A Strange Baggage

Kolkata, the city of joy, the city of literature and arts, the city of endless ‘adda’, of Tagore and Vivekananda, the acknowledged cultural capital of India. I say all this just to emphasize that all these features deeply affect daily life in Kolkata.

As a college student in probably the most reputed college in the city, I am often drawn towards a strange struggle of history and culture that is entrenched in this city with the influences of modern Westernized culture invading any metropolitan city in a developing country. Maybe this generation of Kolkata students is not as politically conscious as the generations before, but a subtle political influence pervades our lives without most of us realizing it. And this brings us to the focus of this article, student life in Kolkata and the influence of two of its most important factors, socio-economic distinctions and political choices.

To begin with, I must say that my college is one of the few colleges in the city with no political influences in student activity. By ‘political influences’, I mean involvement or interference of groups affiliated to a registered political party. As such my experiences have generally been of a secondary nature. As a political ideology, the Marxists have always promoted politically conscious student unions in colleges and universities and this is aptly seen in Kolkata. Thus, politicized student unions and a general political consciousness pervade the overall student life here.

There is deep influence of the socialist ideals among students and this reflects in their choice of hangouts, topics of discussion and overall appearance. Thus the ‘jhola’ clad Kolkata collegian with thick spectacles and oiled air, which has been caricatured so many times, comes in. Even though, we may have moved on from that era, where austerity and simplicity in one’s daily life was not only appreciated but was also a reflection of one’s social, economic and political status, today’s student is no less conscious of his political position. Student union elections draw enthusiastic response from all students and political discussions are generally encouraged. Thus students in Kolkata carry a strange baggage of history; a baggage that involves the numerous religious movements like those of Chaitanya and Sri Ramakrishna, a history of social reformations like the Brahmo Samaj and Raja Ram Mohan Roy, a history of literary glory beginning with Tagore, a history of a deeply troubled partition and lastly the history of a rare Communist movement.

Here one may also say that these combined histories, which Bengal has experienced and of which Kolkata, being its foremost city has been the center, is almost necessarily a history of the Bengali people. However, an important section of Kolkata’s students are composed of non-Bengalis, who do not share this cultural and social baggage. This has thus created a strange antagonism, which is widely reflected in student life. Another factor comes from an apparent economic distinction, which has deeply affected the student community in general and has perpetuated a large-scale divide among them. Now, let me clarify at this point that this is not an offhand statement, but a result of deep observation and maybe subject to criticism. But for a student who comes from probably the most cosmopolitan of all the Kolkata colleges, it’s a reality, which I have experienced and also seen in other colleges. This also does not mean that there is open war between the two mentioned groups. Far from that, the divide is more psychological and tends to reveal itself in daily life as a kind of subtle, yet strong discrimination of one group by the other. And this is a very unique nature of the student community in Kolkata in general, which gives rise to a distinct set of ideas and issues, which may not be experienced by students in other parts of the country.

Historical economic disparity and group dynamics influence the choices of students from both Bengali and non-Bengali communities in Kolkata. Thus, whereas places like CCDs and Aqua Javas are the favourite places to hangout for some, many prefer roadside joints, canteens and dhabas, which become epicenters of endless ‘adda’ and tea. Another striking feature of student life in Kolkata is the huge percentage of students who smoke. It’s a cultural phenomenon here rather than a mere physical habit, and here again the divide between the majority and minority comes out. The history that most non-Bengalis are unable to share with their more populous collegians become a tool with which a more urban, new-age discrimination sets in. Student response to this differs from individual to individual and college to college. But these important features remain a constant all throughout college life here in Kolkata.

But this does not in any sense mean that Kolkata is a place of hostile student environment. If anything, it is a place that is more welcoming inspite of all its inherent contradictions. The reason lies again in the history of the city in itself, which provides a strong ground for the growth of multi-culturalism and education. Kolkata, thus becomes the city of joy not only because its diverse elements provide a perfect balance to the differences it contains, but also because at its roots, it is a city that is still seeped deep into history where the modern has still not penetrated.

Anupam Dhar

[Image Source: http://flickr.com/photos/lecercle/481267425/]