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Past life— Kolkata

Preface

The West Bengali city is at a crossroads. On the one hand Kolkata wants to re-establish the look and feel of its Raj glory days. On the other, it wants to brand itself as a contemporary culture and business gateway open to the east.

Bengal, India, Raj, West, Glory

With its wide tree-lined streets flanked by gracefully deteriorating colonial-era architecture, the eastern Indian city of Kolkata evokes intense memories of another part of the world that is at once close and far away: London.

Kolkata is like a sub-continental, Dickensian otherworld. The city’s old buildings have crenellated façades pockmarked by patches of peeling paint. There are Victorian fountains, the rambling Alipore Zoo and roundabouts. Indeed, city planners conceived Calcutta – as it was then known – as a kind of mini London. The city was…

Culture hub

For over 150 years, Kolkata was the intellectual and artistic capital of South and Southeast Asia, led by figures such as Nobel prize winning poet Rabindranath Tagore and filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Indeed, Cal is the only place where you’ll find people singing Tagore lyrics over drinks.

But insiders lament that the city’s cultural heritage has been in steady decline in recent decades. “The irony is that a lot of people doing interesting things in the arts, in film, in writing or music are Bengali and originally from Kolkata, but don’t live here anymore,” says prominent writer Ruchir Joshi. Vikram Seth grew up in the city, while renowned Bengali-origin authors include Upamanyu Chatterjee, Jhumpa Lahiri and Rana Dasgupta. Bengalis also continue to dominate India’s arthouse cinema scene and are prevalent in theatre and intellectual circles.

Looking east

The Sumitomo steel plant might not yet be greenlighted, but Japan is eyeing West Bengal as a potential destination for investment. Already, 67 Japanese companies are present in the state, out of more than 800 across India.

Japanese shipping giant Mitsui MOL has set up offices here and there’s talk of large-scale investment in Kolkata’s port. Japanese investment elsewhere in India is substantial: Japan’s involvement was pivotal towards building the metro rail system in Delhi. And even more significantly, Japan is contributing around €3.4bn over the next five years towards one of India’s biggest infrastructure projects to date, the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor.

Monocle 24

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