Nothing can prepare you for Kolkata. As the birthplace of an empire and the home of the late Mother Teresa, as a playground for the rich and a haven for the destitute, as a wellspring of creative energy and a center for Marxist agitation, Kolkata dares people to make sense of it. Whether it shocks you or seduces you, Kolkata will impress itself upon you. To understand and learn from India today,
a trip to Kolkata is vital. (Although the name was officially changed from Calcutta in 2001, both names are used more or less interchangeably.)
In 1690, Job Charnock, an agent for the British East India Company, leased the villages of Sutanati, Gobindpur, and Kalikutta and formed a trading post to supply his firm. Legend has it that Charnock had won the hearts of Bengalis when he married a local widow, thus saving her from sati (the custom that calls for a widow to throw herself on her husband's funeral pyre). However, new research has suggested that the story of Charnock founding Calcutta is more lore than fact and that the city existed before the British East India Company agent arrived here in 1690. Through Charnock's venture, the British gained a foothold in what had been the Sultanate of Delhi under the Moghuls, and the directors of the East India Company became Indian zamindars (landowners) for the first time. It was here, as traders and landowners, that British entrepreneurs and adventurers began what would amount to the conquest of India and the establishment of the British Raj. More than any other city in India, Kolkata is tied to the evolution and disintegration of the British presence.
Kolkata is the capital of the state of West Bengal, which borders Bangladesh (formerly East Bengal). The Bengali people—animated, garrulous, intellectual, spirited, argumentative, anarchic, imaginative, and creative—have dominated this city and made it an essential part of India for more than 150 years. Among the first to react to the intellectual and political stimuli of the West, the Bengali have produced many of India's most respected filmmakers, writers, scientists, musicians, dancers, and philosophers. Having embraced 19th-century European humanism, such Bengalis as the poet Rabindranath Tagore and others revived their indigenous culture and made the first organized efforts to oust the British. Emotions here ran high early on, and agitation in Bengal broke away from what would later be called Gandhian politics to choose terrorism—one reason the British moved their capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911.
Calcutta remained cosmopolitan and prosperous throughout the British period. But after Independence and Partition, in 1947, trouble began when the world's center of jute processing and distribution (Calcutta) was politically separated from its actual production center (the eastern Bengali hinterland). For Calcutta and the new East Pakistan, Partition was equivalent to separating the fingers of an industry from the thumb. Natural disasters—commonly cyclones and droughts, but also, as in 1937, earthquakes—had long sent millions from East Bengal (which later became East Pakistan) to Calcutta in search of shelter and sustenance; after Partition, a wave of 4 million political refugees from East Pakistan compounded and complicated the pressure. Conflict with China and Pakistan created millions more throughout the 1960s, and Pakistan's 1971 military crackdown alone sent 10 million temporary refugees into the city from what would soon become Bangladesh. By the mid-1970s, Calcutta was widely seen as the ultimate urban disaster. Riddled with disease and squalor, plagued by garbage and decay, once the heart of the British Raj, the Paris of Asia, had quickly and dramatically collapsed.
Or had it? The city kept on growing, and these days, greater Kolkata's entire metropolitan district covers more than 426 square km (264 square mi) and has more than 12 million people. It now has two municipal corporation areas (Kolkata and the near suburb of Howrah), 32 municipalities, 62 nonmunicipal urban centers, and more than 500 villages. What the city has learned to accept, is that it has become marginalized in contemporary India's political and economic power structure. The people here have borne that acceptance with a slightly tired air of resignation and stoicism. A Marxist government has been ruling West Bengal since 1977 from the seat of power in Calcutta. But even this government has adapted to the new globalized economy, fusing Marx with market economics and talking less about agrarian reforms and more about the information-technology revolution. Today's traveler may actually notice more poverty in Mumbai than in the city more often associated with human strife. Kolkata remains open, smiling, and thoughtful: amid the difficulties there is dignity, and amid the crises there are ideas.