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An Underground Like Kolkata

Uttaran Das Gupta
Uttaran Das Gupta, Deputy News Editor, Business Standard | © Martin Jahrfeld

Yearning for the past: Indian journalist, Uttaran Das Gupta, researched the phenomenon of “Ostalgie” in Germany – and discovered astounding similarities between Berlin and Bengal.

By Martin Jahrfeld

If you walk down Karl-Marx-Allee in East Berlin, you get an impression of how socialism in the GDR once wanted to look like. This glorious boulevard, conceived of as Stalinallee in the 1950s, is a mixture of Stalinist architecture and Prussian architecture, in the style of Friedrich Schinkel and was meant to prove the superiority of East German engineering in the rivalry between the systems of the East and those of the West. The boulevard today is still a draw for tourists from all over the world with its towering facades, its giant squares and its prominent towers.

Berlin and Bengalen

For Uttaran Das Gupta, a journalist from India, phenomena like Karl-Marx-Allee rouse memories of his home in Bengal. Because Bengal and its metropolis, Kolkata, were governed by socialist parties for years. Relations between the Bengali socialists and the leaders of the GDR were respectively active. In the German capital, Gupta discovered how present the legacy of this cooperation is in architecture and design.

“When I got onto the subway on my first day in Berlin, I was astounded by the architecture of the station and the design of the train cars. Everything in Anhalter Bahnhof reminded me of Kolkata! Then I started doing research and realized that Kolkata’s metro, which was opened in 1984, was designed by East German engineers,” explains the journalist, who worked for Deutsche Welle after receiving a grant from the Robert-Bosch-Stiftung last summer.    

Comparing political cultures

However, the parallels between his Bengali homeland and the GDR aren’t only limited to industrial design. Political structures and the culture also demonstrate certain similarities. A coalition led by India’s communist party dominated the state for several decades. After the farmers’ revolt in 1967, leftist movements in the region got a big boost.

“This political culture strongly influences Bengal, even today. There are a variety of films, books and theater plays that deal with this time period,” reports Gupta, who looked for analogies between the two cultures in Berlin. Gupta was especially fascinated by “Ostalgie” – longing for a socialist-realist past, from one’s own experience, in which life seemed to be manageable and the future predictable.

Similarities and differences

Gupta thinks he’s noticed similar moods among the people of West Bengal, following the leftist parties’ loss of dominance and going into opposition in 2011, after 22 years in power. Aside from the similarities, however, the journalist sees differences between both systems: “The movements are only partially comparable. Similarly to early East Germany, land in West Bengal was also distributed to farmers. Nevertheless, unlike in Germany, our communists were elected democratically and there was some institutional control and limits to their power. But the communists in Bengal had their own system of surveillance and their own army squads, even if it wasn’t as extreme as the Staasi,” explains Gupta, who consulted diverse sources of information during his stay in Germany.

“Berlin is ideal for researching the GDR. There are an unbelievable amount of memorial sites, museums and exhibitions. But I also travelled to the countryside, to Eisenhüttenstadt for example, where you also find so much from that time.”  

An interview with Victor Grossmann

One of the highpoints of his research in Germany was getting to interview Victor Grossman, of GDR fame, in his apartment. The American by birth was stationed in Bavaria in the 1950s and defected to the GDR. After studying at Karl-Marx-University in Leipzig, he spent decades working as a journalist. By now he’s 90-years-old and he still remains true to socialism. He’s active in the left-wing party, Die Linke, and writes a blog for American readers. “Even at his age, he was a very relaxing person to talk to. He spoke a lot about the GDR, European history and the Cold War period,” Gupta reports.

reportage about feelings of “Ostalgie”

Gupta wants to write a reportage about the common feelings of “Ostalgie” in Germany and India when he returns home, where he works as a news editor for the newspaper, Business Standards, in New Delhi. “I already have the part about Germany in my head, I still have to research a bit about Bengal and Kolkata.”