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Calcutta: Then and now

Saturday, 14 June 2014 - 6:00am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

As I stepped into my old familiar haunt, the College Street Coffee House looked the same as it used to 44 years ago. The walls were the same grey colour. The cigarette vendor appeared like a figure from the past. Upstairs on the balcony I could spot the same fan and the table under which we had sat some more than four decades back. The day Professor Amlan Datta sauntered into the room.

Datta was then the head of economics department. The famous professor who would take two classes at one go while teaching the history of economic thought. Star-struck, we did not know how to react as he walked towards our table. Frail and walking with the hint of a limp, he was alone and looking for some company. We eagerly pushed a chair towards him.

Those were the days of the early Naxalite movement. Outside the Coffee House, streets would turn into a theatre with Naxalite strikes, a couple of Molotov cocktails thrown around, even as the police stood on guard atop the surrounding buildings. Discussions drifted towards the relevance of Communism in dealing with social and economic issues. One of us, a diehard Communist, who used to bunk classes because the Naxalites took him to be a class enemy — a betrayer — asked a loaded question from his ideological viewpoint.

Holding forth at the BT Road economics department, away from the College Street campus and exposed to Naxalite threats, Professor Datta took recourse to the Socratic mode of counter-questioning to arrive at the answer. Can all questions be resolved only in reference to the tenets of Communism, he would throw the question back at us.

Then the talk would suddenly veer in another direction. The professor asked us what was it that a man could not do without. Many answers came forth, premised either on tangible human aspirations or intangible emotions. As the conversation proceeded, his face would turn luminescent. Professor Datta came out with his answer: man cannot live without other human beings. Put him in the best library in the world, give him the riches, but finally it is another human being that he needs. And this must have been the underlying thought of his transition to Radical Humanism.

Shortly thereafter, we came to read his latest article in the renowned Desh Patrika, the Bengali weekly, which was the mouthpiece of the intelligentsia. The article was titled Manush, Manush.

As I was lost in my thought in the Coffee House that lazy afternoon, a slice of the setting sun streaming in through the corner window, a feeling of desolation gripped me in the midst of a crowd. Sitting alone and with no friends to talk to, I felt lonely in the crowded hall. As if I had been left to wander in the past.

So I was pleased when a young man chose to share my table. He promptly whisked out a cigarette and lit it. I felt a little tricked, somewhat affronted that a chit of a boy could blow smoke at me — almost. Needless to say, in 'our' days, there was no mobile phone. Our young man thereupon made a call, pleading with someone to come and see him. He seemed to have a grouse that the person at the other end never had the time to see him. Within earshot, I could not help being privy to one-side of that conversation.

He must be a student, I thought. As the waiter came along to take orders, the ice was broken. We started a conversation. I thought he was a student. He confirmed and elaborated. He was a PhD student. I was taken aback, he looked young for that. More surprises — he had already done BE, MTech from IIT, Kharagpur, and was now pursuing a doctorate from there. His subject? More surprise. It was carbonisation of construction. Capture carbon and use it instead of steel which could be infinitely a more environmentally friendly way for construction.

Why was this not materialising into concrete results? Because using carbon in place of steel could be very, very costly. Where steel should cost Rs2,500, the same amount of carbon use in construction could cost as much as Rs2 lakh. He said he was part of a group working on the subject in India and across the world. More surprises. He explained, he was a businessman as well.

He showed the dark jacket he was carrying, which I had noticed. It was not cold in Calcutta. He explained he had a business meeting that evening at Salt Lake. His business was consultancy in civil engineering. His firm was doing designs for large projects; they were calculating load-bearing capacities and putting together plans and details of civil engineering projects.

He was not alone. He had 13 other engineers working with him. Starting salary would be as high as Rs25,000 per month, he disclosed. He would like to pay more as the market rates were higher. Any of these engineers could get a higher salary but the work experience in his firm was unique. The experience equipped them to get far higher salaries abroad. Many of his colleagues had, in fact, left for greener pastures.

Since the workload was not that much, he and his colleagues would often go out of the state and take up designing and other engineering jobs elsewhere. They were concentrating in the eastern part and as far down as Chennai. Work was strenuous, but rewarding and satisfying. He would not leave the country and work elsewhere. And he confirmed he was talking to his girlfriend who he would like to marry after she completes her graduation.

What a change, I thought to myself. If this young man is a representative of his class, then the society I had known would have morphed into an altogether unknown thing in the last 40 years despite the undisturbed Communist regime. Some green shoots had been springing up in the midst of the general putrefaction of the Left rule. Possibly, the human spirit cannot be bottled up, however much you try. It seemed as though this was the tale of two cities — ours and theirs. No doubt, theirs is better than ours was.

The author is a Delhi-based analyst and commentator

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