I’m visiting the city of the real Didi. If I close my eyes and turn down the soundtrack, the pre-monsoon heat feels exactly like in Calcutta. When I go to the riverside and walk on a jetty I could be at Ganga’r dhar, the rusting hulks of old steamers and barges could be at Babu Ghat, the wide expanse of thick, light brown water could be our Hooghly, except the vessels’ names are stencilled in what seems to be some south Indian script. On their Strand, the old institutional buildings seem to have been designed by the same anally-retentive Victorian who put together the piles around Dalhousie Square, except the colour scheme is slightly different. In their gardens and on their roadsides, the banana fronds and gulmohar trees seem concocted by the same cosmic botanical mischief-maker.
The real Didi’s presence is everywhere, her smiling face is on the magazine covers and on kids’ t-shirts, her name mentioned casually in conversations that were probably not possible even two years ago. Throughout my trip, I never once raise the subject of politics, but then, I don’t need to — the people I meet raise it themselves. “Earlier things were more difficult, now better”, “Since the recent changes in our country we can now do this”, “It’s not that she can solve all our problems, but the fact that she is free is very important”, and one person, perhaps still being dutiful, “She is a great woman but the General is also a good man, this General, you have to say that.”
I ask to see what everyone calls “Lady House” and my request is treated as naturally as my wanting to see the great golden pagoda in the middle of the city. The road where Didi lives is in a posh area quite close to the University. Along the road, there are bungalows and mansions hiding behind high walls, thick foliage and stands of manicured palm trees. What I can see of these properties confirms that most of the local wealthy people have the same bad taste as our own rich shits, the same penchant for bright plastic colour, grotesque plaster curls, gilt-edging and fake gothic arches. The Lady House is different, in that you can hardly see it over the high wall. The gate and wall are newly repaired and topped by brand new concertina wire and security cameras. I’m told these have only been put in place since the generals allowed the Didi to repair her house after many decades. We drive past the house and then past the US embassy which is close by. “Would you like another view?” I’m asked. “Better view from the other side of lake.” I say yes.
We drive around the lake on which the Lady House sits and stop at a children’s park: “There is the house, with the red tile roof.” Suddenly I’m at Rabindra Sarobar, looking at the man-made lake with a small island of trees in the middle. On the other side, lawn sloping to the water, is the bungalow that has been the focus of so much of the world’s attention. It’s a tasteful old colonial-style bungalow, medium-sized for what it is, and open to the water. The properties that flank it are not so easy to see.
Since Didi’s country has opened up, property prices in the city have gone crazy. A mansion on this lake is now priced at $20 million, insanely optimistic perhaps, but definitely an indication as to how the people in power perceive the future.
In the strange, hinge, present moment, there are many oddities. There is no way for any foreigner to withdraw money from a bank, there are no ATMs yet, and no international cards work. If you are a visitor you have to carry with you the cash you think you’ll need. The cash needs to be in crisp new dollar bills and no, you better not have folded them: the inflation is sky-high and, in this nation of habitual gold-hoarders, the people in the forex business also seem to want to see maximum paper-life in the dollar bills they may have to hoard. At the same time, no one seems to be hoarding real estate or holding back from building. All over the country, there seems to be a huge construction spree, airports being renovated, shells of office buildings shooting up, new banks and, yes, booths meant for ATMs appearing in small towns.
When I drive from the great field of pagodas and stupas to the old British hill station, the highways are brand new. The traffic on this Sunday is not heavy and there is a mixture of old rattle-trap vehicles and large new articulated lorries stacked with ICBM-sized logs of teak. In contrast, the major rail junction at the centre of this big country, the station where the major north-south line crosses the major east-west line, seems to belong in the 1920s or even earlier. Looking at the drooping tin of the platform roof and the baby gauge of the tracks sliding through red earth one can imagine the whiff of Kipling’s cheroot still hanging in the air, the rapid acerbic scratch of Orwell’s pen audible on the paper, the condensation snaking down Somerset Maugham’s first pre-lunch gin and tonic of the rail journey.
As we pass a static royal barge on the waters of the huge dam, the sandwiching of history is suddenly clear: if the British ‘gave’ this country the old rail system, perhaps it’s big brother China that’s slapped on to that decrepit network the ace of the spanking new highway system.
Skimming the legendary lake in a long arrow of a boat, the drumming of the outboard engine scattering cormorants and egrets, I realize how easy it is to fall into the trap of contrast clichés, the old banal de-complexing binaries we Indians hated so much when goras used to rabbit on about the quaint irony of our rocket parts being ferried on bullock carts.
The fact is, the cross-section of Didi’s country I’m getting to traverse is layered with many contradictions. It’s best not to seem too authoritative on the basis of an eight-day trip, but first impressions can sometimes be useful. It is dangerous to speak of an ‘innocence’, but there is an honesty and simplicity in the people you meet, the way someone bargains and doesn’t even blink when you bring their asking price down by 60 per cent, the way the cheerful young, un-Englished staff at the fancy hotels serve you, the way people smile genuine smiles and laugh genuine laughter when engaging with you during whatever fleeting interaction.
There is an absence of worldliness, but it isn’t an absence stemming from any stupidity or naïveté. There is a also a firmness and a matter-of-fact attitude to things, a way of saying no, of contradicting you that I, at least, have not seen in neighbouring Thailand or in India. As you travel, there is also the sense of an old preservation fraying, the kind of feel South Africa had in 1991 as it came out of the state-jacket of isolation, but also, I imagine, what Vietnam might have felt like a few years ago. At the same time, there seems to be a quiet, long-stamina energy that’s simmering.
The people of this land, in all their ethnic diversity, give no impression of indolence, nor do they seem, unlike so many in India Whining, to be people in search of short-cuts, though this may be my hopeful but erroneous projection. These are people who were somehow held down and held back for half a century, just as they were coming out of the shadow of colonialism, and they are now more than ready to re-join the planet with all the challenges and problems that entails. Their routes might be both direct and circuitous, like the huge delta at the south of the country, but get to the messy, turbulent sea of the world they will.
One afternoon, just before I leave, I’m speaking to a knowledgeable young man selling second-hand books on the pavement of a side street. Despite being close to a busy downtown street, our conversation is quite clear; people in this particular hot, crowded tropical city hardly use their car horns. I’ve been explaining that I’m from Calcutta, from the neighbouring delta, but the man, despite all his books, doesn’t seem to have heard of our city. Finally I draw a map and his eyes light up: “Oh! Kail-aa-kaata! Of course I know of Kailakaata!” In the near future, many in our city who haven’t heard of the real Didi and her city on the parallel river system may soon have to contend with the real new power in the neighbourhood, a power that may leave Poschim Banga looking even more parochial than it does now.