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Return of the native

Anjan Mitra looks around Park Street in wide-eyed wonder. Unaccustomed to the city’s changed ways, everything about the heart of chic Calcutta looks different to him. Even Flury’s, a favourite hangout during his school and college days at St Xavier’s, looks trendy — exactly like the other restaurants that have sprouted up along Park Street during his long absence from the city of his birth. As he looks at KFC and McDonald’s on his way to work every morning, he realises the city is on the move, unshackled from the yoke of a decaying past.

Mitra came back last July after leaving the city in 1988. The dark days, though, are still etched in his mind. The 46-year-old die-hard Calcutta resident recalls how every morning he went to work filled with despair. A chartered accountant, Mitra worked for the Indian subsidiary of a British company and made all of Rs 2,650 a month in the 1980s. And if there is one thing he never failed to encounter at the company’s Khardah unit in the suburb of Calcutta, where he was posted, it was “ceaseless” labour problems.

His friends were all leaving the city they grew up in. So when a Swedish multinational offered him a job in its Dubai office, Mitra grabbed it. The salary in Dubai was five times higher. But more than that, as Mitra puts it, it was an “escape” from Calcutta, something that he saw as a black hole that swallowed the young and the bright.

Not any more. Calcutta is in the throes of change and nothing signifies it more than the return of its natives — professionals such as Mitra who are now coming back after years of being “in exile”, as Shurjo Ghosh, the boss of a software company in Salt Lake, puts it. Ensconced in his plush basement office on Park Street, Mitra, now chief financial officer of Magma Leasing Limited, says he was beckoned by a “new Calcutta which not only offers him a better life but also a lot more opportunities”.

Not so long ago, Calcutta was widely viewed as a “punishment posting”, says Anand Mohta, centre head of Ma Foi Management Consultants Ltd, a leading human resources service provider. “Even if you asked a Bengali in Mumbai to relocate to Calcutta, he thought twice or thrice before making the move,” he says.

And not without reason. City residents protested raucously when Rajiv Gandhi called Calcutta a dying city, but, deep down, they knew the truth. It was a city beset with interminable power cuts, pot-holed roads backed up for miles with stalled cars and buses, roadsides piled high with mountains of garbage, factories declaring lockouts and companies moving their headquarters from the city one after another. Dying was not the word Calcuttans used when they talked among themselves; they called the city dead.

Now, with the information technology, real estate, financial and service sectors booming, things have changed significantly. Wipro, IBM and Cognizant Technologies have all set up shop in the city. The service sector has boomed with luxury hotels and a large number of private banks spreading their networks across the city. “You have more options now, especially at junior and middle levels,” Mohta says.

It’s a wave of opportunity — unlocked by the investment-friendly policies of the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government — many are riding to return to a home they were forced to abandon. To see the impact, look no further than at the jump in businesses for recruitment agencies. If Ma Foi has doubled its business in two years, ABC Consultants Private Limited, another leading recruitment agency, has trebled its business in the city in as many years. “Even those who have nothing to do with Bengal are looking at Calcutta favourably,” ABC Consultants chairman Bish Agrawal says. Not surprisingly, the number of applicants trying to come back to Calcutta has zoomed, Agrawal says.

In the words of an ITC official, Calcutta today provides all four “vital ingredients” for a corporate life: quality houses and healthcare for the family, quality education for the children and quality entertainment.

“The beauty of Calcutta is that you get all this at very affordable prices and that’s drawing people to this city,” says the ITC official. At ITC, for instance, there is no dearth of people who want to move to its headquarters in Calcutta . Things are not very different in smaller companies. “If 20 per cent of our officials wanted to return to Calcutta even five years ago, the figure has now gone up to 50 per cent,” says Somnath Bhattacharyya, general manager (human resources) of Premier Irrigation Equipment Limited, which has offices in all major cities.

The last thing Shurjo Ghosh thought he would ever do — when he left Calcutta for the second time in 2000 — was come back and settle down here “for good” with his German wife and their two children. With a doctorate in artificial intelligence, he taught in Canada before moving back to the city in 1995 so as not to deny his parents the “joy” of being with their two grandchildren. By 2000, Ghosh, however, had changed his mind “considering the prevailing situation here” and moved to Germany, where he launched an IT startup called Cotalinx.

As time went on, he saw India emerging as a major outsourcing destination. As if on cue, Calcutta too blossomed into an IT hub. “I felt it was time for me to head home,” Ghosh, 44, says. In 2006 he took over as chief operating officer of R.S. Software (India) Ltd and joined its Salt Lake unit. “I am a global Indian but being in Calcutta feels good,” he says.

For Meghalee Mondal, a 30-year-old electrical engineer from Jadavpur University, leaving Calcutta was a hard decision. Apart from her parents, who lived in the city, Calcutta appealed to her as a potpourri of culture and food, especially her favourite phuchka and jhal muri. Yet, in 1999, when she came out of university, the city offered “little” by way of careergrowth, she says. After a stint with ITC, she left for Mumbai in 2001 and joined Capgemini. But then, things changed, almost dramatically, back home. As Calcutta evolved into an IT centre, a new realisation dawned on her: “If I have to be in India, I might as well be in Calcutta ,” she felt.

In 2004, she returned as a senior systems analyst with IBM. “Calcutta today is a different place, far more open to the changing trends in fashion and lifestyle,” she says. Her colleague at IBM, Pijush Ranjan Ghosh, agrees. “Being in Calcutta, you can have the best of both worlds — it’s a cheaper and safer place to live in and you can still try and reach the sky,” says Ghosh, now working on an IBM project in Athens.

To be sure, not everything is rosy in Calcutta and, as Agrawal of ABC Consultants puts it, the gap between the perception and the reality remains. “Calcutta is still not a first choice for executives in the country and the salaries offered here are almost half of what you would get in Mumbai or Delhi,” he says. Yet things are undoubtedly getting better. “The signs are all positive and people are bullish about returning to Calcutta,” asserts Debasis Basu, an IIT engineer and currently director (projects) of Cognizant in Calcutta, who came back from the US a few years ago.

Hardly a month goes by when chartered accountant Mitra doesn’t receive a call from his batch-mates in the US, inquiring about openings for them in Calcutta. The reason, he says, is obvious. It took him 45 minutes to get to his office in Dubai in the mornings. In Calcutta, it takes him only 15 minutes — sometimes less — to drive almost the same distance.

Time has made all the difference to Calcutta. “Calcutta is no longer a dying city,” says Somnath Bhattacharyya. “It’s a happening place,” he says.

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