Monday, July 26, 2010

Nothing beyond remains

Science tells us that our perceptions of beauty are not hard-wired into the psyche. That we accept as beautiful those faces and forms that most closely resemble the faces we grew up with. This is a disturbing thought, since neither Catherine Deneuve nor Penelope Cruz bears the slightest resemblance to my grandmothers, my great-aunt, my mother or any of the 157 aunts and cousins in my extended family (nor, indeed - more’s the pity - to any of the women I know). Conclusion – my perception of feminine beauty is not shaped by my memories

Ah, but show me a floor of red cement and I’m lost. Growing up in Calcutta (well before flight attendants tried their hot-potato pronunciation of “Kawl-cat-tah”), the long afternoons of summer vacations were spent sprawled on the cool smooth shiny red cement floor of my great-aunts room. That floor was my antediluvian air-conditioner; somehow it never heated up, even when the tar melted on the roads under the sun of June. Red cement floors. How I mourn their passing.

And louvred windows. Doric columns. Corbelled arches. Curlicued railings. Courtyards. Balustrades. Lime and mortar walls, thick as a grown man’s arm-span. Unkempt little lawns with patchy grass, in the shade of old fruit trees. Part of the fabric of my childhood, the setting for lyrical pieces of nostalgia like Amit Chaudhuri’s A Strange and Sublime Address. And all fading, crumbling. Torn down to build apartment blocks, where little plants in little pots wither on window-ledges hemmed in with ugly iron grilles. Or glass and concrete malls, like bad dreams out of Philip K. Dick.

Of course the problem is not Calcutta’s alone, nor even India’s. Travel to business districts around the world, and on first sight you will be hard pressed to decide whether you’re in Sao Paulo or Sydney. Even the iconic Manhattan skyline has been reproduced in Frankfurt and in Singapore. But most of these cities have made conscious efforts to preserve a heritage district, a piece of the past that not only preserves an emotional continuity but also makes good business sense through tourism. Where is Calcutta’s heritage district? Where, indeed, are Calcutta’s heritage buildings? What are the parameters whereby a building is classified as part of our heritage?

I turned to TGGG (The Great God Google) for enlightenment and found this - Five pages of earnest effort that do not answer basic questions. Where is the list of declared heritage buildings? The tab redirects to the same page. Are there any objective criteria for identification? None that I could find. Buildings are expensive to maintain. Is there any model for funding this? None on this web-site, though there is a laudable initiative to waive municipal taxes on buildings where the owners have made preservation efforts.

First, what is a heritage building? One which “requires preservation and conservation for historical, architectural, environmental or ecological purpose”, such purpose not elaborated. Is age alone sufficient ground? Historical association? Jorasanko and 38/2 Elgin Road are shrines for Bengalis, but can any of us say offhand where Michael Madhusudan Dutt or Raja RamMohan lived and worked? How about a building’s iconic status? I can imagine a universal gasp of horror at the suggestion that the Victoria Memorial is not a heritage building, but I find it ugly beyond tolerance, a clumsy attempt to emulate an original that is beyond compare. Then should we allow its demolition just because it looks like Jabba the Hutt in marble? Probably not, because something infinitely uglier could take its place. I found a number of articles deploring the de-listing of heritage buildings or criticizing the reconstruction plans approved by the Corporation. Criticism is expected. The authorities cannot please everybody. But do we have guidelines for preserving heritage areas or reconstruction on heritage sites? Templates, photographs, models? Again, none that I could find.

How has this issue been handled in other cities? One of the best examples I have encountered is in India – INTACH’s project for preserving heritage districts, both Tamizh and French colonial, in Pondicherry. I was charmed by the recreations in the old French quarter and the teak-columned courtyards in the old Tamizh houses. When I visited their web-site I realized that most of the houses I had admired were in fact almost entirely new, rebuilt through the joint efforts of the Pondicherry Planning Authority (PPA), the Town & Country Planning Department (TCPD) and INTACH. Can this partnership not be replicated in Calcutta?

How does one fund the process? In Mumbai, apartment blocks have been built around old bungalows, preserving the facades. On the London waterfront and in Buenos Aires’ Puerto Madeira, crumbling warehouses have been restored, beautified and transformed into economically viable retail and entertainment districts. The Alfama in Lisbon and the recreation of colonial Williamsburg in Virginia have proved the tourism potential of history recreated or preserved. Palaces in Rajasthan and villas in Goa have been reborn as hotels.

The past can pay for itself. Can we in Calcutta give it the chance? Perhaps more to the point, do we even want to?

Published today in a paper that does not have a Net edition.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


(I am now A Columnist. Published every Monday. Which would seem to give me time to write over the weekend, except that my deadline is Friday. Bggrrttt.

But yes, it does ensure that there will be at least one post a week on this blog. Recycling is so cool.
Unfortunately, while I can post my columns on the blog, I cannot send off old posts to be printed as columns. Bother.

Anyway, this one was written as the “sound of the deadline whooshing by” built up to a gale-force roar. Came out on Monday the 12th. Tomorrow’s column has been submitted. And I’ve already started on next Monday’s. Oh what a good boy am I!)

Travel is romantic. To arrive in a new country, draw a deep breath and go “Ah, I’m in Lantau!” (or Lima or Lagos, as the case may be).

Unfortunately, your luggage is in Sevastopol. Romance gives way to a feeling more like sand in your underwear. It’s the middle of the night, there are no stores open and the rest of your underclothes are in that suitcase in Sevastopol. How does one deal with the situation?
More relevant, how does the airline deal with a situation where baggage is in Europe while the passenger’s in Asia? Alitalia – as reported on the Internet last year - would immediately go on a wildcat strike. By the time the first irate passenger located the airline service desk, the staff would be downing grappa on the Via Cavour (presumably with much gesticulation and shrugging).

Some airlines, however, exhibit admirable resilience and efficiency.
Last Wednesday night the Lufthansa flight to Kolkata landed on time. The luggage did not. The large Lufthansa team – all 3 of them – swung into action to help the milling passengers. By hiding behind a convenient pillar. When rousted out, they demonstrated their customer-friendly attitude by distributing forms. To be filled in triplicate. Deposited. Receipted. Produced whenever the airline saw fit to produce the missing luggage. On the next flight. Saturday. Perhaps Sunday. Next week, next year, some time, never.

Sundry open-mouthed passengers hitched their jaws off the airport floor. And asked, what about NOW? What about clothes, toiletries, medicines? What about children and their milk, diapers, Gerber’s ready meals? How do we manage till Sunday? Will you give us money to buy what we need? Whereupon the airline reps mumbled vaguely, smiled sweetly and disappeared hurriedly. End of Act 1.

Two days of investigation produced some enlightenment and much pique. But no compensation. The city office phones are not answered because there IS no city office. A forlorn voice from the airport eventually said yes, we SHALL offer you compensation – 50% of your expenditure on clothes and 100% on toiletries. With no limit.

No limit? Good! We have a wedding to attend, can we buy fresh trousseaus from Sabyasachi, spend a couple of lakh? An audible gulp from the other end of the line, then a befuddling clarification: we pay 50% of what’s reasonable. As decided by our city team. Devastating obfuscation. In essence, Lufthansa delay your luggage, do not pay any compensation unless pushed, have no clear policy or limits in the matter and no transparency.

The first response is, only in India! This couldn’t happen in the West. Alas, a little research revealed that the air traveller really is beleaguered worldwide.
In May 2010 the EU Special Court of Justice ruled that the liability of a carrier in the case of destruction, loss, damage or delay of baggage is limited to approximately €1134.71 (an odd figure, yes, but the equivalent of 1000 Special Drawing Rights) per passenger. The Warsaw / Hague / Montreal protocols fix an upper limit for compensation of 17 SDR per kilo of luggage, about €18.5 or Rs. 1089. There is no stipulated minimum.

Basically, if the airline plays fast and loose with your luggage, you can scheme. Or argue. Or give up. But you cannot cite a general law.
You have been warned.

(Update: The luggage arrived last Sunday. Forms for compensation were filled in. Bills in triplicate were attached. Suddenly … nothing happened. It’s been a week.)