Friday, January 06, 2012

Oh! Calcutta :) to OMG, Kolkata :(

In one of my previous avatars (!) I was a final semester engineering student.

There was a campus interview.  I had no idea what the hiring company was and nor did I care.  I had no idea what I was supposed to wear, or how I ought to behave, and I cared not.

It was quite an interesting interview I had with the personnel guy.  He easily figured out that I was not keen on an engineering career.  We talked and talked about societal and political issues.

He then took out a blank paper and drew concentric circles.  Pointing to the innermost, and the smallest circle, he said that was the limit to which I can directly act. An immediate outer ring, he said, is where perhaps I could influence actions.  Anything beyond that was stuff that I could only talk about and can't do a damn thing.

I thought it was all over.

But, surprise, surprise, I got a job offer.  And, a choice of locations as well!

"Calcutta, or Madras?" he asked.

"Calcutta" I said.

I figured it was a wonderful opportunity to go to a part of the world about which I had read and heard about a lot, and to experience it.  I loved rasagollas, and the literary and political influences that Bengal had played in India's freedom struggles.
I was also aware then about how much Calcutta's glory days were long over.  Rajiv Gandhi, who was the prime minister then, invited the wrath of Bengalis everywhere on the planet by declaring that Calcutta is a dying city.

But, there was no doubt in my mind that I needed to take that option over Madras. 

That is how my global wandering began.

Everything that could be wrong in a city was there in Calcutta: cramped quarters that were dark even when there was ample light outside, potholes, crowds on buses, crowds in slow moving trams that seemed ancient, smoke everywhere from generators that were used because of power shortage, ....

But, it was all ok--I ate rasagollas every single day :)

I didn't stay on the job and in Calcutta for too long though.  Ten weeks later, I turned in my quit notice. The personnel guy tried to convince me that I could stay on and yet take the GRE and work on the applications.

But, I couldn't.

I was tired of engineering.

I left the city.

A few years into graduate school, I visited Calcutta again.  This time, I was devoid of any romantic notions about Calcutta, and had also lost my taste for sweets.  There was no charm in Calcutta.  The curtains had been peeled back to reveal all the negatives.

Reading this piece in The Economist makes me think that the city's conditions have only worsened:
Calcutta lost its title as India’s capital a century ago, and its status as the country’s industrial engine in the 1950s. By the early 1970s visitors were making apocalyptic predictions of plagues and starving, rampaging mobs, and by the end of that decade Marxists were in charge. Today Kolkata evokes Havana, beautiful but shabby, the last city to remain largely untouched by India’s 20-year boom.
When Calcutta is compared to Cuba, well, it is time the people there got on lifeboats and rafts and rowed their ways to the equivalent of Miami!

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