Oh, Calcutta, ill-fated Calcutta! Rarely in history has a city been so vilified by its famous visitors. The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss once called it "the home of everything in the world worth hating." American film director Woody Allen noted, "They have 100 unlisted diseases." V.S. Naipaul, a winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, said, "I know not of any other city whose plight is more hopeless." Naipaul's German literary colleague Günter Grass went even further, coming up with the worst insult of all after living in the city for several months: "It's a pile of crap dumped by God." And even former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi called it a "dying city" and wished, back in the 1980s, that it would simply disappear from the face of the Earth.
Today, it is this monstrous city of all places that is emerging as a symbol of globalization and progress unlike any other. It is this filth-encrusted goliath, this leprous giant that is stirring for an assault on the world's markets. It is this metropolis, crammed with 15 million residents, that is poised to lure investors to seize the opportunities brought on by a mighty surge of global capital, and to reap the benefits of the dramatic changes already sweeping across the rest of India.
This country, which once seemed condemned to lag behind forever because of its caste system and the apathy of its one billion citizens, has made huge strides since 1991, when Manmohan Singh, then finance minister and now the country's prime minister, introduced liberalizing economic reforms. In the new millennium, India's growth rate of nearly 8 percent a year is approaching China's. Exports are rising at a double-digit pace. The main engine of this growth is now computer technology rather than inexpensive textiles. After Beijing, New Delhi is regarded as the next globalization powerhouse. The symbol of this revolution is no longer the spinning wheel, but the PC: Gates over Gandhi. Its idols are the "new maharajas," dollar billionaires Azim Premji and Narayana Murthy, and their IT companies Wipro and Infosys.
"India can become a world power," former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt says succinctly. The magazine New Scientist talks about "the next knowledge superpower" and points out that there are Indians at the top in all leading-edge technologies, from aerospace to high-tech medicine and genetic research. The Bombay magazine Business World has even proclaimed the arrival of the "Indian Century." "We can't keep pace with old-style industry and its infrastructural requirements. But we do have one chance - thanks to a technological revolution as trailblazing as the invention of the wheel: the Internet - and that represents the future of our country."
Optimists say that India is vaulting, not just jumping forward. The constraints of the caste system are vanishing in the free-form cyber world, and barriers to progress are falling away. The arrival of data highways distracts from the shortage of real highways.
Without a doubt, IT and outsourcing companies have created some economic jewels in India. Bangalore, in the southern state of Karnataka, and Hyderabad (nickname "Cyberabad"), in central Andhra Pradesh, have become vibrant urban centers. The German airline Lufthansa has added direct flights to both cities to serve their brilliant international software engineers. But Calcutta has slumbered on - that is, until just recently.
An unlikely alliance is causing quite a stir in this metropolis on the Hugli River. The communist regional government of West Bengal has invited McKinsey, the American consulting company known for its brass-knuckle approach to business reorganization, to their city. Employers view Calcutta as the favorite to become India's next Silicon Valley. They cite as an example the recent development there of "egovernment" systems. "Asia's astonishing new high-tech center: Calcutta on a roll," trumpets Hong Kong's Far Eastern Economic Review. And India's open-market prime minister, Singh, acknowledges that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee of Calcutta is his favorite chief minister in all India's states because he is "capable, competent and particularly open to investments."
Can it be? Is Calcutta on the verge of a comeback? This problem city, with its proclivity for death and destruction, has been dominated by Marxists for 28 years and is rife with slums and strikes. Can such a place really be the next paradise for investors and the next big winner in the globalization wars? E-Calcutta instead of Oh, Calcutta?
The old Calcutta still rules in the temples of the city, and its queen is named Kali. She is a Hindu goddess with four arms, dark skin and no clothes. Her face is twisted into a grimace and her bloody tongue protrudes disturbingly. A third eye glows on her forehead, hypnotic and piercing. She wears a necklace of men's heads, hacked from their bodies. Believers know that the goddess of destruction is not to be taken lightly. According to Hindu legend, she was fearless in the face of death and, ever proud, chose to be burned alive. Her mate, Shiva, began a desperate dance with the charred body until the entire world quaked. Fear swept over the other gods. The god Vishnu unleashed his holy saws, and Kali's corpse plummeted to earth in 52 pieces. The little toe of her right foot landed near the Hugli River. And on this spot a village bearing a name that was probably derived from hers arose: Calcutta.
Under the colonial Raj it was a world city. Until 1912 it w as the capital of India, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. After 1947 it became a symbol of the bloody birth of a newly independent India. Even now, Kali, the angry patron of the city, still demands sacrifices to keep her rage at bay - pyramids of oranges and mangos, violet hibiscus blooms, and clouds of cinnabar. And twice a week, a kid goat, its forehead painted with a red mark and its body quivering in panic, is killed to appease her. A half-naked priest pins the animal between the prongs of a black pitchfork and slashes through it with a sharpened sword. A burst of blood spurts out, mingling with the milk from coconuts that have been cracked open. The believers dip their toes in the purifying liquid.
Then there is Teresa, the other patron of Calcutta. The Catholic nun from Albania came to Calcutta at the beginning of the 1930s and in 1950 founded her order, the Missionaries of Charity, f or the poorest of the poor, for lepers in the last stages of the disease, and for the disabled who are without families. She won the Nobel Peace Prize and became known as the Saint of the Gutters. She was beatified by the Pope a few years after her death in 1997. A stone's throw away from the temple of Kali stands a figure of Christ on an old colonial building at the end of a street of brothels. This is Nirmal Hriday ("pure heart"), the home for the dying and destitute run by the order. Nuns here still care for the dying and comfort them during their final hours.
The avengers from the pantheon of Hinduism and the merciful Christian nun: It was only in death that they both achieved their full fame, and it was only in death that they found eternal life. Deadly Calcutta, dying Calcutta. The forte of this city, so it seems, lies in t he business of death, not in life itself, and certainly not in any sort of birth or renewal. This is a community that is failing in our world and has its eyes on the next one.
The new Calcutta is symbolized by the chief minister of West Bengal, Bhattacharjee, a man who governs some 85 million people. His team sits in the Writers' Building in Dalhousie Square. This was once the headquarters of the Raj, a splendid colonial building constructed in 1880. Now it is decaying. The walls are pockmarked where the plaster is crumbling. Wet saris flap like shrouds from the rusting cast-iron balcony. Renovation work is only just starting to get underway.
Inside, ancient fans stir the languid, 40°C air. The slowly turning blades raise the dust on the filing cabinets in a little dance, but do little to refresh the waiting petitioners. The dozens of people camped out in the long hallways rub their tired eyes, as if they have spent the night here. But in the minister's outer office, modern technology is applying its own sort of heat to the heat. Here an armada of computers fires the air-conditioning system, which has been set at polar-level temperatures and is spreading an icy chill through the room.
Chief Minister Bhattacharjee, 61, who has been in office since 2000, extends a friendly greeting to the visitor: "Welcome! May I recommend a financial proposition? We've rolled out the red carpet for investors." With his traditional cotton garb and his old-fashioned glasses, he seems like a mild-mannered chief physician lecturing his colleagues about medical advances and persuading them to look beyond conventional methods of treatment. "We need to prevail in a world of global competition. What counts is attracting capital," says the Communist Party head. "Even the communists in China have changed. In Calcutta, we're at least as accommodating to enterprise now."
Then he talks, sometimes sighing or coughing in embarrassment, about all of the mistakes that he and his comrades have made in the past quarter century. At the end of the 1970s, for instance, the Communist Party backed a strike against the introduction of computers in banks. "It was naive of us to believe that we could stop technological progress. Everyone needs to understand the importance of harmonious relations between employers and employees. Otherwise jobs are lost." The head communist also expresses his mistrust of the unions, which his party embraced for so long. Today Bhattacharjee says he won't allow the union leadership to intimidate workers or pressure them to strike. To protect the longedfor IT investors from work stoppages in Calcutta, the government decided to declare all software and outsourcing firms to be essential services. This decision put them on the same level as water and electrical utilities. The bottom line: The police can step in and use violence to put down a strike.
The chief minister looks forward to the future - and sees every indication that Calcutta will flourish. (He calls the city "Kolkata," its official name that is not taking hold, although it was introduced in 2001.) "We have outstanding universities and brilliantly trained engineers," he says. "Land and work are cheaper than in India's competing cities, not to mention abroad - and that's why we are now achieving annual IT growth of more than 70 percent." Does he view himself as the head salesman for Bengal? "Capitalist language makes me feel uncomfortable," he says with a laugh. But in fact, he acknowledges this is his role. Every week, comrade Bhattacharjee heads off like a good little boy to the ribbon-cutting ceremonies put on by this company or that department store.
But he also worries that he will have to lay off workers in government-run companies. A total of 58 such enterprises are said to be affected. "If we need to streamline, we'll create jobs elsewhere," he says with an edge of defiance in his voice.
Capitalism and Mr. Bhattacharjee: a marriage of convenience, not love. The chief minister, who lives in a two-room apartment, thinks little of consumer goods and loves literature, theater and film. Bhattacharjee has published several books, his latest on World War II. He also translates the works of his two favorite authors into Bengali: Gabriel García Márquez and Günter Grass. "Have you seen the film Good Bye, Lenin?" the man who still calls himself a Marxist asks as his guest prepares to take his leave. "Wasn't it funny and sad at the same time, the way they created an artificial communist paradise?"
Bhattacharjee has assembled a group of like-minded people around him, including IT Minister Manabendra Mukherjee and Industry and Commerce Minister Nirupam Sen. Both have been to Germany's IT trade show CeBIT, in Hanover. But these pragmatic, cash-and-curry communists face some opponents among the old-school apparatchiks in the 41-member West Bengali cabinet. Not long ago, one of the communist candidates for mayor of Calcutta openly attacked the "bourgeois" forces with their "decadent" consumer culture and demanded a return to an "egalitarian, simple lifestyle."
On the outskirts of the huge city, in new residential areas for the rich like Diamond City, or in industrial parks like Infinity, construction workers have way too much work on their hands to pay attention to yesterday's politicians. Here the workers are busy day and night, erecting huge towers of glass and steel. It's almost like Shanghai or China's Pearl River delta. Oversized signs spread the news: "Calcutta's new landmarks are going up here!" Other posters trumpet the steep rise in investments pouring in every month.
From here customers around the globe are waited on. Young Indians, wearing jeans and shirts with rolled-up sleeves, sit on brand new chairs still covered with plastic. Each person works in a cubicle of two square meters, surrounded by partitions on three sides. Their phones are humming and their eyes are fixed on their computer screens. They have the entire English-speaking world on the other end of the line, around the clock. To cover all the world's time zones, frequent shift changes are needed. The 24 x 7 global call center - behold the future of Callcutta.
Morning is the best time to reach Australia, then Europe wakes up, ready to pick up the phone and talk, followed by the East Coast of the United States and then the West Coast. The flood of calls never stops. After a few seconds' pause, the computer automatically connects a new number. The calls are flowing in both directions, incoming and outgoing, in and out, in and out.
"Good morning, madam, we have a special offer for you from Melbourne Telecom ..."
"Yes sir, of course you can replace your lost credit card in San Francisco today. Just go to Union Square ..."
"Hello, Kansas. What do you mean exactly when you say that your PC is misbehaving? Let's see what we can do together to make it behave properly ..."
"I'm sorry, madam, but our credit card rules apply to all transactions. Even in New York. Unfortunately your credit card limit appears to have been reached ..."
"No, sir, I cannot come to your flat in London's West End. But I would be happy to help you fill out your insurance forms over the phone ..."
More than a quarter of a million Indians work in such call centers across the country, and tens of thousands of them are in Calcutta. They provide service assistance to customers, collect debts, and track down lost airline luggage. They do everything that a service world can do on the telephone. And they do it for a lower price than the Americans, Germans or English can. The temporary jobs that used to be reserved for the underqualified in the West have evolved into relatively wellpaying, prestigious positions for college graduates in India. Generally, the customers have no idea that their service partner is on another continent: Globalized technology and pay scale differences make it all possible.
Some service providers have specialized, branching out into such areas as health insurance in the U.K. - with its bureaucratic hurdles. Or American tax returns. In 2003, about 25,000 such returns were prepared in India. Last year the number rose to 100,000 and in 2005, it is expected to be more than 400,000. If this pace keeps up, entire professions, such as tax consultants, will be offshored within a decade.
There may indeed be some Calcutta companies that do not train their workers well and pack them into a stifling room hidden away somewhere. But these are the exceptions to the rule, officials say. Such back-office operations are inspected by Bengali and international partner companies. "We don't have any problems with personnel, and with new hires we can even demand very good, unaccented English," says Nirmal Bagaria, head of the BNKe Group in Calcutta's industrial park. "We have a team of German-speaking colleagues, too. Can you help us find customers?"
The outsource suppliers may be exploiting the potential in all of today's technology tools. But India's real heroes are the ones who are on the cutting edge, developing the technology of tomorrow. The software engineers are particularly successful at what they do. One in three IT experts around the world now comes from India, a statistic that has a lot to do with education. International experts voted the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kharagpur, near Calcutta, one of the world's best technical universities. It was ranked directly behind three American universities and ahead of every European institution of higher learning. And Kharagpur is only one of seven such elite institutes in the country.
Today, most high-tech companies are represented in Calcutta's software parks: more than 200 firms, including IBM, Siemens, and Skytech. Just last year, the Indian software giant Wipro Corporation completed its facility for 1,500 employees. Now the building is already bursting at the seams. And within two years, 7,000 people are expected to be working in the company's Bengali plant. "Our experience in Calcutta has been extremely positive. The economic policy of the Communist Party is admirably pro-business," says Wipro Chairman Azim Premji, 60. The entrepreneur is excited about the inexhaustible reservoir of talented Bengali workers and the reliable electrical service, not to be taken for granted in a country known for its blackouts. Even in Bangalore, the current technology capital, the lights go out more frequently. The earlier success of that center is now wavering because of its poorly planned transportation system and its leaden bureaucracy. Enter the late bloomer, Calcutta.
The words of the Wipro chairman pack a punch. Premji is seen as India's answer to Bill Gates; he is the idol of the country's cyber youths. Most of them don't dream of an expatriate IT career in Germany. Instead they would rather stay in India and live like Premji. For a while, the value of his company's stock was so high that international media ranked Premji, who owns 83 percent of the shares, as the thirdrichest man in the world, with assets of $35 billion. His frugality, which borders on miserliness, is legendary. Premji always flies in economy class and stays in modest hotels. He doesn't want his own parking place at the company; after all, he gets there before the rest of the employees and has no problem finding a spot. "Indian entrepreneurs need to set an example. They can't live in the lap of luxury," he says. "Only then does capitalism have a chance, after all these socialist experiments, of being accepted as a system for improving people's standards of living." West Bengali Chief Minister Bhattacharjee is one of the billionaire's favorite politicians. They get together regularly and enjoy one another's company.
Premji's hair is snow-white, his jaw juts out, and his nose curves boldly. When he draws wider and wider circles in the air with his fingers, you sense that he has the determination of a hawk. He has had to learn to take charge earlier than he wanted in his life. The son of a Muslim family, he attended high school in Bombay and then headed off to Stanford, an elite American university, to study engineering. He loved the laid-back life on the California campus and dreamed of getting a cushy job, preferably at the World Bank. But then his father died. Overnight the 21-year-old became responsible for his whole family.
He had to return home and take over the family business, Western India Vegetable Products. He expanded the range of products, which had consisted mostly of cooking oils, adding such things as soap. All the time he was thinking to himself, this can't be all there is.
Opportunity knocked when IBM, which had flooded the Indian market with low-quality electronic goods, was sent packing from the country in 1977. "A gap in the market opened up," Premji says simply. He bought microprocessors from a small company in Cincinnati at dirt-cheap prices and built decent electronic equipment, much to the astonishment of the Americans. He was already noticing just how well-educated his young Indian engineers were. When the Internet revolution broke out, Premji and his newly reorganized Wipro company were out in front. Soon he was no longer satisfied with supplying the international companies that stormed back into the country after the economic liberalization program of the early 1990s. Using his software know-how, he turned his small company into a global operation, with stock traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
"I feel under obligation to give something back to India," the billionaire says. At the beginning of 2000, Premji established a foundation that finances village schools in remote regions of the country. "We're the world leaders in high tech and train the most computer specialists after the U.S.A. But we failed to create hope for our poorest rural residents."
The statistics back up his statements: India, the nuclear power that sends satellites rocketing into space, supplies barely half of its population with clean drinking water and electricity. Even today, more than 40 percent of the population is illiterate. The birth rate is not falling fast enough. One-fifth of the citizens are considered to be malnourished, and the country is on the verge of an AIDS epidemic.
Up to now, India's problems have piled up dramatically in Calcutta: The city has been a magnet for the poor in the states of Bihar and Orissa. In 1971, during the war against Pakistan and the bloody creation of Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands flooded into the city, a human tsunami that could not be absorbed. But Premji is certain of one thing: The worst is over. He believes in Calcutta, the city that proudly claims to have the largest number of India's internet users. "India's future will be shaped by the twin forces of information technology and globalization," the model businessman explains. "They will bring us unprecedented prosperity."
Is he being just a little too optimistic? Isn't the software business just a tiny island for the elite in India, employing only a fraction of the population and making just a marginal contribution to India's economy? Faced with such statements, Premji can point to a McKinsey study that forecasts some astonishing numbers for the years ahead. By 2008, the IT industry in India will employ 4 million people. In 2004 the figure was about 900,000. In 2008, IT will bring in more than $60 billion in export money (compared with $17 billion in 2004) and supply 7 percent of the gross national product (compared with less than 4 percent today). "The progress has to start somewhere to engender a new, more flexible way of thinking - and then you put your faith in the snowball effect," says Premji. But he realizes as well that this successful sector will not be able to solve all of India's problems by itself.
In Calcutta alone, the highly optimistic Bengali government hopes to have about 400,000 new IT jobs by 2010. At the same time, it is working to lure traditional industries back to Calcutta. Jute production will hardly be able to play the role that it used to. But steel and coal could help the city make a comeback, the optimists maintain. After all, India's Lakshmi Mittal heads the world's number one steel company and is thought to be another billionaire. And isn't the food industry waiting for some new opportunities? Last fall, the U.S. multinational PepsiCo built a huge potato-processing plant near Calcutta, thanks to a sack full of tax breaks offered by the communist government.
West Bengal's industry and commerce minister, Sen, sums things up this way: "Calcutta needs to produce both: potato chips and computer chips." And because he has to deal with old-time communist union members and bottom-line company executives, he has decked out his office in the government building to suit both groups. Right next to the computer on his desk, he has a book written by the guru of capitalism Jack Welch; on the wall, he has hung a yellowing portrait of Lenin.
The new high-tech elite has already altered the face of the city. Glittering shopping centers, like the Forum with its designer stores, have sprung up between peeling facades. Pubs and discos have popped up, too. The focal point of the city's well-paid techies is Park Street. The street is not far from a huge, run-down city park and has been officially renamed Mother Teresa Street. In chic, stylish bars like "Someplace Else" or "Shisha," they sip their Kingfisher beer, and chew over their chances for a promotion and a pay raise. And sometimes a feeling of pride about the new Calcutta hangs in the air.
"The multinational Nortel is moving in, too," a young man with a three-day beard says as he shows his friends an article in the Telegraph. "Are we catching up with China?" Two others, just back from Shanghai, immediately dismiss such talk. "Don't get your hopes up - they play in a different league. Calcutta is just a regional center for India, but Shanghai is a global metropolis." The race against the huge competitor in the East is on everybody's mind. The question is: Why was the People's Republic so much better at capturing the world's markets? Is the Hindu religion with its terrible caste system holding them back? The long tradition of "red-tape politics" practiced by India's left wing? Or even the slower decision-making processes of a democracy?
Calcutta's young people still believe in tomorrow. Everyone in the bar is certain that the future belongs to India and China, and that they will both become economic superpowers with complementary strengths. As the factory of the world, China produces the hardware. As the development lab of the world, India engineers the software. The technicians in Calcutta are counting on trade between the billion population countries to increase, and they hope that their awakening metropolis will be among the winners. There are plans to open the Nathula Pass linking Sikkim, in India's northeast, and Tibet. This is something more than a symbolic rapprochement between two colossal empires. As a result of the change, goods from the port of Calcutta will roll directly overland to China, and trade will be able to flow back the other way.
The clammy heat hits the young men in the face when they leave the bar about 2 a.m. In the last few hours, the life went out of the political discussion. For good reason: Around midnight, young women began showing up in pairs, Indian beauties with long, well-styled black hair. "When it comes to beauty, we're already a superpower," one of the many new Indian fashion magazines proclaimed recently and then reeled off all of the Miss World titles that have gone to the land of the Ganges. The bouncer at the door also let in a couple of blondes who spoke Russian and cast a professional glance over the crowd. Back in May, a local newspaper complained it was a shame that prostitutes from the Eastern Bloc had discovered Calcutta, just like Bombay and Delhi. Another news paper viewed the development as more of an accolade than an affliction: "Apparently one class in Calcutta is now sufficiently wealthy to warrant being wooed as customers."
Three of the young engineers have their own compact cars. Surendranath, a software expert, is the only one who does not have one. The IBM employee is saving his money to buy an apartment. After leaving the bar, he turns to a rickshaw driver. Clumsily he climbs onto the rickety cart being pulled by a barefoot, shirtless man and, slowly, the man heads off into the still heavy traffic. Rickshaw drivers in Calcutta are actually rickshaw pullers. Unlike those in most major Indian cities, they do not have a bicycle hitched to their carts. They use their bare feet and their own muscle power to keep things moving. It is a job that appears at first glance to have little to do with globalization. But it has plenty to do with the senselessness of India's union politics. For 22 years, Badal has been pulling a rickshaw. The hard physical labor has given the gaunt man calloused feet and sinewy muscles. But it has also made him grow old before his time. He has just turned 40, but he looks at least ten years older. "My father was a rickshaw driver before me," he says. "Our job is older than this city." Badal is proud of the fact that he no longer has to slave away for a "malik" (boss) and can work on his own. As an independent, he is something of an oddball among his approximately 30,000 colleagues. But not when it comes to his union membership: For 11 rupees (about 20 cents a year), he has joined up like nearly all of his colleagues.
By striking, the union has always been able to prevent Calcutta from allowing bicycle or tricycle rickshaws. The communist government tried to abolish the "inhumane" coolie labor long ago. It failed after the union organized protests fueled by the members' fears of massive unemployment. Now the government is employing a carrot-and-stick approach. The roadworthiness of the humanpowered rickshaws is being more thoroughly checked. They are allowed only on side streets. And anyone who voluntarily gives up his cart receives a cash payment of about $260.
But Badal does not want to give up his rickshaw. His ancient cart is the centerpiece of his life. He does not think his job is degrading, but acknowledges that the bicycle version would not have been bad, if only we had agreed to it. He says traffic is getting worse and worse. He keeps pulling his rickshaw down Lenin Street, then Karl Marx Street, Ho Chi Minh Street and all of the streets named in memory of revolutionaries. All around him the ubiquitous Renaults and Toyotas of the world are beginning to replace local makes.
Calcutta, Grass once said, is nothing less than the "mirror of our world." Eighteen years after his last trip, the German novelist returned to the megacity in January. He did not visit the IT parks and the new Calcutta, but still he discovered a city that had changed a lot for the better. There were fewer slums and fewer homeless people. The apocalypse that he saw coming in his books The Flounder and Show Your Tongue has been put off for the time being.
You can even get glimpses of an emerging civil society. Three years ago, when the last horrible battles were being waged between India's religious groups in the state of Gujarat, all sorts of people headed out onto the streets together: Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians. The exact opposite of the Calcutta that Grass once described as "a cadaver insisting on decomposition."
Perhaps a submerged current is coming into the open: the thirst for knowledge. The education that has come along with the IT revolution and globalization is eroding the traditional barrier between white-collar work for the higher castes and manual labor for the lower castes. There are more than enough role models to go around. This city of slums was always also the city of major thinkers: The Nobel literature laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1913), the film director and Golden Bear winner Satyajit Ray (1973), the winner of the Nobel prize for economics Amartya Sen (1998) all hailed from Calcutta or its surrounding areas. And some of the progressive Hindu reformers developed their ideas in the Bengali capital.
Badal, the rickshaw man, is completing his final trips of the night. The site is Sonagachi ("the golden tree"), the city's infamous red-light district. The scene on the street is like some sort of grotesque ballet, a terrible carnival: garishly painted 14- year-olds from Nepal are lined up here, blowing kisses and competing against even younger prostitutes from Bihar. Even this chaotic crowd follows unspoken rules. There are prostitutes for Hindus, for Muslims, and for better-paid "Anglo-Indians."
Badal likes to pull his rickshaw to Sonagachi. Late at night, the customers aren't in a penny-pinching mood. And he has a bit of luck tonight. The last trip takes him in the direction of the Howrah Bridge. Here on the Hugli, under the powerful curves of steel girders, is where his slum can be found. Earlier, his family had only a sheet of corrugated metal, some cardboard, and a few old curtains. Today, his abode is a real hut made of boards. The hammer and sickle are painted on the walls. The communist symbols compete with a calendar showing a picture of the goddess Kali. A transistor radio attests to a certain modest level of prosperity. But they still sleep on the ground - Badal, his wife, their four daughters, and Chandra, their 6-year-old son. "He can already read and write," Badal, who is illiterate, says proudly of his sleeping heir while he wipes the sweat of the day from his brow. "One day he'll learn computers." The rickshaw man doesn't know exactly what this modern box is all about. But he has heard that the future lies in a computer-based job. Everybody says so, including his colleagues and his son's teacher. And that's why he is saving his money to buy one for his son.
And because Chandra is everything to them and because he is supposed to care for his parents later in life, they watch over him around the clock. That means Badal and his wife sleep in shifts. After all, when the monsoons come, the rats become very aggressive. They climb up the river bank, slip silently into the water pipes, and systematically go to work on their favorite targets: small children. Just three slum rows from Badal's shack, the rats recently bit a baby to death. But when you have a stick in your hand and you manage not to doze off, things are not nearly so bad. The rodents are easy to drive away. Not so the other cruel spirits still wandering this city.
Padma Rao contributed to this report.