After the perennial summer of raging heat followed by waist-high floods, Calcutta has something to cheer about: A native son, Amartya Sen, last week won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science.
Professor Sen may be a former Harvard University professor who now lives in London. But his theories about avoiding poverty and famine date to his West Bengal boyhood in 1943, when 3 million died of hunger while food stores went unused.
Mr. Sen's prize is stoking the embers of memory and pride in this colorful and jarring city. In the West, Calcutta and its miseries are synonymous with Mother Teresa's mission to the poor. But here, a year after her death, the memory of Mother Teresa is being forgotten - save for journalists who trek to a spotless house to visit the Sisters of Mercy.
Sen is a reminder of the best of Calcutta. The former capital of Britain's "Jewel in the Crown" was also the intellectual capital of India, a kind of Athens of Asia. Sen, who headed a Calcutta university economics department at age 23, reflects a long line of Bengali elites spawned by the intellectual reform ideas of 19th-century British liberals. Sen's theory of the missing social values that lead to famine, and his insistence on a moral dimension to academic analysis, is in keeping with that older Bengali tradition.
Yet as visitors to Calcutta can see in about five minutes, the city, for all its Nobel glory, is still a place of epic and often wretched extremes: Grassy polo grounds abut streets where hundreds of thousands of people live homeless beneath the near ruins of Victorian architecture - conditions that have shocked generations of observers.
Rudyard Kipling's "city of dreadful night" is still accurate, as is Calcutta's identity as a "city of joy": Beggars abound. Families wash in filthy gutters. Traffic jams tie up the town, create diesel clouds that make breathing difficult, and cause 18-hour days of angry horn honking that sounds from afar like a perpetual Mardi Gras.
Struggles of the city
The furious, often hand-to-mouth existence is a reason figures like Mother Teresa can seem irrelevant. "Life is a struggle all the time," says Akbar, a business consultant who lives outside the city. "We respect the sisters. Everyone will tell you that. But I don't think about Mother Teresa, I think about my commute. Yesterday it took me four hours to get to work."
Five years ago, during a time of economic liberalization in India, Calcuttans spoke for the first time of ending their poverty. Under the open-market policies of the Narasimha Rao government in Delhi, Indian business leaders began to travel to New York, London, and Tokyo to dangle a theoretically huge middle class Indian market in front of investors.
One of the most effective salesmen was Jyoti Basu, chief minister of West Bengal state since 1978 - a region larger by population than England or France. Mr. Basu, an octogenarian who in this decade twice refused the prime ministership of India, has the distinction of being one of the longest sitting communist leaders in the world. He sold the idea of a commercial center for the western edge of Southeast Asia, and for Calcutta to again be a port town. Its current port cannot service deep- water vessels.
Basu's progressive views, his criticism of Calcutta's ugliness, and his forays into the world of international finance made many investors abroad say the best capitalist in India is a communist. (Last week, Mr. Basu tried to retire but was asked by a majority of his party delegates to carry on.)
Yet the preliminary investment from the mid-'90s has dried up - partly due to the communist bureaucracy, a crumbling infrastructure, and the hold the unions have under communism. A new port lies half finished, with no work under way. When an international hotel chain tried to buy the famous old Great Eastern Hotel, a now decrepit Raj-era gem, the deal was scotched. The unions would not reduce the work force, which included 270 employees of the hotel bakery.
Nor do international business executives cotton to Calcutta's grueling traffic. The city has twice as many inhabitants as Delhi, India's capital, but three times less road space. In recent years, the government has pushed the fruit and nut sellers and the chappati and poori hawkers off the roads onto the already overcrowded sidewalks.
But driving is still a nightmare. Diesel fumes from lumbering trucks, and the leaded gas used in the 50s-style "Ambassador" taxis, add to coal burning used by by half the city for home fuel, making this one of the three worst polluted cities in the world.
In short, new jobs never really came to Calcutta. Moreover, the so-called Indian middle class consumer market never quite materialized.
New political forces
A non-communist populist party has emerged in a city anxious for change. Its local member of parliament is a charismatic leader, Mamatha Bannerjee, known for her blistering critique of Calcutta's problems, for throwing her shawl at fellow members of parliament, and for holding political rallies on the street at the drop of a hat.
Ms. Bannerjee's party has joined the Hindu nationalist coalition that governs the country from Delhi. But the state of West Bengal is still solidly communist. Basu's vision of equality among Hindus, Christians, and Muslims has kept Bengal largely free of communal tensions. Basu's politics derive from British liberal reformers who early in the century fought against traditions like the caste system and widow burning. But in recent years, the left has also brought programs that in retrospect ill-served the people.
Fifteen years ago, for example, in an anti-colonialist Kulturkampf, Calcutta banned teaching of English in the public schools. Local politicians looked like ethnic revolutionaries at the time. Yet after the cold war and the breakup of the old Soviet ally, with English the language of commerce around India and the world - the young men and women of Calcutta are finding few business partners with the patience to learn Bengali. Bannerjee has now forced Basu to push a new program to teach English.
What seems inexplicable is the hold Calcutta has on foreigners and Indians alike.Some debate whether it is a blessing or a curse that keeps the city in the mental chains of the status quo. Calcutta's vitality is still evident through the faded glory of a city once known as a "second London."
Charms amid chaos
Whether it is the ragtag bands that follow wedding processions through the streets, the two-block long, open-air book stalls, the industrious rickshaw and bullock cart wallahs, the Sisters of Mercy who literally save newborn babies from the dustbins, or the debates about whether to computerize the towering red-brick Writer's Club that has rooms full of water-eaten records of the city's municipal business - there is a rhythm beneath the surface that moves people.
"I have lived all over India," says Pankrat, a biochemical engineer at a local plant. "Calcutta is the friendliest, the most generous. I'll never move."