Observations on Calcutta
Calcutta is where the British began their colonisation of India, and it has made the most of independence. Whatever the complexion of the national government, the city's wilful voters have elected a Marxist administration for the past 28 years. And while other provinces courted foreign investors, Calcutta honoured heroes of communism. First there was Karl Marx Street, and then one day, with feelings running high over US foreign policy, employees at the American consulate found that their address had become Ho Chi Minh Street.
It takes courage for a poor city to pick such fights, but the street-brawling days are over and Calcutta's communists have a new economic creed: globalisation.
It may once have pledged "to stop in- filtration of the multinational corporations", but the regional government is now luring the likes of IBM to base their software engineering and call-centres in the city and surrounding state of West Bengal. In return, they get cheap labour and generous subsidies.
Calcutta, now renamed Kolkata, is going through a big rebranding exercise. "A new city has emerged," claims the brochure for potential investors, "where business pulses like a quartz watch 24 hours a day." This new city emerges just outside the airport, on the billboards for new housing estates. One, called Spanish Villas, promises "the idyllic Spanish countryside"; with one down payment and a lot of imagination, buyers can recreate Catalonia in Calcutta. Why Spain? "It means looking good," the marketing man says, "feeling westernised."
On my recent visit, Calcutta's second shopping mall had just opened: the usual brands, a food court, a multiplex cinema. But the crowds would shame the Harrods sale and on Sunday it is hard to move, let alone shop. In a city famous for its cuisine there is a queue outside Pizza Hut.
Bengalis are justly proud of their culture and some worry it may be washed away. Among them is the region's chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who prefers writing poetry to watching television and says he has never visited the new malls. "Consumerism leads to selfishness, cynicism and sometimes pessimism," he has complained, yet he also admits: "Globalisation is a must."
Without the kinetic energy of money, Calcutta seemed for many years a sad and stagnant place. The young and ambitious often had little choice but to leave. Now, at least, they have viable options to stay. "Those who want to scrap shopping malls as a symbol of globalisation might as well ban cars - or mineral water," says B S Nagesh, who runs Shoppers' Stop, one of India's biggest retail companies. A southern Indian, he concedes that Calcutta has its own character but he knows there is no stopping his brand of consumerism. He already has two large stores in the city and plans two more by the end of next year. "We are seeing the westernisation of the Indian consumer."
Before leaving, I visit the local IT minister, the man responsible for bringing in foreign investors. Manab Mukherjee is a rare hybrid - a Marxist with an MBA. Does he think India's most individual city will end up like everywhere else? He shrugs: "We have to play the same game as the rest of the world." Then he talks about what West Bengal has to offer IT companies. When the interview is over we fall into conversation about the Venezuelan president, a radical and a persistent irritant to the White House.
Then Mukherjee leans forward: "Hugo Chavez - he is a hero." And, for the first time that afternoon, his eyes light up.