( Himal SouthAsian Mar 2008)
Sometimes historical facts tend to obscure current realities by transforming themselves into popular myths. The bangaliana of Calcutta is one such example – the city’s pervasive projected identity is defined by the lifestyle and cultural moorings of a specific class of the middle-class Bengali. Yet of course, in the manner of all economically strategic centres, Calcutta has never been exclusive to any one ethnicity or culture. But for several centuries since its supposed British founding in 1690 (a date that is now widely debated), Calcutta has certainly been a ‘Bengali’ city. Indeed, it is only during the latter part of the 20th century that minority communities in the city have ceased to be mere statistical figures and begun to assert themselves culturally. This transformation has become particularly noticeable on the city’s streets, in the faces of the daily labourers and street vendors who are largely from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and the Rajasthani accent that has secured a place for itself among the middle- and upper-middle-classes of the business community. The diversity of Calcutta, always present in reality but long absent from the vision and imagery the city invokes,within its constituents and beyond, has undergone a transformation.
In the collective mind of the city, the parallel non-Bengali cultures always had a certain niche. But centres of parallel cultures that held cultural prominence during the time of the British Raj have slowly been moved to the fringe of popular consciousness in Calcutta. In this way, over the past few decades their impact on the city’s mainstream culture has been significantly diminished.however, this new consciousness seems to somehow have lost sight of the older centres of non-Bengali parallel cultures that held great prominence at the time of the Raj, such that the most prominent such centre, Chitpur Road, has become a fringe slice of exotica with very little influence on Calcutta’s cultural composition. Instead, the newly conjured multiculturalism is more of an extension of the projected idea of a modern, urban, pan-Indian ‘culture’. Fortunately, buried amidst this new gloss there remains a sublet tapestry in certain parts of Calcutta: its own organic fibre of a-modern multi-ethnicity – muted, non-jazzy, real.
What was named Lower Chitpur Road after the British birth or rebirth of Calcutta historically predates the city. It is a part of the old stretch between Kalighat and the capital of the Nawabs of Bengal, Murshidabad. In postcolonial Calcutta, its great thoroughfare status has been taken away by the newer, more spacious Central Avenue (which has, since the nineteen thirties, been officially called Chittaranjan Avenue, but the colonial name persists in public memory), and with the decline of the baiji or nautch-girl culture, Chitpur Road has also lost it’s place on city’s internal entertainment map. Nonetheless, Chitpur remains crowded throughout the day, mostly with trams, buses, cars and carts jostling for space, and with people who see it as a connector between more ‘modern’ sections of the city, but also with those who still define their lives around the aura of quaintness Chitpur Road has developed with evolving times — traders selling hookahs of silver, glass and jute, street-vendors advertising food that finds no mention in the city’s mainstream restaurants, and perfumes or attars that the average Calcuttan of any faith traditionally associates with Lucknow.
Lower Chitpur Road can be divided into two parts, the Muslim Bihari-Lakhnavi section and the Hindu Marwari-Bihari section. The confluence of these two is, perhaps aptly, at Mahatma Gandhi Road. The area, which has its inhabitants live by its amodern cultural specificities, in its trade, faith, food and perfume, would be a strange conundrum to the liberal modern-secular.
Especially so in Calcutta, which construes such concepts as “secular” and “communal harmony” as the primacy of a civil identity of the individual over a religious or ethnic one; indeed it is a matter of pride amongst certain sections of the city’s inhabitants that communal politics has found little place in it over the decades. Chitpur Road, however, stands in sharp contrast to this interpretation of secularism, portraying instead a system where purportedly incompatible religiocentric lifestyles occupy living spaces in close proximity to each other, and manage, it would appear, rather better than planned attempts at cohabitation. Here, it actually is the living faiths in living spaces that constitute a force that allow for the ‘edges’ of purportedly dissimilar communities to live side by side. In the Calcutta riots of 1946, Chitpur Road was certainly the scene of some violent acts; but at the same time, it was also the theatre of a much greater number of instances of public resistance to troublemakers deemed as ‘outsiders’.
Living faiths in living spaces are the arena for action of long range forces in time, that make purported edges brush with each other and not bristle, without losing the edges.This could be due to the pragmatism of the trader and the common marginality of both of these communities (non-Bengali Hindu and Muslim) with regards to ‘Bengali’ Calcutta. But, the section of Mahatma Gandhi Road that runs through Lower Chitpur Road is as much a confluence of two cultures as a sharp visual divider between them. And thus the Marwari merchant of Sri Ganesh Stores, selling mattresses bearing motifs of the Kaa’ba becomes as unique to Chitpur Road as does the suburban daily-train-riding Hindu clients of the Ambari Tobacco and Hookah Shop (see pics). In their combined ambience, these individuals do not actively seek unity. The long-range forces that arise out of faith as practiced by the common masses, after all, are not cynical social-engineering projects. Instead, they are primarily methods of peaceful existence. These are not proactive interventions that seek unity, but rather mere interactions that arise almost invariably due to individuals who live side by side – this is what ensures the possibility of coexistence. Living faiths hold in its corpus and in its praxis by little people an idea of non-modern tolerance, ensuring mutually non-annihilatory co-existences. And not based on urban industrial dystopias of assimilation by denial of cultural choices of the ‘Hum sab ek haain’ (We are all the same) kind, faith keeps it real.
Lower Chitpur Road thus presents a close encounter of another kind: the geography here breeds engagement, possibly not as neighbours but not as aliens either. Living faiths are the cement that minimises friction here – acknowledging the natural difference in the kind of faith, but through a tacit acknowledgement of what can be thought of as the ‘spread-out location of the divine’. From faith and engagement with the divine is able to grow an appreciation of someone else’s path to the divine, subsequently leading to a reverential non-engagement. This is in sharp contrast to the modern usage of religion by various types of politician: from the cynical instrumentation of faith by religio-nationalists to the hubris-laden denunciation of faith by progressives.
Refresh the memory
The advertisements on Chitpur — not the large billboards owned or rented by well known advertising agencies, but the hand-painted tin boards and shop sign-boards — are yet another reminder of it’s uniqueness. Billboards are written in English and Urdu, gradually changing to Hindi and sparingly, Bangla, as we moved from the visibly Muslim area to the Hindu one, obviously marking the demographic change along the way. Hand-painted bills advertise special prices on couriers small Uttar Pradesh towns as Faizabad and Moradabad – names that rarely, if ever, merit mention in the average Calcuttan’s travel itinerary. Signboards over street shops promise delicacies, the likes of which are rarely encountered in other Calcutta eateries, even in traditional Mughlai restaurants.
And, of course, there are the wares: chamors (made of the tail-hairs of chamri gai or yaks and used in Muslim, Hindu and Sikh religious ceremonies), attars, tobacco-cutters, every kind of Indian musical instrumnets, strange desserts. These are all relics of older, barely electrical days of a more antiquated style of living and of business; one of trading through the day before the nine-to-five schedule gained widespread popularity. To the Calcuttan inhabiting the space we shall broadly call the modern, mainstream life, these almost uniformly empty shops and genteel, indulgent shopkeepers might well be a live show in an anthropological museum.
In Chitpur’s Muslim section, there are references to a mythic Mughal connection. The Muslim lower-middle-class of this area, of course, never had much in common, even historically or culturally, with the great rulers of Hindustan and their ways of living and eating. But when a hole-in-the-hall eatery displays an advertisement board reading “Ahd-e-Mughaliya ka yaad taza kaarein” (Refresh the memory of Mughal times), the lingering appeal of claiming connection with what was arguably the greatest period of Muslim cultural richness is clear.
After crossing Mahatma Gandhi Road, the change of the outward character of shops from the Muslim section to the Hindu one is a drastic one, not only in shop names but in wares, too. Moradabadi stores give way to Bikaner Bhujiawalas. Suddenly there are no more lungi shops or itr khanas (perfumeries). Khaini sellers replace hookah shops. Street vendors selling paan, durba grass, mango leaf and other signifiers of Hindu rituals are suddenly conspicuous, as are swastikas as the omnipresent emblem of faith, whether of one kind or another. There is even a nuanced change in the character of street foods – vendors of dates, kulfis and sheek kebabs give way to phuchka and masala muri.
The bustling streets thin slightly during early evening prayers of the Muslims. Those that had just concluded their prayers go in groups into the Aminia, one of the oldest Muslim eateries in Calcutta. Others are hurrying from the Mahatma Gandhi end to the Lalbazaar end, using Chitpur merely as a conduit. Meanwhile, the cordial, smiling shopkeepers sit in their shops, and watch the city with an air of ambivalence. For our part, we too sit and watch this complex flow. In the smells of unidentifiable spices and roasting meat, in the fleeting reflections on the polished silvers and brasses of hookahs and massive pots and pans, we too catch a glimpse of life governed by a different ethos of trade – one in which interactions are personal, time is less of a commodity, and aspirations to change are not nearly so virulent.