February 16, 2020
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Fear And Loathing

Fear And Loathing
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After decades of ignoring the world's brickbats, Calcutta has recently developed a persecution complex. The move to rename the city Kolkata and ban a website that made nasty cracks about the city are the latest examples of this new defensiveness. "Why India hates Calcutta" screamed the headline of a special supplement of The Telegraph some months ago. "Spewing venom at our city has become a national pastime," intoned the sub-head. All this seemed to overstate the case. I would wager that the rest of India spends very little time thinking about Calcutta. To back up its claim, the article quoted those indefatigable soundbite machines, Shobha De and Khushwant Singh, damning the city. De said that Calcutta was "like Bhilai—a small town mentality with big city aspirations." This is a bit rich coming from a high-profile resident of Mumbai, whose smart set never tire of comparing their city to Manhattan—although a more fanciful conceit has not been concocted since people insisted the earth was flat. To top that, Khushwant Singh, who seems to have an opinion on everything, criticised Calcutta because, he says, Bengalis "have an opinion on everything"!

My own admittedly defensive explanation for why India regards Calcutta with disdain is that this is a form of self-delusion. It's human nature that if you put down someone else, you're less likely to notice that you are both thrashing about in a gutter. The irony is that when one asks people elsewhere in Asia to name a city with slums that are mushrooming, sewage and water supply systems that can't cope and traffic that scarcely moves, they are as likely to point to Mumbai and Delhi as to Calcutta.

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