Why I don’t care about Rushdie not going to Calcutta

February 1st, 2013

Unlike Ruchir Joshi, who wrote a fascinating open letter in The Telegraph, I really don’t care that West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee didn’t let author Salman Rushdie into Kolkata — or Calcutta, as l still prefer.

I really don’t care either, though I agree, that it’s pointless to debate whether Calcutta is still India’s cultural capital, as Firstpost’s Sandip Roy lucidly explains.

The city isn’t today, and it hasn’t been anywhere close to during my brief existence of 26 years, the cultural epicenter of the country.

We might still love to constantly — irritatingly — mention Tagore, Satyajit Ray and others from that revered clutch of Bengali cultural giants, but let’s accept it: they’re dead and gone, and few like them are likely to arrive anytime soon. (Although Mamata painting Duronto coaches was a first)

I don’t care for Suhel Seth’s terrible joke about Mamata thinking Midnight’s Children meant Communists. Or how Sagarika Ghose finds it “wonderful to be in Mumbai, sip coconut water and watch the sea” while feeling “so so sad that Salman Rushdie not allowed in Kolkata lit fest.”

Instead, I am massively amused by this wave of outrage — because you should feel “so so sad” about what is happening in that city, and the entire state, in its entirety. Not because a Muslim cleric purportedly made a phone call to the chief minister asking her to stop Rushdie from landing in the city.

(Rushdie probably did a good thing by skipping the city altogether. For more on that, read postscript.)

Because the same anger about Mamata’s call must also be there for what is happening in Tamil Nadu with Kamal Hassan. But Mamata, and rightfully so, is infinitely easier to criticise — and so, as the weekend arrives, get ready to be told that the ‘nation wants to know’ how it came to this.

Yet, that is unfortunate — and more evidence that, after all, we, the middle-class holders of morality, are blind or elitist or hypocrites, or all three.

Because what I do care about is how the chief minister has quietly hiked the electricity tariff in the state for the fifth time since coming to power. About how the state’s economic growth is at a standstill; about how the finance minister, once feted for his connections in New Delhi, has delivered next to nothing; about how ‘Bengal Leads’ turned out to be a stage musical with industrialists belting out tunes, not investments and about why the state’s single largest industrial investment is still stuck.

I do care about how Pariborton has changed a city, once thought safe for women, so dramatically in the last few years that I worry about my women friends being out late; about why the police chief who cracked the Park Street rape case was shunted (never mind Trinamool’s Dinesh Trivedi); and about why the politicians of the ruling party continue to slander the victim without provocation.

I do care about how advertising whiz Bodhisatwa Dasgupta can’t raise his daughter in the city that he grew up in; about why, as Dasgupta writes, “Calcutta may have its love; But Delhi has the money”, and about why it is unlikely to change anytime soon. About why despite loving much about this flawed metropolis, for most young people there aren’t enough jobs to go around, no careers to be made. About why college students are called Maoists on national television, and about why their professors are jailed.

I do care about Bengal’s hinterland, which has seen among the slowest growth in infrastructure and consumption nationwide in the last 10 years. About why the growth in penetration of automobiles per household in West Bengal has been the one of the lowest in India, below that Odisha, Bihar and Communist-ruled Tripura in the past decade. About why only about half the state’s households use electricity has the main source of lighting; and about why less than half of West Bengal’s families access banking services.

And that is why I don’t care much about Rushdie not coming to Calcutta.

True, curtailing culture and restraining its exponents must be unacceptable.  But as with everything else, this, too, must be put in context. West Bengal’s problems are much, much bigger — definitely more important than the cancelled itinerary of one of the world’s most controversial and gifted writers.

If only some of the outrage about the Rushdie episode has elicited could be on display for all the other failings of West Bengal’s rulers, then maybe — just maybe — a semblance of actual Pariborton could arrive on the muddy banks of the Hooghly.

That, however, will probably never really happen. Just like how Calcutta never really became London.

PS: Rushdie probably did a good thing by skipping the city altogether: The airport is like the biggest air-conditioned wholesale market in the country; Calcutta’s roads aren’t much better; and the literary fest, as they mostly are, would probably be a mediocre talking shop, with some booze thrown in for free. At best, what he missed is Calcutta’s food. But that’s unlikely to change his life or mine — and that isn’t the point anyway.

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