As I try on sparkly shoes in downtown Calcutta, I can’t shift the feeling that I am in the wrong place. I usually try to ‘‘find myself’’ in India, in a temple or by a lily pad-covered lake. But here I am getting lost in retail therapy, and in a city I was brought up to revere as the headquarters of Mother Teresa.
On the way to New Market, the car I am travelling in passes close by her Missionaries of Charity children’s home and Mother House, where she lived in a simple room with a bed and a desk and where she is now buried. We don’t have time to visit today because we will hit rush hour traffic, the driver complains, as I beg to be taken there. Horns honking, the chaos of rickshaws and street traders all around, I am deposited outside the arcade and so begin to drift through the shops selling chiffon saris in every colour.
The two friends I am with, Americans who are Indian by origin, spend a long time trying them all on. It is like a scene from Pretty Woman, only with more Hindi. The salesman drapes the bright fabric around them to show how it falls. They spend thousands of rupees on blue, orange and pink chiffons to take back to the States.
It is in the store selling shoes that I start to hyperventilate because there are just so many pretty pairs. I cannot believe I am having a panic-fuelled spending spree in Calcutta. This was the place the nuns at my convent school used to make us send our pocket money, which we were encouraged to save in little cardboard charity boxes emblazoned with children’s faces.
Calcutta has been through many incarnations, having been the prosperous capital during the British Raj. Then after Indian independence it witnessed several decades of economic stagnation, was ravaged by communism and eventually became so poor and overcrowded it was dubbed the Dying City.
The tables have now turned again, and Calcutta has the fastest economic growth in India, which in itself is one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
I am here to attend the Bengal economic forum, a gathering of tycoons and finance ministers eager to capitalise on a renaissance many put down to the reforming chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, another charismatic mother figure who, like the city’s famous nun, always wears a white cotton sari trimmed with blue.
I find the place buzzing with political gossip about her. She has vowed to make Calcutta as important a global enterprise hub as London. And so as I swoon over the diamanté shoes – I buy just two pairs in the end, trying to bargain in rupees until the owner of the tiny shop points out that he takes Visa – I cannot help but wonder whether this latest growth surge will change the India I love.
Of course, it would be absurd to argue that the people here shouldn’t enjoy their slice of the global economic pie. The poor in the developing world must be allowed to get rich. This is their moment. But now that a new kind of hi-tech prosperity is knocking at their door, will they bear in mind that fast living has largely eclipsed spirituality in the West?
Will they hold on to the uniquely philosophical outlook that makes them the envy of those who have everything in material terms, but who still need to come to their country to replenish their famished souls?
In the thick midday smog of Calcutta, brand new Japanese 4x4s mingle with cranky old Ambassador taxis from a bygone age bearing on their doors the hand-painted slogan “No Refusal”.
Earlier, I turned on the TV in my hotel room to find a version of Big Brother – called Bigg Boss – in which a house full of beautiful people argued heatedly with each other for the cameras.
The advertising hoardings in the street proclaim the slogans of luxury real estate, global brands such as KFC, and the chocolate bar catchphrase “Hungry? Get some nuts.”
When I meet a billionaire at the economic summit, I ask him to explain how he reconciles his Hindu faith with this brash modernity. The answer is simple: “Money is not mine. It is given to me by God.’’ Indians will never lose their spirituality, he says, because they are natural entrepreneurs who make money for the right reasons. “We believe in hard work and contributing to society.”
Before any deal, most still consult the movements of the stars. This is reassuring. For me, India has always been a Wizard of Oz country, where the visitor feels they have emerged from black and white into a world of glorious Technicolor. It would be so sad if the colour was replaced by the uniform neon of the global economy.
As we drive back after our outing to the arcade, I beg the driver to show me some landmarks associated with Mother Teresa, and so he pulls up outside the Assembly of God Church, where those who once worked with her still feed the poor every Friday.
People bring the orphaned and the destitute to nearby Mother House in the night, he explains, and leave them outside after ringing the bell. The nuns always open the door. Whoever is there, they wash, feed and clothe them.
But the driver is keen to get on. He wants to show me Science City, a vast technology park, and a new indoor arena where, he proudly tells me, they hold pop concerts. You can no more hold back the desire for modernity than you can hold back the tide.
Melissa Kite is a journalist and author
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