Calcutta, dear Calcutta !

Author Abhilash Khandekar Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 December 2017 (14:33 IST)
Name of the book : A City in the Making--Aspects of Calcutta's early growth !
Publishers : Niyogi Books
Author: Ranabir Ray Choudhury
Pages: 564
Price : Rs 995/-
 

I have hazy memories of my first visit for a cricket World Cup match's coverage at least three decades ago when it was still known by its old name, and not as Kolkatta. The czar,Jyoti Basu, was the all-powerful of West Bengal CM then but the 'city of joy', as it came to be known, thanks to the famous French author Dominique Lapierre, was full of problems. The city did not impress me much; clearly it was not a love at first sight. Load shedding, bad roads and chaotic urban sprawl was all there.
 
But the city has transformed a lot over the years, especially after the Communist regime got over. The recent World Cup football event ( Under-17) provided an international and very good image to the ancient coastal city, credit of that goes to TMC supremo and CM Mamta Banerjee.I am back here to introducing yet another well-researched book on India's very important city about which we in other parts do not talk much or even know much. Books on cities, their history and anecdotes are liked by readers but mostly they are written in English.Some exceptions are of course  there, such as books in Hindi and Marathi.I am talking of imperial Calcutta about which this well written book deals with.As we all know It was Calcutta city which had facilitated the entry of the British into India so many decades ago and no wonder we find some really beautifully designed, British-style public and private buildings still standing tall there.
 
The author Ranbir Ray Choudhury has been a well-known authority on Calcutta's past and present. He is a former journalist with top English dailies. Choudhury has written five books related to different aspects of this quaint city which he appears clearly in love with. Unlike some other books on cities' recent history, this one deals mainly about the aspects of Calcutta's early growth. It does not delve into post-independence era of the West Bengal State's unique capital that is situated on the banks of Hooghly ( Hughli) river and the Bay of Bengal. So some readers may find it less interesting but those who love history would surely lap it up.
 
Well, I bet many readers have not heard of Sutanati. Some of you may have but since Calcutta has been pushed to history's dustbin by its new Bengali name Kolkatta, I am sure Sutanati is little too difficult to recall. In fact, it was like any ordinary Bengal village until Job Charnock set foot on this small hamlet (  24th August 1690) on the banks of a not too well known river. Yet, by the middle of 19th century, it was being described as the second city of the British Empire. Credit is given to Charnock for his prudent decision to make Calcutta the base of East India Company's operations in the Bay Area.The author has done a lot of real research, dug out documents from archives to know how a set of three villages of Sutanati, Kalikata and Gobindapur came to be jointly known as Calcutta, later renamed as Kolkatta.
 
The detailed story running into some 550 pages of this book deals with the early evolution in the section 'Around the old Fort' . It was the time when the village had just no planning whatsoever, and later in 1756, when the town fell to forces led by Nawab Shiraj-ud-Daula this unplanned growth continued. Whatever we may say of the ' novel' Swatcha Bharat campaign being tom-tomed now under Modi Government, even in those days, as the book narrates, during the period mentioned above, the main effort on the part of authorities was directed at cleaning up the place and setting up essential facilities such as hospital, a jail, a mayor's court, strengthening the banks of river, etc.  All these issues are still talked about and planned in modern Indian cities. So hats off to our British ancestors who had already showed the way to urban dwellers and managers well over three centuries ago !
 
Then the book takes up in second section ' The town spreads itself' wherein details of town's planned but gradual growth which saw Calcutta expanding southward till the end of 18th century, is interestingly explained. This period witnessed land acquisition and compensation given to land owners, formation of today's Maidan, the building of arterial Circular Road and setting up of bazars and improving drainage system. While reading such books on developing cities, I am always amazed at the foresight and concern of the rulers and city managers ( a word which had not been coined then, though) about problems such as unplanned growth, bad or absent drainage systems and river bank strengthening etc. Now in the third section the author tells us about a marked advent of town-planning era set in motion under Lord Wellesley and then the story grows to the point where the famous Lottery Committee was formed in 1817.
 
What was the Lottery Committee and what significance it had in old Calcutta's overall growth under the British ? The story goes like this, since the British officials felt the pinch of paucity of funds for city development, Governor General ( GG) Lord Wellesley (1798-1805) had thought of the Lottery Committee but actually set up a Committee for the Improvement of the Town of Calcutta  in 1803. Later, the Lottery committee was set up by Lord Hastings in October 1817. The Lottery Committee itself was the successor to the town development effort initiated by the GG. The author gives credit to Wellesley for sowing the seeds of modern Calcutta as early as in 1798 when he took over as the GG. " Considering the growth of Calcutta from earliest days till it became the centrepoint of British Empire in the East, the point can be made that it was Wellesley who first introduced the tool of planning in the efforts to develop the city which, within the next one hundred years, enabled the city to attain its coveted position in the subcontinent", writes the author.
 
Wellesley was the first Governor-General to take a holistic view of the state of affairs of the town on his arrival and to engage in multiple exercises to transform the town's future into a better one. The work began by Wellesley was carried forward by his successors Lord Minto ( 1807-1813), and the Earl of Moira, later Lord Hastings ( 1813-1823). Both retained the overall administrative framework of the development effort in the shape of a general committee for improving the town and, more importantly, extending all the support they could muster to assist it in its work. Funds raised by annual public lotteries were set aside for city development work. There is a mention of Rs 60,000/- were collected through lottery, in the book.
 
Elsewhere, the author seems to have taken lots of pains to put before the readers the major stages of city's development and has  spoken about mighty Hooghly river in much greater details besides about dense forested areas in south of Calcutta and paddy fields having covered esplanade of the new fort in 1770. Reverend Long has written that Charnock had extensive physical surveys done for Sutananti, Gobindapur, Town Calcutta and Bazar Calcutta before coming up with habitation ideas.
 
Considering today's concerns about rivers in India, I quote here an interesting mention from the book about river: " The river was the lifeline of the English in the early days providing them with among other things, the comforting thought that if there was ever a siege of the settlement they could always use the waterway to get away or receive help. Yet, it was the river that was proving to be difficult for the English because of its waywardness especially with regard to the eastern bank which was being eroded by the strong current. In 1766, the Bengal Council was under pressure to protect the spot where the new Fort William was coming up because of ' encroachment of the River', a threat which was averted by spending around six lakhs Arcot rupees on a scheme to protect the fortifications.
 
The river chapter is interesting because today we see river rejuvenation projects as a new fashion and massive amount of expenses done to restore rivers for the posterity.Although Wellesley had left India with an image of Calcutta's original city planner as the Governor General, all his plans and schemes did not continue and had to be suspended for various reasons. Such hurdles however, did not obstruct Minto's path and it is safe to suggest that real work of improving Calcutta's basic infrastructure was begun during his time, tells the author.
 
Almost all of the British officials contributed significantly to the city's civic issues and urban facade. One of them worked on storm water problem and planned canal for giving way to excess of water during rains and storms. In the chapter ' Birth of a Canal'  there are absorbing details of how the officials used to think of their city and the convenience of the people, among other things. It was not that only Britishers were the citizens of Calcutta but also many Indians were staying there, known then as the natives.
 
I am quoting a para which may interest the readers and help them catch a glimpse of administration in those days.".... The magistrate wrote that "on any slight excess of rain " Chitpur Road would be under two to three feet water. The third objective was the forming of a 'direct and easy communication' with the salt water lake and that part of town." The magistrate wrote with satisfaction: " I purposely went down that road ( Chitpore Road)  at 5 o' clock on the very evening of the storm to observe the effect of the several water courses I had recently formed, and I had the gratification to observe there was not a drop of water lying on any part of the road of Chitpore....".Incidentally, the author has used at many places two different spellings for proper known like in case of Chitpur...
 
This is just a glimpse of the approach of the officials of those days towards city building. The entire book is full of such instances, thinking processes of the Governor Generals, financing patterns in vogue for the city development exercises, cleaning up the town and so on. There were several committees that were formed from time to time to help govern a newly built town in India. The author writes at once place " These aspects highlight the point that the facets of town development which had emerged over the previous four decades focussing on the regulation of space were entirely disaggregated and were devoid of any centralised approach to improving conditions within the rapidly growing town'.
 
While I don't say today's planning practices are all junk and that the city planners are absolutely out of sync of the people's needs while planning comforts and safety in Indian cities but with the chaos in Indian cities that is witnessed ( and suffered) by anyone, not much is required to be said, actually.This book uses beautiful black and white pictures of architect's plans, of old buildings and of the Governor Generals, to help a reader relate instantly to what the author is describing.
 
So from the Mughal period till the Britishers' rule, this interestingly unfolding story of Calcutta which clearly had more influence of the English than perhaps any other town in India is quite engrossing for any one who has even limited interest in history or city planning or how Calcutta became what it is today.Of course, a lot has changed in the West Bengal capital in the last more than one century but the British imprint is quite visible all over, be it cricket or architecture!

*[ The author is a senior journalist and writes on politics, urban affairs and environment. He can be contacted at @Abhikhandekar1 and at [email protected]]
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