About the Book
Redeeming Calcutta takes a fresh look at one of Asia's great cities, a metropolis of hope and decay that was once the Second City of the British Empire. In this storied colonial metropolis, National Geographic photographer and educator Steve Raymer discovers a city of high culture, leftist politics, and ambitions to reclaim its past grandeur. Raymer's compelling photographs, coupled with a timely and detailed text, paint an inclusive and nuanced portrait of Calcutta, a city long neglected by Western journalists except for its poverty and sorrow.
About the Author
Photographer and educator Steve Raymer teaches visual journalism, media ethics, international newsgathering, and war correspondence at Indiana University in Bloomington. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin and the Knight Journalism Fellowship Program at Stanford University, Raymer was a National Geographic Magazine staff photographer for 24 years, reporting on such topics as global hunger, the illegal trade in endangered animals, the humanitarian work of the International Red Cross in war zones around the world, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Raymer is author and photographer of Images of a Journey: India in Diaspora; Living Faith: Inside the Muslim World of Southeast Asia, and St. Petersburg, a book about the imperial Russian capital. He also is photographer of Land of the Ascending Dragon: Rediscovering Vietnam and The Vietnamese Cookbook.
Raymer has been named Magazine Photographer of the Yearone of photojournalism's most coveted awards by the National Press Photographers Association and honored by the Overseas Press Club of America for excellence in foreign reporting. Raymer also has won numerous awards from the White House News Photographers Association and has received a Fulbright Research Fellowship from the United States Department of State to support his research and teaching in Asia.
As I look at the remarkable photos assembled here, certain questions strike me with force. Questions related to what John Berger once called "ways of seeing." The city presented here between two covers and in telling colors is both familiar and strange. Familiar because Calcutta was the city where I was born and brought up to be an educated, middle-class Bengali, a member of the so-called bhadralok, until I left the country in 1977. Certain iconic scenes are familiar, both from memory of the city and from the way images of Calcutta have been shaped by generations of photographers who have portrayed the city with affection: the majestic Howrah Bridge over the Hooghly, the very modern Vidyasagar Setu, the Hooghly with its various boats, ghats, and people carrying out their ritual ablutions, images of the goddess Durga, Raj Bhavan, Nakhoda Mosque, Pareshnath temple for Jains, St. John's Church, and, of course, the Victoria Memorial with lovers on its grounds. They provide a kind of scenic relief from the proverbially grimy reality of the city, not only for the visiting photographer and the tourist but also for the millions who make up its population.
Yet Professor Raymer's photos also re-introduce me to Calcutta, as if to a long-lost friend, and I begin to see the city afresh and to see certain things differently. This collection as a whole challenges the internal fragmentation on which Indian cities perhaps cities anywhere thrive. There are certain kinds of everyday non-seeing of one another that was, and still is, a part of my sense of being a citizen. As Bengali children, for instance, we all grew up reading about the heroism of educational reformers of Bengal who led the campaign for women's education but read not a word about Sitaram Seksaria or Bhagirath Kanoria who carried out very similar reforms just a few miles away from where we lived among the Marwaris of Calcutta. This insularity was not the monopoly of anyone group. As a practice of a certain kind of everyday indifference, it has had a long life in Indian cities. When the Marwari trader Banarasidas, for instance, wrote his fascinating seventeenth century autobiographical tract, Ardhakathanak or Half-A-Tale, set in the city of Agra, his narrative contained little beyond what immediately affected his own Shrimal Jain community. An anecdote I was told a few years ago provides an extreme and humorous instance of this practice. The story related the experience of an American linguist who had done her PhD on ancient Tamil of the Sangam period (3 BCE to about BCE). Never having been to Tamil Nadu (as this was not required for her research) but having gone to some trouble learning classical Tamil, she finally won an award allowing her to spend six months in the Tamil city of Madurai. It surprised her to find on arrival that nothing in the city resembled the ancient Tamil culture she had read about in texts: the flowers she expected to see, the building styles, or the fashions of women. Perplexed, she asked her neighbor one day for an explanation: What happened to the culture of the Sangam period? "No idea," said the neighbor, and added apologetically, "you have to ask someone local we are not from here, you see." "Oh," said the linguist, "so where are you from?" "We are from Karnataka," the neighbar said, "the next state." "And how long has your family been in Tamil Nadu then?," asked the linguist. "About three hundred years," said the neighbor, completely oblivious of the impact his answer might have had on the visitor to his city!
Some scholars Meaghan Morris, for instance now have a name for this phenomenon. They call it "proximal distance." The presentation of the city in this book subtly confronts that practice. The visitor sees the city as a whole or a unity that never has existed for the insider. As a Bengali inhabitant of Calcutta, I would see the immigrant Bihari laborer every day but only in passing. He is typically a garbage-remover in my neighborhood or a rickshaw-puller on the streets I travel. I notice him as a figure but not as an individual. The photos in this book on the other hand compel me through their aesthetic force to dwell on the face of this man, to notice in detail the rugged lines of his dark, furrowed, and prematurely aging skin, his scraggly beard, his broken and stained teeth, the cheap scarf (gamchha) doubling up as his headgear and a towel with which to wipe off sweat, his eyes made murky by I know not what age or early cataract? Yet, however much I linger on the photo, the image never settles, for it is neither that of a fully fieshed-out individual nor simply that of a type. But whatever it is, it is not how I would have seen him in the realm of the everyday.
There is also a welcome historicism that I notice in Professor Raymer's efforts. In spite of the "eternal" iconic shots of the city, his photos exude a certain sense of the present. Sometimes, the present leaves its stamp on the details of a photograph. The reader may remember that Raghubir Singh produced a photo album of Calcutta in 1975. Joseph Lelyveld, the respected New York Times author who recently created some controversy in India with his biography of Gandhi, wrote a passionate but despairing introduction to that volume. Calcutta, then in the grip of a Communist-led government that had almost perfected the art of getting elected without doing much for the economic development of the state, seemed to be caught in a time warp. Bengali intellectuals would get excited about far-away Vietnam, China, and Cuba but appeared incapable of addressing what was right in front of their noses. As a young member of the group targeted by Mr. Lelyveld, I read his introduction and felt indicted but also misunderstood. His views read like those of an outsider. He seemed not to understand what made Bengalis elect Communists to power.
Today, Communists are out of favor with the electorate. Winds of globalization of the media, economy, and consumption were blowing through the state even before the Communists suffered defeat at the elections. A populist party has now assumed power. There are new expectations that may just as easily be dashed as the hopes that once greeted the Communists on their early successes. But there is a feeling of optimism in the air. Professor Raymer's texts and photos breathe that optimism. Whether or not governments deliver on their promises Calcuttans are used to governments that don't certain changes have come to stay. Take the photo here of the man who drives a flock of goats and sheep through a busy lane of the city (pages 118-9). You will have seen him not him personally but the character before in Raghubir Singh's book. The two photos are very similar and may speak of a Calcutta that felt like it was as an advertisement put it in the 1970s without any sense of irony "forever." But look more closely and you will see a small but a very significant difference of detail: in Raymer's photo, the man holds a cell phone to his ear while wielding his stick to make a straying animal fall into line. That little cell phone tells it all.
Professor Raymer presents a Calcutta caught up, however feebly, in the changes that have produced a more connected world. Futures are notoriously difficult to predict, but this once-connected and fascinating city may be finally coming out of its self-imposed isolation of decades. At least, that is the optimistic impression I take away from this book.
I arrived in Calcutta full of journalistic passion to document a legendary city, one of the largest and possibly poorest on the planet a city of such economic and social chaos that it has become a byword for unspeakable poverty. And at first glance, Calcutta fulfilled all of my expectations for a Third World capital gone horribly wrong. It was an unsettling picture, though I would learn over the course of several years, inaccurate. But to much of the world, Calcutta remains a cliched Black Hole a city where humanitarians like Mother Teresa, the Nobel laureate, and thousands more like her have toiled on behalf of the poor, a righteous story made picture-perfect for journalists.
To a visitor, the former British imperial capital appears shorn of its Victorian-era majesty. The extraordinary "City of Palaces," the common rendering of Calcutta during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is gone, replaced by a metropolis that seethes with humanity. An endless sea of pedestrians, taxis, and buses choke the city's great boulevards and the colossal Howrah Bridge, busiest in the world. In the historic city center, the air is deep blue with diesel exhaust, the noise of the streets deafening. Motorbikes dodge herds of goats, stray dogs, and deformed beggars seeking alms. Several thousand rickshaws pulled by half-naked men navigate neighborhoods flooded by the summer monsoon. Billboards cover facades of mansions, splendid public buildings, and decaying jetties that testify to Calcutta's legacy as a seat of government and great trading port. Still, Calcutta's claim to being India's cultural and intellectual center a city rooted in ideas, science, literature, poetry, theater, dance, and film seems improbable given the vulgarity of its thoroughfares and public spaces.
Calcutta's unfortunate Black Hole reputation dates to 1756, barely fifty years after the city's founding. The Muslim ruler of Bengal sacked the East India Company settlement and jailed Europeans and Indians in a dungeon in what became known as the Black Hole of Calcutta. The number of British and Indian victims was wildly exaggerated at the time, and historians now agree that no more than several dozen soldiers and settlers died of suffocation, heat exhaustion, and the crush of bodies packed into a guardroom at Fort William, a stronghold along the Hooghly River. In London, the tragedy became a rallying cry for British imperialism, and the British quickly mounted a military campaign against the Bengali Muslim prince and his allies in the French East India Company. The confrontation culminated in a decisive victory that assured British rule of Bengal and eventually most of the Indian Subcontinent. The British subsequently built a monument to the Black Hole's victims that today rests in the muddy St. John's Churchyard, a mere footnote in the history of a great city now more than three hundred years old. But the Black Hole reputation endures.
As a newcomer, I summoned reporting skills toughened by covering war and famine in Asia and Africa to stay focused on being a faithful witness. This meant being open to the suffering of Calcutta's poor, but not so much that I couldn't do my job. As usual, my cameras became my armor. Still, I was unprepared for a visit to perhaps the city's most sorrowful institution Nirmal Hriday, Bengali for "place for the pure of heart." Here the dark side of the human condition confronted me in all its starkness.
Inside a former pilgrims' hostel next to the Kalighat Temple, I found the dying, destitute, and sick being cared for by students, volunteers from churches and universities in the United States, and importantly, sisters from the Missionaries of Charity Order of the Roman Catholic Church. Part hospice, part hospital for Calcutta's outcasts, the Home for the Sick and Dying Destitutes, as it is officially called, was founded in 1952 by Mother Teresa, the controversial social reformer who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her work among the city's poor. Emaciated men and women lay silently on rows of blue cots, many too weak to speak. Medical students from Spain and Italy massaged several women whose leathery arms and legs were no larger than broom sticks. The smell of disinfectant and human excrement filled the quiet, unhurried wards. A nun from Papua New Guinea explained that sisters, who come from as far away as the United States and France and as close as Assam and Singapore, all have taken vows to give of themselves to these poorest of the poor.
But all the well-meaning charity in the world could not conceal one important fact: Many, if not most of the several hundred patients were being provided only palliative care, not the miracles of modern medicine, which are widely available in Calcutta for those who can afford it. The destitute with tuberculosis or gangrenous sores would languish here for many weeks or months. Others with injuries or infections might one day return to lives as some of the estimated 57,000 homeless residents of Calcutta's sidewalks "pavement dwellers" in local parlance. Many patients would simply die with a measure of dignity insulated from the noise, heat, and congestion of Calcutta.
The Home for the Sick and Dying Destitutes seemed an appropriate beginning in my quest to understand this city with such a rich past, but to all outward appearances, one that has fallen on hard times. Moreover, Mother Teresa, for all her commendable work among the poor, made the hospice a well publicized metaphor for Calcutta's decline. And in this she was aided by a compliant international media eager to proclaim her work. I left the sick and the dying determined to find what was worthy, laudable, and indeed, redeeming about a city so universally vilified.
To characterize Calcutta requires perspective and some discretion. The city experienced famine as recently as 1943-4. Moreover, Bengalis have known scarcity and decrepitude for generations. Unconscionable numbers of Calcutta's citizens live far removed from its vibrant cultural milieu or the crowded shopping malls of new satellite townships. By many estimates, perhaps one-third of Calcuttans reside in thousands of slums called bustis most made of mud, burlap, and cardboard, the more permanent of cement and corrugated iron. More than one sociologist has called Calcutta's streets a reenactment of rural life in the middle of a noisy metropolis. The searing heat of March through October drives people half-naked onto busy thoroughfares, and women line up at sidewalk pumps for water much as they would surround a village well. The city's poor know few boundaries, their circumstances erasing most distinctions between the privacy of homes, businesses, and schools and the vast public spaces erected by the British. Indeed, the sheer visibility of Calcutta's poor sets the city apart from other Indian metropolises. But the sick and needy benefit from large numbers of public-spirited Calcuttans and their international partners more than 100 non-governmental organizations from Europe, Australia, and the Americas. From the World Bank to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Indian and foreigner alike run orphanages, schools, hospitals, and hospices. They clean the water and air, provide needed vaccines, and generally mitigate the cruelty that can be found in all Indian cities, but a cruelty that is unjustly attached to Calcutta more than any other.
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