Painting Calcutta Blue: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

An old joke has it that Queen Elizabeth II has spent all 60 years of her reign laboring under the misapprehension that everywhere in the world smells of fresh paint. The joke persists because we have all, at some point or another, been in on some variation of it. Everyone knows that when pushed for time and resources in trying to sell a decrepit house, or avoid blame for some domestic mishap, or impress a visiting dignitary, the most expeditious remedy is to slap a lick of emulsion on it and hope it covers the cracks long enough to see you through.

It takes rare audacity, however, to apply this thinking to an entire city—one that, on top of it all, isn’t exactly renowned for its tidiness. Exactly such an initiative, however, is being promoted by the local government of Calcutta—the teeming Indian megalopolis that, despite its riveting history, absorbing culture, and raffish charm, has never once been described as fragrant or pretty. Calcutta’s Urban Development Minister, Firhad Hakim, has announced that it is the wish of his boss, Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee, that Calcutta be painted sky blue.

Various rationales have been advanced for the proposed new color scheme, which will be applied to government and private buildings, roadside railings, various municipal installations, and even Calcutta’s signature yellow Hindustan Ambassador taxis. According to local reports, Hakim has asserted, apparently with a straight face, that it will reflect his party’s belief that “the sky is the limit.” Calcutta’s mayor, Sobhan Chaterjee, has noted that blue “is a beautiful color and also soothing for the eyes.”

It is easy to mock such blather, and many already have. Calcutta’s Telegraph newspaper ran an editorial of blistering sarcasm, casting exacting doubt on the likelihood that a fresh coat is going to do much to ameliorate the city’s chronically rotten and overstressed infrastructure. There is something to be applauded, however, in this transparently superficial policy: Calcutta’s councillors have alighted, advertently or not, on a profound truth. Some problems are indeed unsolvable, and Calcutta has more of those than most places. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with creating a fleeting illusion of renewal. The new blue patina’s inevitable chipping and fading will—like everything else—eventually be someone else’s problem.

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