There’s a north-south divide in Kolkata which runs deep beneath any apparent bonhomie between residents of Jorasanko and Jadavpur. The Bengalis of north Kolkata see themselves as culturally superior to those who live in the southern quarters of the city who, in turn, disdainfully scoff: Culture? Hah! There used to be a popular perception south of Ballygunge, not entirely ungrounded in facts which now belong to the realm of history, that the north was all about dissolute babus lusting after nubile baijis while their lonely bibis pined away, sort of a real life version of Bimal Mitra’s Saheb Bibi Golam.
The north was where the zamindars set up home, absentee landlords who became Bengal’s compradour bourgeoisie and acquired enormous wealth between mid-19th and early-20th centuries. Ships laden with salt would reach Kolkata where they would be handled by Bengal Docking Co, the salt would be traded by Bengal Salt Co, and a share of the profits would go to Carr Tagore & Co which promoted and managed various joint stock companies. There were hints of scandals involving illicit trade in opium; many of the babus were cheated out of their home and hearth by their conniving British business partners. Others made a pile of money and built gorgeous neo-Victorian houses; their sons squandered their inherited wealth on, as the cliché goes, wine, women and music. The Tagores of Jorasanko were a rare exception.
Actually there was not much of south Kolkata till partition happened and Hindu refugees from ‘East Bengal’, which became East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh, trooped into Job Charnock’s city. They set up home (tiled roofs, marsh reed mats held up by bamboos serving as walls, earthen floors — a far cry from the splendid buildings of the north) in Dhakuria, Jadavpur, Bagha Jatin and other such mosquito-infested lowland colonies. They spoke in East Bengal’s dialect, had a fetish for eelish (hilsa) which they cooked in a mustard sauce and rooted for East Bengal Club during football season.
The ‘Ghotis’ of north were scornful of the ‘Baangaals’ of south whom they considered as no better than uncouth peasants. They spoke in Baangla, as opposed to Baangaal, insisted nothing could be tastier than chingri (prawns) cooked in a sweetish curry, and went into mourning every time Mohun Bagan Sporting was routed by East Bengal Club, which would be quite often. Enraged by the supercilious attitude of the Ghotis, the Baangaals would take vicarious pleasure in pointing out that luchi (puri) was pronounced as nuchi, lau (lauki) as nau and lebu (lime) as nebu in the fashionable houses north of Chowringhee, which is pronounced as Chowrongi. There were other crudities in the Baangla spoken in the north which Baangaals in the south described as “chhoto loker bhaasha” (language of the lower classes).
The Baangaals were dirt poor but valued education; unlike the conservatives in the north, they were liberal in their social practices and radical in their political views. During the turbulent Sixties and Seventies they emerged as the urban backbone of the Left movement. While Calcutta University suffered precipitous decline in academic standards, Jadavpur University became the hub of exciting studies (it was the first in India to set up a department of comparative literature; its engineering and science graduates are still a prized catch for Western universities).
When Naxalbari happened, the north became the battleground between Congress hoodlums and Charu Mazumdar’s guerrillas. In the south, it was Left versus Left, a fight for domination between Marx and Mao. The disinheritance of West Bengal, first by Jawaharlal Nehru and then by Mrs Indira Gandhi who, between them, ruined the State’s industrial economy through hare-brained schemes like the freight equalisation policy, hit the working class of the south the most.
All this, of course, now belongs to the past. Over the years there has been migration from the north to the south with families running out of living space. The houses with tiled roofs and marsh reed walls first gave way to pucca dwellings; these have now made way for high-rise buildings. In the early-1980s, Jadavpur was dark and dingy, its narrow roads clogged with traffic and its gutters overflowing with sewage. In the past decade or so, it has had an image makeover and is almost unrecognisable now. There are glittering retail showrooms, malls, gyms and restaurants that list ‘continental’ fare on their menu cards.
A strange patois, which Bengalis insist is Hindi but sounds nothing like Hindi, has replaced both Ghoti and Bangal dialects. Aabaar dekha hobey (We will meet again, the standard parting line) is rarely heard. Instead, Bengalis now say, “Pheer milengey”, gratuitously adding, “Theek hai”. There’s a strange, inexplicable collective rejection of Bangla culture and identity. There is no more any north or south, it’s a new Kolkata which has said goodbye to the city which you either loved or loathed, but could not be indifferent to.
Bengal’s political collapse has been coterminous with Calcutta’s cultural decline. Only a fool would today dare suggest that this is the city, this the land which saw India’s only renaissance; these the people who were awakened while Indians slept.
The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta