Having lived in Bangladesh for nearly three years, my family and I figured it really was about time we went to visit our giant neighbour and the ‘mother’ that gave birth to this country that we love so much. With my own mother having been born in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and her parents born and raised in India too, this made the need to go all the more important. So we packed our bags last month and set off for India.
Even before arriving by train in Kolkata, we could see that life for the majority of Indians was just the same as for Bangladeshis. As paddy field after paddy field went by we almost lost track of which country we were in as we passed over the border and it reminded us that most of the people from both countries work on the land and the land in the West Bengal /Bangladesharea is green, lush and wet – ideal for rice crops. These lands belong to the farmers.
When we arrived at customs the security officers were amazed and delighted that we spoke Bangla and being able to do so certainly helped us throughout our time in India. My daughter was embarrassed by the number of people – guards, police, taxi drivers, shopkeepers and so on – that I told our entire life history to in Bangla! It was a bizarre feeling to have one’s hand shaken so many times by men who insisted on thanking me that I learned their language. I felt something of a cheat, to be honest, as I am very aware just how awful my Bangla really is.
When we arrived, however, we could see so much that was new to us. There was not doubting that Kolkata was not Bangladesh. Road names were different, new buildings erected, Hindi – alongside English and Bangla – written everywhere, it was cleaner – just. And a lack of the sound of mosques – something in BangladeshI had grown used to hearing 5 times a day. In predominantly Hindu Kolkata there was only the faint sound of the call to prayer from a distant mosque. Here in Bangladesh I will hear two or even three local mosques giving the call at the same time. We could tell these two countries were related cousins, but they each had their own identity.
That said, the strangest thing of all was just how much Kolkata had not changed from what I knew of the British Raj era. The roads, despite official new names such as Nehru Road and Gandhi Road they were still known by their old names (Chowringhee and Harrison Road). Taxi drivers had no idea where Bose Road was , yet they could lead you to Lower Circular Road without difficulty (they are one and the same, in fact).
Most of the old Raj buildings were still standing and still being used. The Victoria Memorial, The Old Government House, Fort William– they were all still there and still in good condition. Many other raj era buildings were not so fortunate though and either falling down, partly demolished or needing to be condemned. Sadly, as with Bangladesh, I saw many a building in deplorable conditions yet every balcony had clothes hanging out to dry – telltale signs of the poor residents eking out an existence within.
The language I saw used more than any other was that of English and not a single sign – shop, road nor advert – seemed to avoid its use. Although we spoke in Bangla most people wanted to speak in English when they could – or even when they couldn’t. Generally though, Indians were more polite and more used to white westerners. I had very little hassle from any wanting to find out everything about me though I did face the usual “what country are you?” with the important ‘from’ dropped as usual. For some reason my answer “Bangladesh” was always met with disbelief.
The overall impression I took from all of this is that India, having succeeded in ridding itself of the British, actually seems to have almost a nostalgic yearning for that era and a reluctance to let go of many of the influences of that time. Where Bangladesh, post-Raj, then had to go on to fight for its own land and language all over again and defined its character as a result of that struggle, Kolkata seemed almost to have no idea of what it wants for its own identity. Even its name, changed back to Kolkata in 2001, still was more often than not written or spoken of by locals and on signs as Calcutta.
I had a marvellous time for the few days I was in Kolkata and gained a real sense of finding my true roots there but I was overwhelmed by a great sadness I when I looked outside our guest house and saw two babies sleeping under what I can only describe as a cake cover laying on the road whilst their mother begged for spare rupees.
The people of India are still very much as poor as they were in the time of the Raj and Bangladesh, with 24 years of further subjugation and abuse is even more impoverished. I felt saddened that little has improved in the areas that really need it. Instead, these two amazing countries seem to have picked up one awful rule from Britain and the West:
The rich should get richer and the poor should get poorer.
What a sad indictment of the legacy the British left behind.