The Chronicler of Hoogly


We booked the sunset cruise on the Hoogly recently. With winter on its way, the sun was setting early leaving behind a long balmy evening. Good time to observe the river and the city as it transitioned from day into the night.

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Boarding the boat from the Millennium Park jetty, we soon chugged out in the company of other sight-seekers like us. The itinerary was to cruise up the Hoogly to Belur Math, the much revered global headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission founded by Swami Vivekananda. We were scheduled to reach in time for the evening Aarati before we returned. Travelling with us was a Study tour group from Germany.

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As I sat on the deck, I was engulfed by a kaleidoscope of sights………….

 Of the looming floating bridge of Howrah, still considered a cantilever feat of engineering seventy-five years after it was built. Of decrepit ghats and jetties. Of derelict and abandoned warehouses, shanties and slums. Of colonial architectures separated by grimy and slushy by lanes. Of how Man’s creativity and resolve has sunk under the grime of his daily struggle and existence………….

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Of temples and riverside religious rituals coexisting with stinking garbage and defecation grounds. Of the riverside walled up   along long stretches as if to hide its shame from the very people who have sullied it thus. Of how Spirituality jostles with poverty…….

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My thoughts and emotions get stopped by a flurry of activity on the deck. Probably sensing the approaching sunset, the service staff had got busy offering beverages and ‘muri and aloor chop’ snacks while the German tourists were busy with their telephoto lenses and cameras. I look at the setting sun, the morphing shades of the flowing waters and could not but marvel at how nature yet manages to shine its beauty on an environment gone increasingly awry…………

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With the falling dusk, I notice a lone figure sitting at the rear side of the deck. Somewhat taken aback for not having noticed this person earlier, I walk across and introduce myself. “You may call me the Chronicler”, he tells me. Intrigued I plonk into a deck chair beside him. “Would you like to hear a tale about all that we are witness to today?”, comes the soft voice. Even before I can respond, the voice continues.

“Great metropolises, they say, grow out of a river. London…. Paris….. Rome…… Moscow…….. Cairo….. Istanbul. In each of these cases, the mighty rivers that flowed, the Thames, the Siene, the Tiber, the Moskva, the Nile and the Bosphorus, provided sustenance and remain the heart and soul of the cities….”

“And so was the symbiotic relationship between Hoogly and what we know as Kolkata. While today we are wont to see the river as some kind of an appendage to the city, what if I told you that it is really the other way around? That Kolkata is really an offshoot of all that the Hoogly has been witness to over the centuries.”

“When we started our cruise, we saw Fairlie Place and its jetty to the right with the Strand running beside it. So what would you say are its important landmarks?”, the Chronicler asks.

“Well I suppose it is the Customs House and the Eastern Railway headquarters. Apart from a few more important office blocks”, I respond.

“But what if I told you that about three hundred years back most of that place including what we know as Dalhousie Square was a large water body called Lal Dighi ? This was the time when the British East India Company was busy consolidating its position and Fort William stood on the banks of Hoogly. That is when the attack happened”

“Attack!”, I exclaim, “By whom and why?”

“The then Nawab of Bengal Siraj-Ud-Daulah attacked, captured Fort William and incarcerated British prisoners in a dungeon which came to be known as the Black Hole of Calcutta. An incident which directly led to the battle of Plassey and the subsequent two hundred years British Rule of the subcontinent.”

“Hang on!”, I interject. “Is not Fort William more in the hinterland, near the Maidan?”

“Indeed”, the Chronicler continues, “but what is less known is that there were two Fort Williams. The present one near Maidan was built by Robert Clive after the attack on the first one.”

“The battle of Plassey, which was to change the history and the shape of things to come for ever for the subcontinent, was also fought on the banks of Hoogly but to the north of where we are. But that is another story.”

“The Fairlie Ghat holds another interesting tale”, the Chronicler continues.” In the mid nineteenth century, Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, while travelling on a train in England, got the brain wave of setting up a rail link to carry coal from his Raniganj colliery to the Calcutta port at Fairlie. On return he invested into setting up the ‘The Great Western Bengal Railway Company’. Unfortunately, his proposal got turned down by the British East India Company bosses on the grounds that ‘it would not be possible to allow a company using such strategic technology under native management….’ His efforts and thoughts however did push the British to set up rail services though the East India Railway Company with its Headquarters at Fairlie Place.”

“Hmm! That name Dwarkanath Tagore sounds familiar. Was he in some way related to Rabindranath Tagore?” I muse.

“Indeed he was!”, the Chronicler quips back, “He was in fact the grandfather of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, that venerable Bard of Bengal and the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature more than a century back”.

“The Hoogly ghats then were a far cry from the crumbling cesspools that we are seeing today. With magnificent facades and European classical architectures, the ghats were witness to impressive steam ships and tall masted  boats sailing out to faraway places in England, Australia and New Zealand as also upstream to ports on the Ganga.”, the Chronicler continues.

“Did you know that there were thriving French, Dutch and Armenian settlements on the Hoogly in the early years of colonisation?” I am asked.

Well I had read about the French settlement and I say so.

“Fascinating is it not that events and rivalries five thousand miles away in Europe would show up in the waxing and waning of the Hoogly ghats! And so it was that as the British colonialism went into ascendancy after winning the Napoleonic Wars in early nineteenth century, the settlements of other nationalities on the Hoogly faded into oblivion.”

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“Which brings us to the Shova bazaar Ghat and its fascinating history. The Ghat and the Shova Bazaar Rajbari ( Palace), was built with great pomp and grandeur by Raja ( King) Nabakrishna Deb.The latter famed for organizing the Shovabazaar Rajbari Durga Pujo about two hundred and  fifty years ago ( which continues till today!). What is seldom spoken of is that all of the Raja’s wealth came from the huge bribe money of Rupees eighty million paid to him, Mir Jaffar and a couple of others by the British administration for betraying Nawab Siraj–ud-Daulah on the battlefield of Plassey. A betrayal which led to a small British force of 3000 soldiers winning a decisive victory over a twenty times larger opponent. A betrayal which led to the British becoming the dominant colonial power in the subcontinent for over two centuries. Is it not ironic that one of the greatest betrayals in Indian history is so inexorably linked to one of the biggest religious festivals in the country?”

So engrossed had I become in listening to the Chronicler’s tales that I had scarcely noticed the darkness enveloping the Hoogly and the boat engine slowing down.

My companion on the deck points to a brightly lit temple and ghat complex to the right. “That is the Dhakshineswar Kali temple built in the mid nineteenth century by Rani (Queen) Rashmoni based on a dream in which Goddess Kali exhorted her, ‘There is no need to go to Banaras. Install my statue in a beautiful temple on the banks of the Ganges river and arrange for my worship there. Then I shall manifest myself in the image and accept worship at that place.’ The temple attained fame because of Ramakrishna Paramhansa, the famous mystic and the spiritual guru of Swami Vivekanand.”

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The boat docks on the Belur Math Ghat. I notice the Chronicler making no attempt to get up even as other guests disembark and start walking up the Ghat steps. The tour supervisor advises us on the way to reach the temple premises for the evening Aarati. As we hurry, some of the German tourists stop to look at souvenirs in the roadside shops.The Belur Math design incorporates the different Medieval, Gothic, Renaissance as well as Hindu and Islamic styles that Swami Vivekanand had observed during his travels in India and abroad.

I return back to our moored boat with the intoxicating chants of the Aarati still resonating in my ears. As the boat starts on its return journey downstream, I look around for the Chronicler but he is nowhere to be seen. Dinner is announced and we go down to the dining room in the lower deck. The fascinating vision of the Hoogly  created by the Chronicler’s tales in sharp contrast to the hugely run-down and depressing sights I had been witness to, continues to wrestle in my mind.

What is it that has made the Hoogly hold onto its rusting warehouses, its hideous shanties and walls which no longer serve any purpose? What is it that has made Kolkata turn its back on the river that brought it into existence? What is that which leads us to abuse and neglect that very water that we consider holy and religious? What is that in our societal psyche that fuels such dichotomy?

As we reach back and walk off our cruise, these questions continue to haunt…..

 

……… In Learning.

Shakti Ghosal

 

 

 

 

 

The Oxymoron of our times


From the heart of all matter
Comes the anguished cry
Wake, wake, great Siva,
Our body grows weary
Of its law-fixed path,
Give us new form
Sing our destruction,
That we gain new life…

                                                                                             Rabindranath Tagore

               (Translated from the Bengali original)

The media remains flush with dire tidings. About persisitent US unemployment. About the Euro zone crisis. About faltering growths in the BRIC economies. On screen debates and coffee table discussions waft around how to get back to the old ways of Capitalism fuelled growth.

We remain witness to cycles. The boom and bust. The shortening of product and business cycles. The rapid changes of technology and society. As I muse, I visualise the ebb and flow of human endeavour. Of our  knowledge and  creativity. Of our  follies and emotions. I see the movement, at once intuitive and playful, of the flowing curves and trends. I see economic and social aspirations as energy, unfolding and folding within itself. I see oscillations between  active and dormant states. I start to see Creation and Destruction….

I think of Creative Destruction, a concept by Joseph Schumpeter that has often resonated with me. Schumpeter saw human advance as a “perennial gale of creative destruction”. He likened it to the Darwinian natural selection to secure the “survival of the fittest”. What Schumpeter envisioned was the economy and society constantly regenerating from within by shedding old and failing businesses and social structures as it reallocates resources to newer, more productive ones.

I do see the path that Creative Destruction has taken in times gone by. As steam powered factories and looms closed down to give way to those with electric power. As did the horse drawn carriage give way to the automobile on the roads. And more recently, how the digital revolution squeezed out the traditional photography and music industries.

A machine perennially ON, creating that which is ‘new’ as it destroys what is ‘old.’ Like Lord Siva’s Rudra Tandava ( Dance of destruction) in Hindu mythology. Like the proverbial phoenix, rising from the ashes of that which no longer serves. And as it rises, it creates new Capital, new Thought, new Man. I see unstoppable movement. To stop would mean stopping change, evolution, progress. To stop would mean the inevitable decline.

But as I muse, I start seeing how Creative Destruction is failing today, just as it succeeded in centuries gone past.

As the old “debris” is destroyed, the ground needs to be cleared for the new to arise in a sweeping upward motion. This of course presupposes that both creation and destruction take place within the same society, winners and losers standing close and people gaining in other ways as they lose in some.

The grandeur of those great American auto towns in Detroit and the tens of thousands who worked in and around have surely gone with the wind, not to return. But as these jobs got destroyed in that area, many other value added and differentiated opportunities did arise, if not within the state, at least within the US itself. So Creative Destruction did work…….but this was last century.

Cut forward to our era of Globalisation and we see the Information and Technology outsourcing leading to near elimination of that industry in many parts of the world. Jobs destroyed in fact get created somewhere half way round the world, never to return. And with this we have been witness to the near destruction of the very communities from which they emanated

Whole countries and regions are becoming long term losers through destruction versus others becoming winners through creation. In this globalised age, the integrity of the oxymoron ‘Creative Destruction’ is being torn apart, way beyond what Schumpeter could have visualised.

And so I come back to the aspect of how the current global crisis looks through the lens of Creative Destruction. Are governments the world over in fact doing all the wrong things through politics? As they bail out top-heavy banks. As they subsidise inefficient businesses. As they prevent natural job losses. By doing these, has the world willy nilly shortchanged creation itself? And sowed the seeds of Capitalism’s own destruction?

In learning…..

Acknowledgement: Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction    by Thomas K. McCraw, 2007.

Democracy: The way ahead


Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Rabindranath Tagore
Gitanjali, 1912

 

I sit comfortably ensconced, watching disparate events in News Top 20.

From Arab spring incidents to the Euro zone crisis. From dissent against health care reforms in the USto sit-in dharnas against nuclear power plants inIndia. From strident social activism against corruption by Anna Hazare and his citizen group to Wall Street protests.

The kaleidoscope and colour of humanity, its endeavours and its challenges are so very dynamic, it never ceases to fascinate. But could there be a common thread through all this? Are these seemingly unconnected events but symptoms of some deeper unified malaise?

As I set about making sense of it all, I am confronted with myriad aspects. Those that range from democratic yearnings of the disenfranchised. To anger against increasing disparity.  To democracy itself struggling to sustain itself in the face of a fast changing twenty first century world.

But is Democracy the ultimate panacea to deliver quickly on all things desired for the new aspirants in the Arab world? And as the  fiscal deficits start biting, would the much vaunted democratic freedom of the  developed world  in fact allow it to climb down to the economic and social levels of the developing world? Or would democracy be hijacked by activist groups to further fuel unrests and force Governments to hold onto status quo which they can ill afford? Are we not seeing this happening in the recent political developments inGreece,Italyand elsewhere? I reflect on all such and other questions.

Thoughts flit through my mind. Could our challenges be stemming from a democratic deficit? The issues are many. First and foremost, is Democracy in a position to cope with technology empowered individualism of this century? How do we sustain democracy when people lose contact with their elected representatives? What can make-up for Governments’ loss of control and decision making in the face of Globalisation? And how can Governments come to terms with the increasingly powerful role that media can play?

I am no political pundit but nonetheless would risk offering the following “helicopter view” recipe.

  • Get back to the roots of Governance and face to face      interactions with people. Be it through panchayat empowerment, community      hall meetings or tribal jirgas.      We need to recognize one size or shape does not fit all.

 

  • Foster values to re-connect people to Democracy and      the political process. And how does one do that? By giving equal standing      to Citizen groups for proposing policy options and shaping dialogue. We      need to create those spaces which would allow people to get fearlessly involved      and know that their thoughts are respected.

 

  • Shift our perspective of Media from its perceived      “Government challenge” role to that of a democracy enabler facilitating      information availability and public involvement in policy making.

 

  • Inculcate attitude in the Government to actively      listen to and acknowledge the individual. The challenge is huge but encouraging      online communities may be a way forward.

 

At this point in History, a millennium beyond the Magna Carta, can we provide the next scallop by accepting the paradigm that Democracy continues to be a work in process?  Until we are able to awaken ourselves in Tagore’s “heaven of freedom… where the mind is without fear and the head is held high”?