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.
02 March 2019
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: