Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Kolkata Spirit

Don’t blame me for this delay in posting: blame it on Kolkata.

When I set foot in this city after spending a year and a half in Chennai and Hyderabad, the first thing that struck me as odd was that there were too few cars on the road and they were moving way too slowly. I later realized that the latter part of that observation sums up life in Kolkata almost perfectly.

Here everything moves too slowly. Nobody seems to be in hurry, and what’s worse, nobody is expected to be in a hurry either. On top of that, everybody talks, behaves, acts in a very very amateurish way.

Take the example of house brokers. I was desperately trying to find a rented house in Kolkata, preferably in Salt Lake, and it took me almost a month to find one. The reason? Nobody I contacted was able to show me a house. The person who was supposed to show me several houses in Kolkata was unable to obtain the keys from any of the house owners. “You can’t do these things in a hurry sir, you need to give more time,” he said to me after he had kept me waiting for three days and made me go there twice. Obviously this was surprising to me, as in Hyderabad and Chennai it never took me more than a day to find a house. But I don’t blame this person as he is not a professional broker. I blame the professional brokers in Salt Lake who were unable to get the keys for the houses either, even when they knew they would be getting money if I was satisfied with a house. The few houses I did see were either totally unfit for living, or were only just cheaper than a suite in the Taj Bengal.

Which brings us to the amateurish attitudes of the house owners themselves. Since a lot of people from Bangalore and Hyderabad have come here lately and they are living in Salt Lake, most house owners seem to have got the idea that they can get a rent comparable to that in Bangalore and Hyderabad, and sadly, they are right. However, all the houses I saw have poor facilities as compared to my Chennai/Hyderabad flats and should have a much lower rent. On top of that the house owners themselves delay things to no end. This is actually very surprising as they lose business because of that. I chose a very nice flat in Salt Lake and had almost decided on moving in when I had to let go because the owner was delaying the deal without any real serious reason.

For shifting my luggage I needed a vehicle, and I asked a rickshaw van to come and pick up my luggage. He promised to come the next day, and naturally didn’t turn up until four days had passed. He was visibly hurt when my aunt told him that I had already shifted as he had come too early for his assignment.

There’s really no point in explaining each and every experience that I had here. But every person here, be it the Airtel executives who came to fit my broadband, the Hutch executives who told me to go to Hyderabad to disconnect my Hyderabad cell phone connection and pay the last bill, the men who manage the cash transactions in our office cafeteria, the auto drivers, shopkeepers, bus drivers, or policemen, all seem to be somewhat more amateurish than their counterparts in the South.

One thing that immediately becomes apparent is that here businessmen don’t really care for business. The reason for this has been discussed beautifully by Greatbong in his blog here. Bangalore may be costly, but there you can get your work done by paying that extra amount. Kolkata claims to be cheaper, but what use is being cheaper if you don’t get the service at the end of the day? Moreover, everybody has an opinion and they don’t mind voicing it in so many words, even if that means losing a customer. I was away to Hooghly for a couple of days to attend a wedding while there was a strike by the fuel tankers’ union and petrol and diesel were scarce in the state. The day I returned to Kolkata, the auto driver in the station asked for just double the amount. When I asked why, he turned to his friend and said mocking me, “Why? He asks why! Tell him why, for he neither watches the TV, nor reads the papers. Tell him!” The result of course was that I promptly turned back and took another auto (which also charged double the fare) while the previous driver seemed to be very happy to have been able to give me a quick reply. The fact that he lost a passenger early in the morning did not bother him at all. It’s the same story with shopkeepers. They would rather not sell to a customer who buys a five-rupee bread at the end of the day and pays with a ten rupee note. This reminds me, everyday our breakfast in Chennai cost somewhere around Rs.10 and we invariably paid with a Rs.100 note and sometimes even a Rs.500 note early in the morning. I never saw them grumbling to give us change.

Does that mean I don’t like Kolkata? Not at all! True, Kolkata is very different from the other Indian metros, but not all of this difference is bad. It is city with a heart. That very amateur attitude that I have written against above often becomes a boon and prevents people from becoming robots hurrying around to earn money (as Dipta puts it nicely here). When I see the IT professionals in my office bring jhalmuri from outside the gate in the evenings and indulge in a nice adda with tea inside the cubicles, I realize that it wouldn’t have been possible elsewhere. Similarly, the big manager who spends half the year abroad hates to work on weekends here. The reason? He must cycle to the old playground in his small suburban town and spend the evening chatting and playing with his childhood friends. As I wrote in my previous post, there are people who try to earn a living by selling the books they write, and even though it is clearly a loss making business, they do not forfeit their love of writing. Work still comes to a standstill (or at least takes a backseat) during cricket or football matches. Speaking of football, almost the whole of Kolkata can be split into two teams: Mohunbagan and East Bengal. It is different during the FIFA World Cup though, then the city is divided between Brazil and Argentina supporters. I couldn’t imagine a person sitting free and watching a match on the TV in our Chennai or Hyderabad office cafeteria, but here it is a common sight.

And arguments! Let it be the question of Sourav becoming the captain again, or the land acquisition at Singur, everyone is ready to argue about it in such a way as if their life depended on it. Outsiders soon become part of this spirit. The other day I saw two Bihari gentlemen debating animatedly on the road about whether Bhagalpur is a larger station than Hajipur or not.

But there’s a personal touch to many things which I could not imagine in Chennai or Hyderabad. For example, I can’t think of walking into a small restaurant in Hyderabad and ordering a meal where I get to choose the individual components of the meal from a number of options. In Kolkata I can do that. Food is really cheap here, and although it may sound unbelievable, a few days ago I had better South Indian food here than I ever had in Hyderabad. Similarly, Kolkata has some of the best Chinese restaurants in the country.

So what is my final verdict? Do I like it here?

Although the inconveniences and non-professional attitude of the people sometimes get on my nerves, yet, the truth is that I’m liking my stay in Kolkata very much. However much I may criticize the people here, however much I may praise Hyderabad, the fact remains that deep inside my heart I’m also one of those lazy, argumentative, passionate Bengalis who do not decide every action of their life by the financial benefits associated or by cold, hard logic. Although I come from a suburban town, I’m as much a part of this city as the millions of others who have come here from outside in search of a livelihood and have merged with the multicoloured fabric of humanity that is Kolkata.

That is why I say don’t hold me responsible for this long gap in posting. It is due to the Kolkata spirit that has got into me.


  1. Well written, I can see what kept you so busy. I am glad to know you are better settled with a flat and broadband connection now. Post some more Kolkata experiences, waiting to hear of them.

  2. kewl nice article love to hear more experince of klokata. so your now settling down there. your blog is a very kewl one be in touch like to visit more often

    regards Biby - Blog

  3. Humm....Kolkata's true picture....its an eye opener yaa....there's always a flip side to every decision you take no matter how good it is....but all the same wish you loads of luck to accomplish the propse of you being there!Cheers!

  4. Thanks for sharing your views. But I want to mention that it is all in one’s perspective. Say even your Chennai or Hyderabad or Mumbai or Bangalore would seem ‘slow’ to the foreign investors. But they are aware of cultural differences (no superiority or inferiority concept her pl) and plan accordingly – not because they are people with high moral principles but with high insight for money making processes. What I am getting at is that although I realize that so many things/attitudes need to be changed in WB yet one must be able to adapt happily or willingly to the environment he/she is in. It is like if any Indian gets agitated or bothered by pda (public display of affection) in any cities of US and wish for harinam sankirtan over there!

  5. @shreemoyee: Thanks! Won't have to wait long. Lots of experiences to write about. Only a little lack of time...

    @biby cletus: Thanks, keep visiting.

    @monami: I don't exactly see it as the "flip side"... every city has its problems, and Kolkata's problem is lack od professionalism. Thanks for your wishes!

    @anonymous: Although I agree that a person should adapt to the environment/culture he or she is in (I'm doing it, am I not?), I feel that there is a certain direction in which we should be moving, and there are certain habits we should give up. Respecting the value of other people's time is probably the least we can do for them. So is providing the value for the money taken when you are providing a paid service. Much as I love this city for it's easy-going attitude, it will only be a better place with some changes.
    Thanks for commenting, keep visiting!

  6. Yes, I agree and also said so in my previous comment that things must improve in WB and I am the one for improvement and progress but then I wouldn’t be saying “I love this city for it's easy-going attitude” only because that is a contradictory statement. In your example of your house hunting experience in Cal, the so called ‘easy going attitude’ of the landlord/agent came out which aggravated u rightly!!!! I am sure u wont say they aggravated u because they had some grouse against u – right? So how can u like something and then the consequence of that liking aggravates you to the extent that u wish for a change?

    May be I am visiting your blog too often because of your invitation!!! So I think you may rethink about that invitation!!!!

  7. @anonymous: My statement seems contradictory because they were talking about different aspects of the same thing. I hate the easy going attitude when it interferes with duty, like it did for the house owners and agents. I love it when it helps to take away stress from the hectic life. In other cities I have seen IT professionals working like crazy from morning to night, or even overnight, and during weekends, just to impress their supervisors and improve their position/salary (Note: I'm not talking about people who have a sudden workload for a few days during delivery time, or work on round the clock support projects). The number of those people seem to be much less here. Here people are content with what they have after a certain limit, and prefer comfort and peace of mind. Some may call it laziness, but I like it.
    Then the kind of conversation strangers start in buses and trains, the kind of time they spend on arguing about useless points, the kind of passion they have for sports, literature, theatre, music and a lot of other things shows they are somewhat removed from the rat-race. The total disregard for status symbols that I see here amazes me. Try to find a big manager of a multinational riding a bicycle in Delhi or Bangalore or Hyderabad, or even in smaller cities like Allahabad for that matter. You won't find any, although many of them accept that they love cycling but are too concerned about their image and time. Here in WB you'll find lots of them. Then that adda in the office accompanied by jhalmuri... I never saw such a thing in Hyderabad where even the time for playing games in the office is fixed. I love all these things, as long as they don't interfere with duty or bring down the efficience of work drastically.

  8. @anonymous: And yes, since you ended the cold, logical discussion with a warm personal comment, it shows that you have that Kolkata Spirit too! Keep visiting... the invitation always remains open!

  9. Wow! I think your observations of laid back ness of Bengalis should be in a separate post – that is what you as an outsider from Chennai or Hyderabad with a WBness heart of yours find appealing over here – sort of Chennai/Hyderabad Dominique-ish!!

    But u still failed to convince me that ur thoughts are not contradictory. You wrote “
    I hate the easy going attitude when it interferes with duty, like it did for the house owners and agents. I love it when it helps to take away stress from the hectic life.” But u see, the same situation can be thought of being laid back or interference of duty depending from whose perspective it is being looked at. To be at the receiving end or not to be determines the opinion.

    Thanks for your open invitation. But why do u presume that I, with my “cold and logical” arguments have the “Kolkata spirit”? May be I don’t.

  10. One of the best of yours. Even I liked bengal for the same reason. Only thing is it a very far from Pune otherwise you would have seen me there frequently. All my memories got refreshed. Sometimes I also experienced delay without reason. what I liked the most is festivals. People tend to come out together and celebrate
    (or shout ;-)).

  11. "When I see the IT professionals in my office bring jhalmuri from outside the gate in the evenings and indulge in a nice adda with tea inside the cubicles, I realize that it wouldn’t have been possible elsewhere. Similarly, the big manager who spends half the year abroad hates to work on weekends here. The reason? He must cycle to the old playground in his small suburban town and spend the evening chatting and playing with his childhood friends".
    Ya u r rite...these r not possible elsewhere. At least I can't visualize such a thing at bangy

  12. @anonymous: Not exactly. There are many situations where working in a relaxed way does not interfere with duty. Suppose I have a deadline of 10 days. If a Bangalore team does it in 5 days and the Kolkata team indulges in adda and completes it only after 9 days, it is still fine with me. They should not cross the deadline, that's all.

    @abhijit: Thanks. Anybody who has stayed here gets infected with the spirit.

    @aurindam: Come to Kolkata, and we'll enjoy!

  13. ' I’m also one of those lazy, argumentative, passionate Bengalis' .. Boy! Do I agree more ;)

    Lots of memories came back as a pleasing after-taste on reading your this blog. Keep writing, and we'll keep posted through you to the flavor of Kolkta (Oh yes! It does have a distinctive fragrance!)

    Subho Nobo Borsho!

    P.S: Do See 'Namesake'

  14. Hey Sugata...
    was a fan of your pics already but today became fan of ur writing skills as well....thanks to monami for showing your blog
    man u make me miss kolkata so much...wish i could fly theer today

  15. @cheetos: Thanks for visiting and commenting. Yes, I know that Kolkata spirit was always in me. I do miss those heated arguments with you.

    @soma: Thank you so much. I wish your wish comes true.