It’s impossible not to be impressed by the speed and ambition with which the new Kolkata has mushroomed.
To understand this Calcutta—a city in decline—it’s helpful to start from a different beginning. In her innovative new book, Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta, Debjani Bhattacharyya, a professor of history at Drexel University, describes how Bengalis had their own story about Calcutta’s origins. “Legend has it that the city was born when the ocean started churning, and a tortoise,” pressed between the mountains and the force of Ananta, the infinite, “gasped out a deep breath.” Its breath made the Bengal Delta, a vast 40,000-square-mile area where the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers seep into the Bay of Bengal. This legend, like the legend of Job Charnock, also carries an element of truth: Calcutta rests on shifting ground. It should be no surprise that its fortunes have shifted too.
Bengalis have many words for the kinds of terrain that emerge and disappear between the river’s shifting channels, including char, for the new sedimentary deposits turned up by every monsoon; chechra bhanga, for the silt that emerges when the floodwaters recede; and chapa bhanga, for large chunks of land that the water breaks off and carries away. In the early nineteenth century, East India Company engineers started building embankments and canals to dry out the delta, turning it into solid ground, and solid ground into real estate.
One often says that empires are “built,” but Bhattacharyya’s book implies that it would be more accurate to say the British drained Bengal. The draining of the soil reflected the draining of the region’s wealth.
Dreamers by Snigdha Poonam, a superbly reported study of aspirational Indian millennials and one of the best books about Modi’s India to date. Many of her subjects are the first in their families to receive any higher education and to learn English, which is crucial for upward mobility. In place of the colonial-era English-language schools to which only an elite had access, the rising generation studies so-called Spoken English, a shortcut to fluency.
Poonam interviewed Moin Khan, a teacher at the nationally franchised American Academy of Spoken English, who offers dialogue-based classes with the evangelism of a motivational speaker. “Wherever I might be in India, knowing in my heart that I can speak in English gives me confidence to face anything,” he told Poonam. Such a message reverberates in India, where self-help literature is wildly popular, and which has more than twenty official languages. “If you realize what is your power, you can do anything,” one of Khan’s students said.
“What happens when 100 million people suddenly start dreaming big, in a place where no one is prepared for it?” Poonam asks. They might support the prejudices that come with Modi’s promises: against Muslims, against intellectuals, against troublesome minorities.