Two sides of Calcutta

Cultural Insights — By on September 13, 2007 at 8:15 am

When I was in Calcutta a few years ago, I was intrigued to discover that local residents alternately revered and resented Mother Teresa. They revered her, rightly, for the remarkable and selfless work she did in tending to the poor and the sick. But they also resented her work to some degree because the media attention that she drew usually depicted Calcutta as a desperately poor city while neglecting to mention the thriving middle class that also existed there.

Calcutta, in fact, encompasses both worlds – an educated middle class lives there and shops in sparkling malls, even as poverty-stricken residents live on the sidewalks. This perspective of both sides of Calcuttas is perfectly presented in this recent op-ed column by the writer Chitrita Banerji, who is a native of this Indian city:

One morning in January 1997, I walked into my office at a nonprofit group here after a visit to my hometown, Calcutta. A very senior colleague, whom I would have, until then, characterized as being the “sensitive” sort, greeted me: “Welcome back. And how is everyone in Calcutta – still starving and being looked after by Mother Teresa?”

At first I thought this might be a bad attempt at humor, but I soon realized that my colleague was seriously inquiring about my city’s suffering humanity and its ministering angel – the only images Calcutta evoked for him and countless others in the West. When Mother Teresa died eight months later…reports on the funeral portrayed a city filled with starving orphans, wretched slums and dying people abandoned on the streets, except for the fortunate ones rescued by Mother Teresa.

They described a city I didn’t recognize as the place where I had spent the first 20 years of my life. There was no mention of Calcutta’s beautiful buildings and educated middle class, or its history of religious tolerance and its vibrant literary and cultural life. Besides, other Indian cities also have their share of poverty, slums and destitution, as would be expected in a country where a third of the population lives on $1 a day – for example, more than half of Mumbai residents live in slums, far more than in Calcutta. Why were they not equally damned in the eyes of the world? …

Charity need not be inconsistent with clarity. Calcutta is a modern Indian city where poverty and inequality coexist with measurably increasing prosperity, expanding opportunities, cautious optimism and, above all, pride in its unique character.

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