KOLKATA, India — Everywhere you turn in Kolkata, there is chaos and cacophony, from sidewalk livestock to street barbers, from child beggars accosting passers-by to taxi drivers blaring their horns in a constant storm surge of traffic.
Rudyard Kipling called what was then Calcutta “the city of dreadful night — a city of unspeakable poverty, of famine, riot and disease … where the cholera, the cyclone, the crow come and go, by the sewerage rendered fetid, by the sewer made impure.” A privileged European perspective, no doubt, but illustrative of a city shaped by the teeming masses of humanity that inhabit it.
Yet for all the Western writings on Kolkata — and India, for that matter — there is plenty the foreign eye will miss. Bengali-American writer Chitrita Banerji reacts to that tendency to malign her hometown in a New York Times essay, “Poor Calcutta,”following the death of Mother Teresa and the ensuing media coverage:
They described a city I didn’t recognize as the place where I had spent the first 20 years of my life. There was no mention of Calcutta’s beautiful buildings and educated middle class, or its history of religious tolerance and its vibrant literary and cultural life. Besides, other Indian cities also have their share of poverty, slums and destitution, as would be expected in a country where a third of the population lives on $1 a day — for example, more than half of Mumbai residents live in slums, far more than in Calcutta. Why were they not equally damned in the eyes of the world?
Stumbling upon an elaborate wedding ceremony along one of Kolkata’s busiest streets, I caught a glimpse of how vibrant and rich the city’s denizens also are.