The rolling syllables of “Calcutta” as the Brits called it, or “Kaligata” as the Bengalis knew it in the past, or “Kolkata” as we call it today, evokes memories of a glorious past in the mind’s eyes of the city’s myriad admirers.  This “City of Joy” of Dominic Lapierre that served as the capital of the British Raj in India until 1911, has also provoked some pretty nasty and acerbic comments – like Gunter Grass’s “a bloody great mass that was dropped by God and called Calcutta,” and Rajiv Gandhi’s “a dying city.”   But of course, in a way the city’s stagnant economy, the poverty, squalor and disarray were all central to inviting such adverse comments.

Fashioned by the colonial British in the manner of a grand European capital – yet set in one of the poorest and most overpopulated regions of India – Kolkata is a city of marked contrasts and many contradictions – a city that has had to assimilate strong European influences and overcome limitations of its colonial legacy to find its own unique identity.  This largest and most vibrant of Indian cities thrives amidst seemingly insurmountable economic, social and political problems, with its citizens exhibiting a great joie de vivre demonstrated in their penchant for art, culture, intellectual vitality and political awareness unsurpassed anywhere else in the country.  No other Indian city draws the kinds of crowds that throng its book fairs, art exhibitions and concerts.  There is a lively trading of polemics on the city’s walls as well, earning it yet another handle – the “city of posters.”  Kolkata’s energy penetrates even to the meanest of its slums…

In a word, the city is an “enigma” to many Indians and most foreigners – continuing to puzzle newcomers while arousing an abiding nostalgia in the minds of those who have lived in or visited the city before.

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