Oh! Kolkata!

Calcutta has been renamed. Now, with investment on the rise, tech companies moving in, and a growing middle class, can it be reborn?

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.

Calcutta’s invasive poverty stopped hippies in their tracks. The hippie trail across Asia in the 1960s and ’70s followed the Ganges east to the holy Hindu city of Varanasi, then veered north to Kathmandu, Nepal, rather than continuing on to Calcutta. “On first acquaintance,” Geoffrey Moorhouse writes in Calcutta: The City Revealed (1971), the city “is enough to destroy any romantic illusions about gentleness and brotherly love.”

The slums may be worse in Mumbai (more than four times as many people live in them), but the slums there are more segregated from the wealthier areas; in Calcutta, beggars and street people spread throughout the city, making it much harder to avoid the poor. And like Mumbai, Calcutta has a population density that is among the world’s highest.

The first week of the summer monsoon—smothering heat followed by pounding rain—is the best time to experience Calcutta’s two separate and unequal universes: the world with air-conditioning, and the one without. The first is that of an upwardly mobile, international civilization; the second constitutes the miserable reality of the street, where 1.5 million poor Calcuttans live within a few feet of air-conditioning, even as they will never experience it. The door to this espresso bar, or to that charming bookshop with those Penguin paperbacks, represents a border as hard to cross as any drawn on a map.

In north Calcutta, the pavement is taken up by long stretches of tarpaulin-and-burlap lean-tos, inside which families live, with older siblings watching younger ones while the women work as maids and the men as construction workers. But as wrenching as the scene appears, if you wade through the street people, past this partially opened door, or under that chain, you will find another Calcutta: a maze of beautiful and derelict 18th- and 19th-century mansions, built by former rajas and merchants, with blackened, weather-stained walls; intricate brickwork in Muslim, Hindu, and neoclassical styles; and colonnaded courtyards strangled by vines and other greenery. The most impressive of these is the Marble Palace, whose lightless rooms are crowded with dusty Belgian mirrors, classical statuary, Chinese vases, hookahs, crystal glass chandeliers, lithographs, and four paintings by Rubens. Like this rambling palace, Calcutta is an eccentric jumble, of which poverty is but the outer layer.

RUNNING OUT OF TIME: New laws are forcing rickshaws off Kolkata's streets.

Despite the distracting horror of pavement life, the real story of Calcutta is its transformation into a global city, with expatriates returning to invest in malls and restaurants, in the process enforcing the standards of service they learned in the West. Early this year, a 900,000-square-foot mall opened in the southern part of the city; among the largest in India, it’s one of 40 new retail centers set to open in Greater Calcutta by 2011. This is in addition to 20 new multiplex cinemas arising as the city expands to the east. Then there are the luxury condominiums going up, with names like Highland Park and Silver Spring. “If you think of the British Empire as the first go at globalization,” explained Santosh Ghosh, an urban planner, “then Calcutta, as the capital of British India, with its museums and botanical gardens, was a global city when Singapore and Kuala Lumpur were still villages. Now Calcutta is finally catching up.”

The spirit of globalization fuels the gusto with which this Hindu-Muslim city celebrates Christmas—another British legacy—with colored lights festooning the streets, decorations on sale everywhere, and life-size Santa Clauses sculpted of mud and straw in the same workshops that produce the myriad Hindu gods. On Christmas Eve, thousands of Calcuttans of different religions converge on St. Paul’s, the British-built 19th-century Gothic cathedral, infusing the holiday with a cosmopolitan ambience.

The pace of change in Calcutta still isn’t on a par with that of China, but the city is headed in the same direction. Shikha Mukerjee, who directs a nongovernmental organization and has spent her whole life in Calcutta, notes that the world of the leisurely wealthy, with their live-in servants, is disappearing, as the upper classes live a less secure, more frantic existence. But Calcutta’s middle class, which has always been here, has taken on greater visibility, thanks in part to its consumerist buying sprees. According to a recent study by McKinsey & Company, discretionary spending by Indian consumers accounted for 52 percent of average household consumption in 2005 (up from 39 percent in 1995); by 2025, it will rise to 70 percent.

“It’s not the fancy malls,” Mukerjee said, “but the low-end centers that are the heart of the change—the people who have created jobs for themselves by altering clothes, fixing appliances, and so on. I have a tailor who travels from an outlying slum area each day to occupy a particular place on the sidewalk with his sewing machine, where his clients come to him. He’s saving money, he told me. That’s what Calcutta is really about these days.” The pavement soup kitchens selling noodles and curry dishes testify to the rise of a lower middle class, up from abject poverty, that requires cheap meals during the workday. The increase in family cars has led to the most-persistent traffic jams I have experienced in the developing world, worse even than Tehran’s, Bangkok’s, or Cairo’s.

URBAN MAKEOVER: Street barbers in the Kalighat neighborhood of Kolkata

Sealdah was my own private, childhood nightmare,” Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri told me, referring to the railway station that in the late 1940s, after the partition of India, housed thousands of Hindu refugees from Muslim East Bengal, who had arrived in Calcutta destitute, with nowhere to go. Even today, because it’s the terminus for trains arriving from India’s under-developed northeast, Sealdah remains unnerving, with its armies of people disgorged onto the platforms, fanning out amidst the other armies squatting with their suitcases on the station floor.

“But you know what?” the gray-haired English professor said. “Most of those people, with little or no help from the government, settled themselves somewhere. They didn’t just die or go begging.” The process continues today. The Calcutta street, Chaudhuri and others explained, is less a dead end than a way station, just as shantytowns are in Turkey. But since India is so much poorer than Turkey, the way station is that much harsher. “If you come back each decade,” notes Chaudhuri, “the poverty looks the same, so you think nothing has changed. But the individuals on the street are different. They come from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, and Bangladesh, with no place to live, because on the streets you can earn something, save something, and move on.” Opportunity, as much as poverty, creates slums. Indeed, if there is a trend in Calcutta’s slums, it is the fitful transition—gentrification, in its own way—from kutcha (mud) and jhupri (burlap and cardboard) temporary housing to the more-permanent pucca housing, made of cement and corrugated iron. Whole areas are changing their appearance, as Calcutta begins to look less like some subcontinental Dickensian nightmare and more like any other dynamic city with great disparities of wealth.

To a degree, Calcutta has always been like this: too often, our Western fixation on the visual brutality of its poverty has obscured its harsh, unsentimental upward mobility. In his novel Those Days (1981), a detailed, Proustian study of 19th-century Calcutta, Sunil Gangopadhyay writes:

Houses, big, small and medium had mushroomed everywhere to accommodate the new generation of working babus, freshly migrated from villages. Weavers, barbers, washermen and oil crushers followed in their wake to minister to their needs. The Permanent Settlement had robbed many poor peasants of their land, not only in Bengal but in Orissa, Bihar and even distant Uttar Pradesh. These landless labourers flocked to the city’s environs in thousands, ready to pick up any kind of menial work.
NO PLACE LIKE HOME: A billboard for new housing, outside a local fish market

In a city where avoiding the poorest of the poor has been impossible, urban balkanization—the stratification of the economic classes, through the emergence of satellite towns and gated communities—is finally enabling the better-off to do so. It isn’t so much crime that these new, upwardly mobile classes wish to avoid: Calcutta, despite the poverty, is a fairly safe city. It is something deeper. The newly rich now want to flaunt their wealth; that, in turn, creates a need for them to escape into protected neighborhoods, where they can revel in their new affluence. Along with the birth of gated communities has come an explosion in the number of private security guards, who themselves bestow status on the new rich.

These planned communities exist for other reasons, too. As Professor Chaudhuri told me, “The new upper classes are afraid of seeing ugliness.” They want to “sanitize themselves” from the freak show on the streets. They want to see only other well-off people. Wealthy Indians have always acted as if the poor were invisible, but now there is a means to render them literally so.

The Calcutta street that these new rich want to escape is an enactment of rural life in the midst of the metropolis. Women line up at the pavement pumps the way they do at the village well. Just as in the village, domestic life is lived out of doors, without any notion of privacy or, for that matter, bathrooms. And because of the heat, people who live on the street are often semi-naked, grooming themselves with no sense of embarrassment. Calcutta’s deracinated new rich may have less tolerance for Indian village life played out on city streets, but the poor will continue to stream in from the neighboring states of Bihar and Orissa as long as the prospect of a job in construction or another industry promises upward mobility.

One perverse dynamic of this migration is that poor construction workers living on the streets and in bustees (slums) are getting in the way of new satellite towns, gated communities, and special economic zones planned by the state of West Bengal. In power for three decades, the West Bengal administration constitutes the world’s longest-serving democratically elected Communist government. Yet, to win over the hearts and pocketbooks of voters unhappy with statist policies, the Bengali Communists now have to follow the Chinese path of privatization with a vengeance. Last November, violent protests erupted over the expropriation of land in West Bengal for development projects and duty-free zones to attract foreign investment from nearby Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Singapore. The army was called out—the first time in years that the military has been needed to bring peace to a major metropolitan Indian city.

Of course, in China, the land would have been expropriated and that would have been that. In China, a Communist regime can routinely act in a rampantly capitalist manner. But not in democratic India; particularly not in Calcutta. Unlike Delhi, with its grand medieval history under the Mogul emperors, Calcutta was founded only in the late 17th century by the British, and it has been a place of social conflict ever since. That tendency was exacerbated by the Industrial Revolution, which brought a profusion of jute factories and made West Bengal the Ruhr of India for a time, with most of the country’s iron and steel industry. In recent decades, Calcutta has been the heart of Indian trade unionism and Communism. “Continued exclusion of the poor in Calcutta will only result in outbreaks of riots and destructive violence,” V. Ramaswamy, a Calcutta-based business executive and grassroots organizer, told me. For all Calcutta’s aspirations to become a global city, its history suggests that the transition won’t be altogether peaceful. When West Bengal’s government tried to outlaw rickshaws in December 2006 as a “disgraceful practice,” the city’s 18,000 rickshaw pullers launched vigorous protests.

MILLIONS of pedestrians cross Kolkata's Howrah Bridge every day.

In 2001, Calcutta’s name was officially changed to Kolkata, reflecting the native Bengali pronunciation. For generations reared on Calcutta, the new name is awkward. It carries no evocative association, either with British rule or with the city’s infamous poverty. That might be for the better. Just as globalization has invigorated localisms, “Kolkata” may yet become a new global and Bengali entrepôt for eastern India, Bangladesh, and Burma, as old trade routes reaffirm themselves and Calcutta—that is, Kolkata—regains the hinterland it lost when the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent created East Pakistan (later Bangladesh). “Kolkata could be the gateway to Southeast Asia,” Professor Monideep Chattopadhyay, another urban planner, told me. Picture a future of fast highways that create a dense ganglion of connections between Kolkata in India, Dhaka and Chittagong in Bangladesh, Mandalay in Burma, and Kunming in China. Think of annual road rallies from Kunming all the way to Kolkata. In a world with weaker national borders and stronger regional identities, Kolkata may again become what it was, at once an Indian city and a Southeast Asian one.

“It could be the Harvard of India,” says Kingshuk Chatterjee, a research fellow at the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, explaining that primary and secondary education in Kolkata are probably the finest in the country, and that Bengalis fill many places at the best universities in Mumbai and Delhi. This can be achieved, he says, if the Communist-left alliance that governs West Bengal stops making political appointments at local universities.

Kolkata’s high level of education also makes the city likely to evolve into another Indian hub for information technology. More than 200 IT companies have opened offices in West Bengal, and the government hopes Kolkata will one day rival its neighbors Bangalore and Hyderabad as a major computer-technology center. “Forget Mother Teresa, think IT and young people with disposable income,” one local journalist exclaimed.

The most-extravagant visions are possible for Kolkata because, for the time being, the city has one thing that other Indian cities lack: adequate fresh water. Kolkata lies astride the vast estuarial delta of Bengal. A few miles downriver from the city, the Hooghly, an arm of the Ganges, opens out to become an inland sea of Amazonian proportions. Sailing down it, I saw on both shorelines—extending for 96 miles all the way to the Bay of Bengal—a row of towering kilns for brick-making: such is the appetite for building materials, as Kolkata gets bigger by the day. The availability of water makes that expansion possible, even as rising sea levels from global warming threaten this growing mega-city’s survival.

Sailing back upriver at night, I passed under the canti­levered Howrah Bridge, Kolkata’s urban icon, spanning the Hooghly between the industrial suburb of Howrah and downtown. The bridge was constructed during World War II to speed British divisions to the Burmese front. From any direction, it looms like a gargantuan Erector Set, taking up half the sky, its draperies of steel dwarfing everything around it. Vehicular and human traffic on its span are bumper-to-bumper, toe-to-heel, as masses of people cross the river, its waters the color of faded cardboard from the silt that it carries downstream. Even at water level, the noise of the crowd and the cars is like the din of a locomotive perpetually passing. Fancy new motorcycles idle next to hand-pulled rickshaws. People tote everything from briefcases to birdcages; crates and baskets rest on their heads. Just below the entrance to the bridge on the Kolkata side is a bustling flower market with mountains of marigolds and rose petals. Hawkers sell razor blades, textiles, plastic pots, cheap radios. The in-your-face pleas of beggars, peddlers, and other supplicants are unceasing. Nobody gives up here.