Cultural narratives of Calcutta (Kolkata) are codified through cinema and literature, othering and invisibilising other parts of Bengal.
In my childhood, a distant cousin visited Calcutta (now Kolkata) for the holidays. When he returned to the village, all of us primary schoolgoers rained questions on him: “How was Calcutta? What did you see in the city?” To which he replied, “I saw Mithun (Chakraborty) and (Amitabh) Bachchan roaming around the city on a bike.” We were pleased with his answer as if it confirmed our imagined goings-on in the city. When I was in high school, a teacher who had studied at the Presidency College in the city told us the story of his first day in the college, shocking us with details of how a female classmate asked for the lighter to light her cigarette just as he had finished lighting his own. The classmate lit her cigarette and returned the lighter with a thanks, but none of this had registered in our shocked storyteller’s mind, who snapped back into reality only when his cigarette finished burning between his two fingers. Around the same time, we had some visitors to our village from Calcutta, one of whom had asked the other, after a visit to a paddy field, whether paddy stems were used for making cots!
In our schoolbooks, we read completely opposite and extreme descriptions of villages and cities, pitting them against each other—the village as all that is good with the world, and the city as the dark underbelly of humanity. Bengali movies and songs too, with an overemphasis on Calcutta as a stand-in for Bengal, have led to Calcuttans claiming and proclaiming all Calcuttan identity as Bengali, othering the rest of Bengali culture. Oftentimes, this has led to people from other parts of Bengal coming to the city with a sense of fear and distrust, believing that the city does not belong to them and is owned solely by urban Bengalis of a higher class. As a result, when I first came to Calcutta in 2000, I was very afraid of the city. I felt that I was an outsider to this great, scary, alienating city that was beyond my grasp. I had similar feelings of foreboding and uncertainty when I arrived at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus of Mumbai and the New Delhi railway station for the first time. This was because of the image of these big cities as intimidating, evil, unfamiliar, and alienating, perpetuated by Hindi cinema as well as the administrative/political importance these cities held in our history, taught in schools and colleges. But I never had such feelings for any of the south Indian cities because of their absence from our cultural imagination. None of the films we watched in our childhood—with our limited knowledge of Bengali and Hindi cinema—represented south Indian cities in the way Mumbai and Delhi were represented. Most of our exposure to south Indian cities was through school history books, which portrayed them somewhat one dimensionally, as places of rich cultural heritage.