|MOVING UP: Sealdah Station is the last stop for trains from India's northeast|
Photographs by Atul Loke
When judging a new place, a traveler must first always reckon with his or her point of departure. Arriving in Calcutta by bus from Dhaka, the capital of next-door Bangladesh, is like arriving in West Berlin from East Berlin during the Cold War—a trip I made several times. Grayness is left behind. Instead of the rusted signs of Dhaka, giant, swanky billboards advertising global products glow in the night like back-lit computer screens. Traffic is dominated in Dhaka by creaky old bicycle rickshaws; in Calcutta, by late-model cars. There are, too, the sturdy yellow Ambassador taxis, zippy little Indian-produced Marutis loaded with families, and many luxury vehicles.
Yet the rickshaws that you also see in Calcutta provide a signature image of exploitation worse than almost anything you’ll see in Dhaka: one human being is transported by another, who is not merely furiously pedaling uphill, but actually running uphill on his bare feet, pulling the rickshaw like an animal.
Calcutta is, frankly, obscene. I walked out of a tony espresso bar—its windows cluttered with credit-card stickers—that offered an eclectic Indian-cum-cosmopolitan cuisine of extravagant mocha cocktails and paneer-tikka sandwiches. As I left the air-conditioning for the broiling street, I was careful not to stumble over families sleeping on cardboard along a sidewalk where men and women urinated. It was here that a young man began to follow me. After several blocks, I still couldn’t shake him. He thrust his résumé as a documentary film producer in my face and pleaded with me to hire him. “I realize I am invading your privacy, sir,” he said. “But what am I to do? Perhaps you are angry with me. I will stop bothering you, but only if you give me a job.” He was dressed poorly but neatly, out to make an impression. In the United States, junk-mail offers and telemarketing calls at least allow you the luxury of tearing up the piece of paper or hanging up the phone. In Calcutta, such unwanted entreaties take a very personal form. Street solicitations here are a form of cold-calling. Escape is impossible.