A Tale of Two Cities

By Sandeep Sahusandeep-sir-284x300

No two cities can have more in common. They have both been great cities in the past. They have both been great centres of learning, of intellectual pursuit and artistic/cultural excellence, of trade and commerce. Both of them have fallen on bad times. In fact, both of them have been on a continuous downward spiral in all respects with very little hope of redemption or a return to their past glory. And most importantly, both of them are unable to reconcile with the loss of their once formidable status.

If it is not obvious already, one is talking about Kolkata and Cuttack.

There is much to admire in both cities even now – the warmth of their people, the low cost of living (even in these times of inflation and rupee devaluation, it is still possible to get a rented accommodation for a few hundred rupees in both these places) and the bustling, energetic nature of their life being only the most obvious ones. Trade and commerce still flourish in both cities as do cinema and theatre, art and literature.

But something has snapped somewhere. Neither of them is a ‘happening’ city anymore. People of the rest of the state (and country) do not consider them the land of opportunities anymore. They no longer flock to them to earn a livelihood or to make a mark. Why, even the people born in these two cities do not consider their beloved city a place that holds out much hope for the future. That is why there has been an exodus, a brain drain out of them over the years. Just as the best minds of Kolkata no longer stay or work in Kolkata, the best of Cuttack have long left the city they love in search of greener pastures. Even trade and commerce have taken a flight out of the city. Just look at the list of top jewelers and sweetmeat shops that have opened shop in what the Cuttackis disdainfully call golam nagari. Anybody in the city who can afford it is going for a place in the other half of the Twin City.

On a tour to the ‘City of Joy’ in 1985, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had pronounced Kolkata (then Calcutta) a ‘dying city’. [It seems the Kolkatans have never quite forgiven the Congress for this blasphemy, going by the fate of the party in West Bengal.] One wonders what he would have said about present day Kolkata. A ‘dead city’? Or may be at least a ‘gasping city’?

Nobody has yet had the audacity to call Cuttack a ‘gasping’ or even a ‘dying’ city.  After all, it has survived for more than a millennium – much more than the ‘City of Joy’. But the truth is it is terminally ill. Surrounded as it is by rivers on all sides, there is very little possibility of expansion in geographical terms. But the explosion goes apace in demographic terms.  No wonder civic amenities are an awful mess. Most roads are so clogged that often the fastest way to reach a place is the good old bicycle rather than the car or the town bus. [In any case, most people can’t buy cars even if they have both the money and the inclination for it because having a garage is a luxury few can afford in a city that has very little space left.] Given the ever increasing fury and intensity of floods in the Mahanadi, the fear of a large part of the city being washed away in a particularly severe flood no more appears all that unreal.

But Cuttackis are nothing if not tenacious. They have taken all this and much more in their stride. But what they have found utterly impossible to reconcile with is the loss of their political power. Rightly or wrongly, the impression has gained ground that denizens of the Millennium City – the city that once was the epicenter of Odisha’s politics – have simply ceased to matter in the scheme of things of the new powers that be. In fact, the people of Cuttack sincerely believe that there is a well-planned conspiracy hatched by the ‘upstarts’ to deny Cuttack what is rightfully due to it. One just has to look at the frequency at which terms like masudha, chakranta and shadajantra are used in the context of the alleged attempt by unnamed conspirators to denude the Silver City of its glory in the city pages of major Odia newspapers.

The upwardly mobile among young Cuttackis have long left the shores of the great Mahanadi. They gather once in a while in their adopted cities and towns to relive the great time they once had in the city they all love: the cycle rides on the streets of the city; the endless gossiping on the banks of Mahanadi and Kathajodi; the fun and frolic in the waters of the two rivers; gorging on dahibara-aludum outside the Barabati Stadium (preferably at Raghu’s) and so on.   Those who have been forced by circumstances to stay put are condemned to live in a city that is bursting at the seams. Fond memories of their glorious, happening past has turned the citizenry into a bunch of whiners. Like petulant children, they are always complaining about some slight or the other.

It is the same in Kolkata. Like Cuttackis, Kolkatans too believe that theirs IS the greatest city on earth – the greatest city that has ever been in the history of humankind. Any suggestion to the contrary is met with a volley of abuses directed at the Doubting Thomases. It is not difficult to explain and even empathise with the sense of loss and hurt that the people of these two once great cities feel at the gradual erosion in the status of their beloved cities. But the remorseless wheels of history keep rolling on, leaving those who don’t accept the harsh reality by the wayside.