I stepped out of the hotel yesterday morning and for a long time sat under a balcony watching the rain pour down ceaselessly. The effect was like buckets being emptied in endless succession. I remember fifteen years ago in Bangalore, pushing my scooter through water that was waist deep. I lost my shoes, the scooter had to be repaired. I remember the hot bath when I came home, the pleasure in washing the mud off my body.
The rain waters on the roads in Kolkata did not reach waist level though some people did have to wade through waters half way up to their knees. A baby was washed away while their family slept on a narrow platform on a slighter higher level. Taxis refused to bring my colleagues doing the UEA writing workshop and one girl wrote of wanting to cry on the side of the road as she could find no transport. Another girl doing the workshop could not meet her husband who had flown in specially for their wedding anniversary.
What is it that has changed in India? People speak of modernity, it is a word thrown around in conversations; women smoking in groups, torn jeans, swanky malls, high-rises, swimming pools, conversations in English. The news about the baby who died that night had a small mention among all the other reports. Where is the modernity I ask when a sleeping baby can float away in the night and no one gives voice to the loss of his parents- these pavement dwellers in the city of joy?
When I can, I try not to breathe in Kolkata too deeply. I am susceptible to asthma. So it was with some apprehension but with an equal amount of expectation that I joined Amit Chaudhuri, Ian Jack and students of the UEA writing workshop for a walk around the neighborhoods of South Kolkata.
Amit or Amit da as I call him is spear heading a campaign to save the architecture of the city from developers and builders who are changing the once eclectic skyline of the city to one jagged with sky scrappers.
These houses of the Bengali middle class are defined not only by the curious time under the British when they were built but by quirky details such as verandahs surrounding upper levels and grates and grills with designs. I know not much about architecture but beauty even in shabbiness I see, recognize and admire.
Residents standing on their balconies glared at us and we stared back. I ventured to smile but no one returned the smile to me.We stood under awnings when the skies opened up. Rain-I love rain. I love the softening of the earth, I love the hope it brings. We walked into by lanes empty mostly of traffic, houses past and present jostling for space-an intimacy that characterizes the heart of this city. Men playing cards on the side walk, an old man bathing under a water pump. The heart of Kolkata beats here openly- not yet dug up and replaced by new structures that are almost ugly in their undisguised utilitarian pretexts of modernity.
If you are interested in signing the campaign to save the architecture of Kolkata sign the petition here- Petition