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As London's Big Ben Falls Silent, Kolkata's Little Ben May Have Found Its Reason For Existence

It always tolls for Big Behen.

22/08/2017 5:35 PM IST | Updated 22/08/2017 5:37 PM IST
Neil Hall / Reuters

A couple of days ago the Press Association of UK tweeted: #Breaking Theresa May says "it can't be right for Big Ben to be silent for four years" after officials announce the plan to silence its bongs."

The tweet was shocking.

As a Bong, I know it is impossible to silence bongs. Floods, famines, Naxalbari, hartals – nothing has been able to shut them up. Even Kolkata's traffic signals sing songs. Noise, not industry, is possibly our main form of pollution.

But far away across the Atlantic, in the mother city of the erstwhile empire, the bongs have indeed been silenced.

As Americans were preoccupied with their eclipse, Big Ben fell silent in London after ringing in the noon. A $37 million restoration project is now underway to repair the tower that houses the world's most famous clock. Big Ben will be silent for four years.

British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn responded, "It's not a national disaster or catastrophe." But it has unleashed a wave of nostalgic hand-wringing. It feels like the death knell of an old Britain, especially in an anxious age of Brexit. These are the bells that boosted morale during World War II. These are the bells that open BBC news bulletins. It has been the sound of Britain since 11 July 1859 when it was still the British empire. That empire crumbled over the next century and a half but the bells kept tolling their reassurance.

It is impossible to silence bongs. Floods, famines, Naxalbari, hartals – nothing has been able to shut them up.

Until now. But wait, London, all hope is not lost. In Kolkata, that other epicenter of nostalgia, the forlorn second city of the empire, a little Ben can spring to the rescue.

When Mamata Banerjee had said in a moment of bravado that Kolkata on the Hooghly could become like London on the Thames, many had rolled their eyes. Didi had stuck to her stand and expanded on it – Sundarbans could be our African safari, Darjeeling our Switzerland. "Why can't Kolkata be another London?" she had asked. A consultancy firm was appointed to study the possibility of building a Kolkata Eye modeled on the London Eye Ferris wheel. "The project, the first of its kind in size and magnitude in India, is already underway and is expected to be ready in a year's time," she said in a Facebook post in 2014. "The world has many less interesting views to offer, certainly," wrote Ian Jack about the Kolkata Eye. "But only a chief minister as dedicated to gimmicks as Didi would see a Ferris wheel as a primary route to civic salvation for an urban conurbation of 15 million people."

Three years later that ferris wheel is spinning only in the windmills of our mind. And London is brought up mostly in mockery on the streets of Kolkata when talking about Mamata Banerjee and her grand dreams.

But perhaps Didi could just be having the last laugh. The Ferris wheel might still be a pipe dream but Kolkata does have its own Big Ben. One of her local MLAs, Sujit Bose had it built for some Rs 1.36 crore right on the road to the airport, an ironic choice given that no direct flight exists from Kolkata to London anymore. It occupies about 1000 sq feet of prime road space but Bose insisted "there is no complaint from the local people. It is causing no traffic congestion. It has been received positively by the people." Given Didi's London dreams, "Big Ben was an obvious choice," said Mriganka Bhattacharya, the South Dum Dum municipality chairman.

"Why can't Kolkata be another London?" Mamata had asked.

At that time it had seemed like one more quixotic idea, building new pieces of faux London even as we pay little attention to the grand old buildings and bungalows we already have. "This idea of imitating structure from a different city is clearly faulty," architecture professor Debashish Das told the Business Standard. Kolkata is not alone. Bangladesh has a Taj Mahal and China has duplicated pretty much every landmark. Das said, "All the landmarks in the city have their history and a cultural background; there is a reason for their existence."

Well, Kolkata Ben might have finally found its reason. For the next four years, this could sell itself to tourists as a Ben that still tolls for thee. This could be a new reason for tourists to visit Kolkata. We'll throw in a few red double decker buses if need be. If the Queen misses her Big Ben too much she knows where to find its facsimile. Our 30m Ben is admittedly a little shorter than the 96m London version. But that's only apt commentary on the shrunken British empire. Just think of it as Little Ben to the rescue. Or as some would put in Didi's city, ask not for whom Little Ben tolls, it always tolls for Big Behen.

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