footpaths were still overrun by hawkers selling bulbous sidebags, shirts, combs, peanuts in minuscule sachets, onion fritters and vegetable chow mein. The mildewed concrete buildings, the bowl-shaped Ambassador taxis, the paintings on the backs of buses, the ubiquitous political graffiti, the posters stuck onto any flat surface, the bazaars full of squatting fish sellers, the tea shop benches on the sidewalks, the caged balconies of the middle classes, the narrow entrails of corrugated slums, nothing had changed, not even the impassive expressions on the faces of clerks. The city was in its own time zone.

It was not a happy time. Calcutta was in its twenty-third year of Communist rule, its third decade of factory closures. Until the 1970s it had been the largest and most industrialised city in India but had now been eclipsed in population and prosperity by Bombay and Delhi. The only reason politicians seemed to visit the city any more was to pronounce its death.

Since the early 1990s, life in other parts of India had been improving for people like us, the educated few. The government had loosened its hold over the economy, and dollars were flowing into the American back offices and call centres located in Bangalore and Hyderabad. Countless college-educated young men and women, including many of my cousins, had fled Calcutta for these boomtowns.

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Did the Sepoys Fight for ‘India’?

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 446-447:

All the evidence from the great British listening post for the Indian troops’ thoughts–the censors office of Indian Expeditionary Force A in France that translated thousands of their letters–points to a communication gap still existing in mid-1918 between the educated urban Indian politicians and the uneducated rural Indian soldiers. The translated letters indicate among the Indian infantry and cavalry in France no nationalism as Gandhi and the Indian politicians articulated it at the Delhi War Conference. The letters’ anthologiser, the British historian David Omissi [also author of The Sepoy and the Raj], found this a ‘deafening silence’:

The ‘India’ that they wrote about… was very much a geographical expression, and one that was not central to a sepoy’s main sense of self. Even in Europe, the sepoys left little evidence that they imagined themselves to be primarily ‘Indians’… Prominent people never mentioned in the letters read like a political Who’s Who of the First World War: Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George, Herbert Asquith, Lenin, Trotsky and Gandhi are among the many who failed to make any impression. [The] soldiers never discussed… international politics, except in cases which, for Muslims, had an obviously ‘Islamic’ angle… Nor were the troops aware of, or interested in, Indian ‘high’ politics… Two men voiced a hope for self-government after the war, but neither were soldiers: one was a labourer and the other was clearly an educated man. The only letter which could in any way be described as subversively ‘nationalist’ was written by a storekeeper.

Indeed, far from subscribing to the nationalist politicians’ argument in favour of the war, many village families were against military service for their own reasons. As the demand for recruits rose in 1918, so did villages’ reluctance to send their men to fight. Rural pandemics of malaria and bubonic plague made helping hands at home all the more precious in the fragile rural economy, and the new publicity boards’ propaganda posters and poetry only went so far to convince communities that had suffered losses at the fronts to give up more men. In some Punjabi districts volunteers became so unforthcoming that the local recruitment brokers, under pressure from provincial civil authorities to fill their quotas, grew desperate and strayed into unlawful coercion. Such brokers visited Punjabi villages with gangs to seize recruits against their will, and often took cash bribes to leave a village alone. There were also brokers who abused magistrates’ powers of summons to court, by arranging for summons only to grab men for the Indian Army when they showed up.

In Punjab’s Shahpur district, the young men of a number of villages stood up to the coercive brokers, entering into pacts to resist them with force. On occasion this led to violent fights and riots, leaving village streets running with blood. The active Punjabi resistance to recruitment deterred the Government of India from imposing conscription to make sure of reaching its new annual target of 500,000 recruits. This was despite local authorities’ pleas for conscription because their stretched recruitment networks were, in the words of one British civil servant in Punjab in May, ‘riding the voluntary horse to a standstill’.

There was also coercive recruitment in the Indian Empire’s remoter hill and jungle tracts of the north-east called on for non-combatants for labour corps.

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