Calcutta: city of contrasts where poverty does not diminish pride

At the Birla Planetarium, one of the largest in the world, precarious rope and bamboo scaffolding supported nearly 100 men scrubbing and whitewashing the massive cupola. They were all Bengalis.

Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi recently called Calcutta a ``dying city,'' suggesting that it was beyond repair. So outraged were the proud Bengalis that the people of Calcutta took to the streets with brooms, buckets, and mops. They were determined to clean up India's largest city.

And in the stately downtown areas they began to do just that.

Yet, in the narrow alleyways bisecting the once fashionable Chowringhee Road, the street people live inside corroded cast-iron pipes. Others continue living on the pavements, where they have always lived and raised their families.

Calcutta, the once grand pulse of the British Indian Empire -- chronicled by Rudyard Kipling and the literati of the time -- has become one of the world's urban horrors.

Yet it produces India's finest cinema and much of its best music and art. Calcutta has bred filmmakers such as the internationally acclaimed Satyajit Ray, who makes his films only in the Bengali language.

Calcutta is a city of contradictions. It is the capital of the state of West Bengal, which is run by one of the world's only freely elected Marxist governments.

The Hindu religious festival of Durga Puja and the birthday of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of Soviet communism, are celebrated with equal enthusiasm and public fanfare.

However, when Jyoti Basu, chief minister of the state government, tried to enforce a work ethic -- to get workers to leave no work pending, to report to office on time, to avoid ``idle gossip'' during working hours -- vast numbers of state government employees deserted the Marxist camp and joined the Trade Union of the ruling Congress (I) Party.

Nearly half of Calcutta's total population of 10.2 million lives in miserable poverty. However, its professionals and artists abide by the city loyally and refuse to leave.

Bengalis are superpatriots. And yet, every year members of the fashionably old and elegantly faded Calcutta Club rise from their lawn chairs and give a rousing rendition of ``God Save the Queen'' on British Queen Elizabeth's birthday.

Only in Calcutta, wrote Mr. Kipling, can ``poverty and pride exist side by side.'' Poverty has grown remarkably in the last 30 years, and the city's per capita income has fallen to less than $100 a year. Yet it is a city where an office worker will spend an entire week's salary to attend a concert on the open maidan (field).

Calcutta is both a monstrous and a marvelous city, ``assaulting all the human senses,'' according to a government tourist brochure. But no longer do tourists come to Calcutta in droves. Only 33,827 visited the city last year.

The statistics on ruin, decline, and despair are overwhelming.

Calcutta has perhaps the lowest urban standard of living in the world. More than 70 percent of Calcutta's people live at or below the poverty line. The average earnings of a family of five are $34 a month.

More than 200,000 beggars compete for sidewalk space with 20,000 mostly unlicensed, hand-pulled rickshaws.

The average Calcuttan, a government survey says, is worse off than a Bombay resident -- including a slum dweller -- by 26 percent, and a New Delhi resident by 33 percent.

But among Calcuttans, there remains the surging Bengali pride -- and again, the contradictions.

A new multimillion-dollar sports stadium situated on the route to the airport -- where planes can be delayed for days -- stands in sharp contrast to what is becoming yet another permanent slum.

Thousands of East Bengali refugees reside in the area. They have been in the open fields, living in makeshift mud huts (if they're lucky), or under tarpaulins attached to trees, or inside rusted tin containers fetched from a garbage heap.

Calcutta is notorious as a city that has spent 13 long years trying to build a subway -- trenches, potholes, and pieces of dug-up sidewalk are everywhere.

Few, other than the largest of vehicles and the most adventuresome of drivers, venture onto Calcutta's swarming, twisting roads.

The strange and Gothic ``Writer's Building,'' which now houses the government secretariat, is grimy, with beaten, tattered furniture and barely any lights.

And, from the chief minister's chambers, there is a powerful odor of eggs cooked in grease. Yet another unlicensed food vendor is preparing lunch, just behind the chief minister's chambers.

Two thousand tons of garbage and assorted litter accumulate in the streets each day. The city's only incinerator has broken down almost daily for the last four decades.

In the city center, beneath a large imposing statue of Queen Victoria, clapboard houses and tenements collapse each week, thudding to the ground without warning. Yet their residents refuse to flee.

Calcutta was founded by the British East India Company in 1690, and carved out of swamps. When and how the decline of this once stately city began can be the subject of lengthy conversations.

It is a city steeped in history: the British Empire and the days of the Raj, the controversial ``Indian National Army'' which, in its zest to free India from the British, collaborated with the Japanese.

When the subcontinent was partitioned and the British left in 1947, Bengal was one of two states divided between India and Pakistan. Calcutta suffered enormously by the loss of far superior resources found in East Bengal.

Then there was the rise of the now-outlawed Naxalites, a group of self-styled Maoist revolutionaries, who launched a terrorist campaign -- bombings, arson, and murder -- during the late 1960s and early '70s.

In 1971 came the Indo-Pakistani war and the creation of Bangladesh (out of what used to be East Pakistan). It was during this period that nearly 10 million East Pakistani refugees fled to India, most of them to Calcutta and West Bengal.

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