My grandma calls Kolkata the cloaca of the world. Before visiting I called it an armpit. And the main reason Dad wanted to come here was to see how bad it is. Because this is where the rickshaw was invented, and it’s one of the few places it still exists, where the runners are little old men with sweaty, grease-splotched t-shirts, and most are barefoot. Outside fancy Chinese restaurants, groups of locals stand while a half-paralyzed hunchback shakes his change tray. Dogs sleep on the sidewalk; one has an open wound on its rear leg. I didn’t get rabies shots, so if bitten I could die and if it’s going to happen, it’ll be here because Rit from Delhi said her friend had come down with malaria while swamping around in Kolkata whereas in all the other big cities it’s practically nonexistent. Fabric-covered sticks on the sidewalk: house. Or, an old man lying his head on his knapsack, crutches nearby. I wondered how people could sleep with the honking so constant and loud. But I guess they get used to it, depends on their standards.
Yesterday I woke and opened the curtains while Dad was in bed. “It’s a beautiful day,” I said, looking out at the city still bearable in early morning heat, a woman sifting through garbage piles, men huddled over their Saturday’s work, dilapidated low-rises colored by hanging laundry in the distance, crows and kites circling overhead. He said in that throaty, deeper-than-normal voice people who just woke up have, “Maybe for you. You’re in an ivory tower.” I lay down on my bed. “But for 99.9 percent of Kolkata, it’s not.”
And our conversation over breakfast was about how it’s possible for the old man sleeping on the street with his crutches to be satisfied with life because he knows he has no chance for moving up. And so maybe it is a beautiful day for him, and even though he has to worry about his next meal, he’s made it so far. More importantly he’s still alive, isn’t he?
Then again, the two kids watching Toy Story outside the Bose store must have been aware of what they lack. They know that people they have houses with a couch and Blu-Ray player and TV and they want it.
Last night a small girl saw Dad and jumped away from her mother to ask him for money. He gave her a pencil and she kept following him down the road, asking for more. A little boy, her brother or a random urchin, joined the party. Dad kept walking, trying to ignore them until finally he gave the little boy a gel pen. The girl squealed, out of success or dismay I couldn’t tell. When they kept following us we thought about crossing the street, but they could cross more easily than we, despite being three feet tall. So we walked into a bookstore. And as though crossing a magical air conditioned threshold, their cries faded with the blare of taxi horns.
We forgot about the kids, started reading poems by Rhabindranath, and I picked up a book called Calcutta, written by a Moorhouse in the ’70s. It was dated, describing how if Calcutta’s population continues to grow at this rate, by 1986 it will have twelve million people (the metro region currently has more than fifteen), and how the airport is as new and inviting as Rome’s (the domestic airport has five gates, faded signs and a general fatigue and weariness that show how badly in need of infrastructure Calcutta really is, until you hail a cab outside and see a huge lotus-like building next door, a high structure of steel and glass that humbles the traveler, making him question his preconceived notions (our cab driver said the new airport should be done by the end of summer, although if true I will be very impressed by how quickly Indians build. He also said that Kolkata’s mayor wants to model the city on London, which makes sense and is yet even more difficult to imagine…).
Kolkata’s standards are slowly rising– from its ever-growing infrastructure, to the young people fiddling on smartphones, who spend twelve dollars on entrees at chic restaurants, who have pride in their city as the intellectual center of India, no longer as a Marxist outpost or philanthropic bastion, but as a modern, developed capital that rivals Mumbai and Delhi. Today Kolkata’s government is changed– the first time in 30 years. There’s lots of wealth here, apparent from the billboards advertising clothing and jewelry, the nice neighborhoods on the city’s periphery, fewer flies than in Delhi. Yet they still have a long way to go.
Dad noted that this city is in many ways more Western than its counterparts, probably due to its strong colonial heritage. And at the same time, it’s that very Western-ness that holds Kolkata back, that prevents it from becoming more itself and building onto the Old World charm given it by the British.
Legend has it that John Charnock of the East India Trade Company settled here in 1690 and brought a bunch of British with him. A hundred fifty years later Calcutta was the second largest city in the British empire. But anti-British sentiment built until the imperial capital was shifted to Delhi, the only Indian city that had existed before the English arrived. During the war the Japanese bombed Calcutta and the population succumbed to famine, which killed more than two million people. This is the beginning of the Calcutta where vultures perch on roofs waiting to feast on cow-trampled corpses; the Calcutta of Mother Teresa, where one-armed children with festering blisters touch their mouths for money, families erect shanties on the street, and malaria– and plague for all we know– is rampant. On top of wartime destruction, the British partitioned East Bengal (Bangladesh) and West, cutting Kolkata off from its industrial and distribution centers, and leaving it with millions of immigrants and temporary refugees.
Today Kolkata remains a place of extremes. While the gap between rich and poor slowly closes, rising Western standards of living complicate Kolkata’s view of itself. With those rising standards comes the knowledge of a better life, a materialistic, American way of spending and getting. So even though the little kids watching Toy Story and following us down Park Street have the opportunity for a “better” future, their craving for it will most likely fuel unhappiness, instead of the ignorance is bliss attitude of Mother Teresa’s Kolkata. Maybe it was a beautiful day for the old man sleeping on the street after all.