To the minds of westerners, Calcutta has long symbolized mass human misery. The few images that are available, in venues such as Life Magazine, National Geographic and the occasional documentary on Mother Teresa, typically depict unending seas of people living in unbearable conditions. As we prepare to land, we wonder: what is Kolkata like today? Does the name change mean anything?
We arrive at night. The airport is a huge improvement over the disaster that is Delhi's airport. Outside the terminal, the air has a slight tropical taste, complemented by palm trees and people in short sleeves. The temperature on New Year's day is comfortable--a foreshadowing of the unbearable heat to come in summer. Only vague impressions, lights and silhouettes, are visible from the car, but already the feeling is different. Kolkata is more vertical than Delhi, and there is life everywhere. It has the feeling of a real city.
Kolkata was the heart of British India, and in the light of day, the signs are everywhere: in the architecture, the place names and the air of history. The largest edifice in the city is the Victoria Memorial, a gargantuan marble palace with domes and columns and several wings, sitting near one end of the Maidan, Kolkata's huge open-space park. There are, in the old sections of town, rows of grand houses in varying mixes of European styles. Some were built by the Brits, others by various Bengal princes and tycoons, who managed to ride out the colonial period in grand style.
A British East India Company cemetary lies just off the main shopping street, serving as a quiet sanctuary in the midst of chaos. The monuments inside are ostentatious, though stained with soot and mold, and evince a strangely Egyptian obsession with pyramids. Most of the people buried here died before they turned 30, yet they had been captains, professors, mayors, barristers, and society ladies. There are few visitors to the cemetary, and those we see today are speaking something that sounds like Czech.
Woven around this monumental infrastructure are the slums and bazaars, crushed into an endless maze of narrow, twisting streets and alleys. Cutting through it all are a few major thoroughfares, vestiges, ironically, of the pre-British era, when townsfolk made pilgrimages from their communities to the north to local burial grounds and temples in the south. Hordes of people wend their way through these alleys, and along the edges of the larger avenues, past shops, tea-stalls, cobbler stands, and open-air vegetable markets. Laundry hangs everywhere. We wonder where they wash clothing, and then pass the answer: huge, rectangular stone wells, at intervals along the roads, gushing water into open cisterns. We pass men, stripped to their breechcloths, bathing in water scooped from the cisterns in banged-up metal pots. Amid all the filth there is still a desire to keep oneself clean. In a society still constrained by strict codes of modesty, such a ritual is out of the question for women, so we are left wondering how they accomplish the same goal.
We are told that the hordes are largely from outside the city--Biharis, East Bengalis, others, who have swarmed into the only major city in this part of India, in search of work. And they do appear to be working; at night there are few of them left on the streets--they have found shelter in the tenements that crowd in among the old buildings. But with the carelessness of people who do not own the place, they litter on a gargantuan scale. There are cleaning crews that come at night, but overall there hangs an organic smell, part decaying garbage, part local spices and the aroma of cooking fires.
Bengal is an anomaly in India, a state run by a Marxist government. Everywhere there are pro-worker slogans painted or scrawled on walls. They are not official, but are sanctioned by the local officials. Contrary to today's orthodoxy, Bengal is also one of the more prosperous states in India, with a growth rate among the top eight. It is not one of the centers of high-tech growth, but has attracted a sizeable new-industry element, mostly in software. Still, the population of poor grows faster than the economy. With the influx of migrant workers and refugees, the human burden seems more than the place can bear.
Outside the city itself, we pass wide open spaces that are being converted into industrial parks and tract housing. The construction is done by crews using their hands, moving dirt in small baskets carried by relays of villagers, men and women alike. Where labour is so cheap and plentiful, it would make no sense to bring in heavy equipment, so there is very little. But there are ambitious plans afoot, judging by the miles of land that have been marked off for future construction.
Final thoughts from this trip:
Is India a credible rival to China, as the next economic superpower? All of the numbers say that it is falling steadily behind, but is still in the running. India’s overall GDP growth lags that of China, but at 7% for the past decade, is far ahead of that in the G8 countries. In foreign direct investment, India has fallen off the map. Still, India has key strengths that could keep it in the game, including the emergence of a young manager class and the continued flood of graduates from its highly-regarded IIT system. In certain sectors, India is ahead, especially business process outsourcing, where English language skills count. India runs a trade surplus with China, but the base is narrow and could evaporate quickly.
Statistics don’t lie, but they don’t tell a complete story. Nothing can replace direct observation, for forming a sense of the texture of a place. For this writer, having traveled in the interior of China, as well having spent a lot of time in its showcase cities, the contrast with India is unmistakable. For all its troubles and challenges, China has crossed a threshhold. Its worries are now different from those of India. It is no longer coping with the kind of poverty and suffering that we more typically associate with the “third world”. India still is. China's corruption, while pervasive, is driven by constructive pressures--the desire to control and be credited for advancement. India's corruption is driven by the desire to steal.
The irony is there for all to see. Ideologues in the West insist that China, a dictatorship, cannot possibly be a better model than India, a democracy. Perhaps they will eventually turn out to be right. China certainly faces deadly challenges, including its own growing gap between the rich coasts and the poor interior. But so far, the results say China is doing better. India’s political freedom, which is real and is to be nurtured, has nevertheless not produced a class of political leaders with a sense of mission. India must develop a sense of mission, if it is to fulfill its promise.