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I was born in Calcutta, but we moved to Bombay when I was one and a half years old, maybe in early 1964. The company my father worked in had relocated its head office in the face of growing labour unrest; the move was part of the general egress of industry from the city.
We continued to visit Calcutta once, sometimes twice, a year. My mother’s brother lived there with his family in Pratapaditya Road, in the historic neighbourhood of Bhowanipore, South Calcutta. He is a Jadavpur University graduate and German-trained civil engineer. By the time I got to know him as a child, he’d abandoned his job and set out with friends, establishing a factory that made machines in Howrah, Calcutta’s industrial district across the river Hooghly. Given the political turbulence of the 1960s, the business was a long-drawn-out failure. My uncle, however, never wavered from his faith in the Left.
In 1977, the Left Front was elected to form the government in the state of West Bengal; it then won eight successive elections until finally being voted out of power in 2011. The tenure of the Left in West Bengal was marked by genuine achievements and plenty of failures. Perhaps one of its legacies was to create a microcosm that was entirely out of tune with the free-market zeitgeist whose vanguard assumed power in other parts of the world soon after the Left came to power in Bengal: one thinks of Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1979, and Ronald Reagan’s in 1981. India itself embraced free-market deregulation in 1991. Of course, there’s no reason why Bengal shouldn’t have explored an alternative path on its own terms; it’s just that actual faith in what these terms might be was, by the 80s, lacking.
I learnt two things from my visits to Calcutta in the 1960s and 70s, and to my uncle’s house in particular. The first was that there was an alternative to the corporate world I inhabited in Bombay. Culture did not have to be anglophone to be exciting or sophisticated. In fact in India at that time, it seemed sophistication and excitement often lay outside the realm of the anglophone. Second, it appeared that culture and learning did not have to be exclusive to privileged, stable or well-to-do lives. In my uncle’s house, the opposite seemed true: the energy I encountered in it as a child was a remnant of a cultural and political force-field that began to come into existence in the city in the 19th century. […]