THERE could possibly be no better topic to start a column with than one’s own city, Cuttack in my case. Born here, I haven’t spent more than six to eight months at a stretch outside, not once. Remember the frog in the well or “the wellsian frog” as R.K. Narayan had named it. I am one such frog with Cuttack as my well.
I have a love-loathe relationship with my well, er, no, my city. I love this city because this is the only place on which I can stake claim, with some confidence, as mine. But that is not the only reason for my infatuation, there are several others. I shall come to these in a minute. I loathe the city for the untidy appearance of her and the somnolent attitude of those who inhabit her.
Appearance is deceptive, one may console oneself. Yes & No. Appearance does count especially if it is a ‘place’. For those who do not belong to the place or are not under some other compulsions would not like to walk in or out of it unless it has really got something to offer, at least visually. Hotels & not a few others depend, up to quite an extent, on this traffic called the ‘floating population’.
Most of the outsiders, the ‘citywallhas’ in particular, complain of Cuttack’s open and more often than not choking drains, puddles which are perennial breeding grounds for mosquitoes, dangerously pock-marked streets and lanes, add to it the ‘deep excavations’ (Courtesy: JICA), the stinking garbage heaps and the stench that pervades the city air most of the time.
By no means is the list a comprehensive one. And I feel instead of looking down upon the outsiders we must sit up and do something about it. Of late there has been much talk about “beautification” of the city and the World Bank supported master plan drawn up by IIT Kharagpur. One fervently hopes that the belated face-lift for the city is on its way. My friend, Subash Singh, a political activist, assures me that Cuttack Development Authority is adhering to the vision envisaged in the plan and is doing its best towards implementing the recommendations.
Cuttack was the capital of Odisha for more than two hundred years. With the decision of shifting the capital to Bhubaneswar, its fortune waned. Major establishments, both government and private, moved out. It also lost its claim as a commercial hub. Once, it is said, someone teased the iconic Akshaya Mohanty(Khoka Bhai) saying that there is nothing left in Cuttack anymore and he should shift to Bhubaneswar. Khoka Bhai responded by saying that when Orissa High Court and Akshaya Mohanty are still there how can anyone dare to say that there is nothing left in Cuttack. May be, the story is apocryphal, but it is an apt example of typical Cuttaki pride.
Cuttack has a pride of place in the making of the history of modern Odisha. No one can wrestle it away from her. It also has the distinction of being a millennial city and is deservingly famous for its silver filigree. More on this on some other day.
What is killing it is the cultivated apathy of the political class and criminal silence of the major part of its citizenry. After declaring it as a “twin city”, the authorities have, it seems, lapsed into selective amnesia.
Underneath the ugly surface, there is that elusive yet very much present “something” which keeps dragging back those who were here for some time and others who are here are reluctant to leave; sometimes at the cost of jobs and better employment or business prospects. This blind attachment, the ‘Cuttackias’ owe to that “something” which can be described as “life” “vibes” or whatever-you-like. And I must confess I too suffer from this sad and strange ‘Cuttacki’ malady. Happily here neighbours still remain as neighbours, nosey and irritating at times, but mostly helpful.
Life moves very slowly here. So do the people. Whatever they do: work, walk or just gossip, they do it as if they do not want to be disturbed in their dreams. A languorous pace, this is. It has cost everyone dearly. Reality remains largely unattended to and as is only inevitable, keeps on deteriorating. And we are not prepared to admit it, locked in the womb of dreams. Kazuko Shiraishi, a Japanese poet in her poem “Cuttack” sings:
“This whole town is made of dream fibers.
Enter anywhere you want.
At the entrance it is already being woven.”