>A Tale of two cities: Istanbul and Kolkata


I must confess I did not know much about Turkey or Istanbul before I went there.

A colleague suggested that I take Orhan Pamuk’s ‘Istanbul – Memories and the city’ just before I left.

I hadn’t heard of Orhan Pamuk before. He is a Turkish writer who won the Nobel Prize in literature recently. I bought the book from Crossword and started reading it at the airport.

Frankly I couldn’t relate to what he had written as I began to explore Istanbul. He had written about the filth, sense of melancholy (huzun), poverty, ruined buildings, drab clothes and pained faces.

The Istanbul that I saw (Taksim and Sultanhmet) were the same areas that he had grown up in and written about. What I saw was a city full of vibrant people, walking purposefully, often dressed like super models. I saw elegant, restored buildings. We saw well preserved and well lit up monuments. People who were bright and friendly, hardly depressed or repressed. Roads were clean and yet had a character unlike antiseptic Singapore.

Towards the end of the book Pamuk reveals his first heart break. That made sense. That could have coloured his mind and his world view. We often remember cities through our memories.

Pamuk’s argument was that the Turk’s more or less lorded over the world under the Ottomans. They did not take well to their fall from power after the Ottoman empire collapsed and the Republic was set up. He also wrote about how, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, led a Westernisation drive for them to move away from the past.

Istanbul must have seen some big changes in recent years as it was quite different from the Istanbul of the fifties to the seventies that Pamuk writes about. Perhaps the Euro Cup which they hosted helped. The government must have led this drive. One could sense the government everywhere in forms of uniformed policemen with machine guns, police vans patrolling the roads or even the mechanized road cleaners.

This set me thinking about my home city of Kolkata. Kolkata was called Calcutta and was the capital of India in the first part of the British rule. Most of the early thinkers, politicians, businessmen, cinema celebrities, writers, poets, most of India’s Nobel prize winners, the best academic institutions et al were from here.

Then the capital shifted to Delhi in the beginiing of the twentieth century. Later Kolkata was swamped with refugees from Bangladesh twice (1947, 1970) – during the partition and during Bangladesh’s independence movement. The communists won the local elections and have ruled the state for more than thirty years now. The city buckled under the pressure and just caved in. Despair, ruins, poverty, meleancholy were the order of the day. Since then the city seemed to live more on its past glory and seemed to turn its face away from its ugly present. People would speak longingly of the British. The British prime minister, John Major’s visit in the nineties was seen as its route to deliverance. That didn’t happen of course and other Indian cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore left Calcutta behind in terms of liveliness and growth.

Then, like Ataturk propounded in his Westernisation drive, Kolkata too seemed to turn its back on its past in a desperate attempt to ape cities like Mumbai. That was roughly when I left the city (1998).

I see quite a resurgence when I go home to Kolkata these days – splendid flyovers, spurt of Bengali restaurants with Bengali food no longer being considered uncool, new housing properties, an acceptance of Bengali culture with clothes like kurtas in traditional designs, Bengali rock bands and so on getting popular.

Yet the differences are not as stark as what I saw in Istanbul now verus what Pamuk had written about it. I wonder what that sort of transformation would take… enlightened citizens? Administrative will? Or is it something more dramatic ?!


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Filed under India, Istanbul, Kolkata, Turkey 08

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