The Telegraph Magazine (Calcutta)
31 March 1985
GOD LIVES IN CALCUTTA
By Ashali Varma
Most people who come to Calcutta for the first time go through a whole gamut of emotions—from stunned shock and disbelief, to amazement, wonder and finally to a grudging admiration of the human spirit’s will to survive.
Amidst the squalor, the dirt and the difficulties, life not only goes on it thrives. Small wonder then, that the people of this city have such a profound and deep belief in the Almighty and celebrate their Pujas with such gusto. No one who has lived in Calcutta can have doubts about the existence of God. Not only does God exist but He lives in Calcutta. Even the most skeptical have to admit that this city deifies, all hygienic and scientific theories, carefully laid down by man, concerning human survival.
Here we see babies born and brought up in the most septic surroundings by mothers who do not look strong enough to live, leave alone breed. With their every breath they exhale the fallacies of the Western World. Not only do they survive without any medical or nutritional benefits, they actual1y eke out a living on the garbage lying on the streets! They are the genetic marvels of the 20th century. For them, there are no fresh fruits, eggs or vital vitamins; there is no boiled water or sterilized containers–there is only God and His Divine Intervention.
There has to be a Merciful Being who personally supervises the destinies of ten million people, allowing them to move safely on road conditions which would be considered a serious threat to life in any other city. Day in and day out people commute hanging by a finger onto mini-buses that squeeze through traffic and lurch into craters. Pedestrians walk nonchalantly across the path of reckless drivers. Crossroads are manned by a primitive instinct for survival and not by policeman or traffic lights. Yet, surprisingly there are few accidents and fewer fatalities. One wonders at the man on the road who misses a car by inches, surely the next speeding bus will get him, but there is yet another providential escape. The law of averages has no meaning in Calcutta, the Miracle City. Even Lourdes pales into insignificance before the daily miracles against death that take place in Calcutta.
Little wonder then that the inhabitants have a Puja nearly every other day. They have to depend on God even while breathing—the highly polluted, carcinogenic air and drinking the heavily chlorinated, carcinogenic water. Despite the fact that doctors have after much research declared the Calcutta air un-breathable and the water un-drinkable people continue to breathe and drink and flourish with amazing resilience.
Calcutta offers some interest parallels to what is considered to be one, of the world’s most populated and polluted cities Mexico City. Mexico City has been described as a “Time Bomb” and “the city (which is) forever spreading like a creeping blot;” a demographer has even joked about how “our optimists count on an earthquake or atom bomb” to end the troubles of this blighted metropolis; words which could easily be used to describe
But here the comparison ends. Despite enormous problems of water supply, sewage disposal and pollution, Mexico City has a team of specialists on its Town Planning Committee sorting out various problems for a better future. It also offers its citizens one of the cheapest and most expensive underground railways in the world—transporting about four million citizens a day. In addition it has an efficient power supply system which failed only once, at 7.00 am on January 15, 1981 for three long hours! The city came to a grinding halt with no radio, TV electricity, elevators or traffic lights. The Mexicans like the Calcuttans coped with it marvelously, but unlike the Calcuttans they still remember the date and time! For them it was an extraordinary happening, which brings us to Calcutta’s eternal problem—power in the city or rather the lack of it.
When millions are plunged into darkness at the drop of a hat, one would imagine disastrous consequences but surprisingly life carries on normally. Housewives continue to cook in total darkness without catching fire, cars continue to speed along, miraculously avoiding people and pavements; and people continue to cross streets without disappearing forever down open manholes. Heart patients survive claustrophobic hours in dark lifts and very few roll down darkened stairs. There are no rapes or murders or muggings; even stores are left untouched. Amazing if you stop to consider what happened to New York when the lights went off. The casualties were enormous, and the accident, fire and burglary rate trebled. But then they had to reckon without God. With God on our side and living in Calcutta we not only become accident proof, but we actually develop extra sensory perceptions which guides us safely through each calamatic day. God gives us the fund, of patience to endure the garbage, the traffic jams, the pot-holes and the shortages.
In Calcutta we learn the price of true courage—– it is not just momentary valour, it is quiet endurance.
I salute you Calcutta for being able to produce a race of people who survive against all odds and yet manage to remain sane, sentient and spirited. If this is not the work of God what is?