Something to declare - Travel - The Independent

Something to declare

something to declare

The Writers' Building in Calcutta, once the bastion of the East India Company - the most powerful multinational the world has ever seen - is now the centre of the unrepentantly Marxist government of Bengal.

True for the last 20 years, but maybe not for much longer. To most people in the West today, Calcutta is a by-word for poverty, disease and urban decay, its reputation as the legendary City of Palaces, "the St Petersburg of the East", long forgotten.

At the centre of that magnificent Georgian city lay the Writers' Building. It was a grim, barrack-like blockhouse, initially built simply to provide accommodation for the East India Company's junior clerks. Yet in the course of the 19th century the Writers' Building became the centre of the commercial life of the colony, indeed came to occupy the central place of all English mercantile endeavour in India.

The bureaucracy the writers created is perhaps Britain's most successful export to the subcontinent. Somehow British ideas of rank and detachment cross-fertilised with Indian conceptions of caste and ritual to produce a lumbering colossus of red tape and licences, rubber stamps and triplicate forms. So great has been the growth of India's bureaucracy since Independence that a building that once housed the entire administrative apparatus of the Indian Empire, watching over an area which included modern Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Burma, is now too small to hold the bureaucracy of one-half of the old British province of Bengal.

In 1975 Bengal democratically elected a Marxist state government. Ever since then, in a strange inversion of purpose, the Writers' Building has become the seat of the chief minister of the Communist state of Bengal. There could be no better symbol of how far independent India has reacted against its imperial past.

Yet on 24 November last year, the Marxists sent in the bulldozers to clear the Calcutta streets of shanty huts and illegal food stalls. It was part of a radical attempt to clean up the city so as to attract foreign investment from exactly the kind of multinationals the Bengali politburo spent the Sixties hounding out of the city. But it will probably take more than a change in policy to tame the red tape monster lurking inside the Writers' Building. Whatever the future of Calcutta, Bengali bureaucracy looks likely to continue thriving - as uncontrollably as ever.

William Dalrymple

The author's film on the Writers' Building, part of the `Stones of the Raj' series, will be shown tonight on Channel 4 at 7.05pm.

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