London, Paris. Beijing, Shanghai. Bombay, Delhi. New York, Boston. When people think of city pairings, Kolkata and Guwahati don’t usually come to mind. The former, the former capital of the British Raj and now the 3rd largest metropolitan area in India, is a oft-romanticized but crumbling shell of its former self. The latter is a largely unknown but up-and-coming city in the Northeastern state of Assam. Yet after spending a few visiting both cities, I’ve come to view these two cities as a perfect representation of modern India’s complexities and contradictions.
Before visiting Kolkata, my expectations were set high – I was told it was a city of art, intellect and culture, home to Indian greats like Tagore and Vivekananda. When I arrived, I immediately noticed a special charm about the place, from the 50s-looking taxicabs to the Victorian architecture. Kolkata was also described to me as as a city that was a few decades behind its metropolitan peers (e.g. Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore). This was immediately obvious as well. From crumbling infrastructure to the ever-present sight of homelessness in the streets, it seemed as if that Kolkata’s best years were behind it.
I next moved on to Guwahati, the biggest city in Northeast India (also a region of India that I didn’t know existed before I moved to this country). Termed the “Gateway of North Eastern Region,” Guwahati is many things that Kolkata is not. It’s a city that has largely been built in the last few decades, growing from 200,000 in the 1970s to almost 2 million today. Almost no major historical sights were to be found, but signs development and capitalism – large retail chains, oil refineries, international brands – was everywhere. Guwahati is also incredibly diverse, ethnically and religiously. In contrast to the soothing Tagore Poetry playing along the Hooghly River in Kolkata, I heard mostly modern music during my stay in Guwahati, largely influenced by its neighbor Shillong, the rock music capital of India.
Seeing the cities juxtaposed in this short trip made me both sad and excited about India’s future. Both suffer from a lack of government investment in transportation – Kolkata barely gets by with a inner city railway system built by the British and a metro that was miraculously completed in the 70s; Guwahati runs on a private bus system (I spotted just one government bus my entire trip). Both were burdened overpopulation – street bathing was seen everywhere in Kolkata; trash piles in Guwahati. What made me more optimistic, however, was the camaraderie that I found in both cities. Despite its oppressive density, the residents of Kolkata seemed quite accommodating to one another. Everywhere I turned, I saw people engaged in animated debates, and as I walked through the narrow alleyways, I was always greeted with warm smiles and even offers for help. In Guwahati, I saw people of all ethnicities working and living together side by side. I had a chance to attend a training session for rural women, and was pleasantly surprised to see the diversity in the classroom. In contrast to the communal animosity that is still very present in many other Indian states, it was refreshing to observe a diverse community thrive.
Kolkata and Guwahati. They might not ever be mentioned in the same breath outside of this blogpost, for me, they served as perfect foils of one another – one a declining, historical icon, with its residents proudly but almost tragically holding onto former greatness. The other a city on the rise, for better or worse defined by one thing – economic growth. Both are still extremely relevant to modern India – one cannot start a conversation about its future without being reminded of its thousand-years legacy; one cannot talk about its history without recognizing the rapid pace of change of the present.
I’m incredibly grateful to the Fellows who hosted me – thanks Neeraj, Abhishek and Gaytri!