Among the great cities of the world, Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal and the home of nearly 15 million people, is often mentioned as the only one that still has a large fleet of hand-pulled rickshaws. As it happens, that is not a distinction treasured by the governing authorities. Why? It’s tempting, of course, to blame Mother Teresa. A politician in Kolkata told me that the city is known for the three m’s: Marxism, mishti, and Mother Teresa. (West Bengal has had a government dominated by the Communist Party for 30 years. Mishti is a sweetened yogurt that Kolkatans love, though they’re also partial to a sweet called rossogolla.) There is no doubt that the international attention given to Mother Teresa’s work among the wretched and the dying firmly linked Kolkata in the Western mind with squalor—no matter how often Kolkatans point out that Mumbai, for example, has more extensive slums, and that no other city in India can match the richness of Kolkata’s intellectual and cultural life.
The most loyal booster of Kolkata would acknowledge that the city has had some genuinely trying times in the 60 years since India became independent, starting well before the emergence of Mother Teresa. The partition that accompanied independence meant that, without substantial help from the central government, Kolkata had to absorb several million refugees from what became East Pakistan. There were times in the 1970s and ’80s when it seemed Kolkata would never recover from the trauma of those refugees, followed by another wave of refugees who came during the war that turned East Pakistan into Bangladesh. Those were years marked by power outages and labor unrest and the flight of industry and the breathtaking violence unleashed by the Naxalite movement, which began with peasants demanding land redistribution in rural West Bengal and was transformed by college students into urban guerrilla warfare. In 1985 India’s own prime minister, then Rajiv Gandhi, called Kolkata “a dying city.”
There are still a lot of people sleeping on the streets in Kolkata, but there have been great changes in recent years. After decades of concentrating on its base among the rural poor and disdaining outside investment, the Communist Party of West Bengal has fiercely embraced capitalism and modernity. Although the government’s symbols remain what might be expected from a party that still has a politburo—street-name changes have resulted in an American consulate with the address 5/1 Ho Chi Minh Road—the city regularly courts Western delegations looking for investment opportunities. Kolkata now has modern shopping malls and modern overpasses. Walking around the city recently for a week or so, often as the only Westerner in sight, I was approached by precisely two beggars.