It’s been 18 months since I was last in India, but my taxi was barely out of Calcutta airport before the familiar began to re-emerge.
As the horn crescendo rose with the early morning traffic, I noticed a huge billboard looming over the dusty circular road from where the Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan smiled serenely down on the passing traffic. At 68 Bachchan remains a totemic figure in modern Indian culture, the star of hundreds of Bollywood epics and the centerpiece of millions of advertisements across India for thousands of products and services on billboards, magazines, TVs and mobile phones. He is truly ever-present.
This year he is back on Indian TV screens as the host for a fourth series of India’s version of “Who wants to be a millionaire?” Except that here the show’s title “Kaun Benaga Crorepati?” actually translates as “Who will be a ten millionaire?” Which is somehow apt.
The show itself is yet another example of the amazing development in language in India. Bachchan and his guests switch effortlessly between Hindi and English as if they were one language. Sometimes he reads the questions in Hindi while they’re displayed in English; at other times he might ask a question in English and get an answer from the contestant in Hindi. It’s worth watching here.
Up in the Air with Emirates
Earlier, on my flight here with Emirates, I got another tiny insight into what’s going on. As I settled into my seat, a beautiful air hostess sidled up the aisle. To my disappointment, it was my neighbor she was after.
“Welcome back on board Mr Kumar,” she said, and asked for his order. I started to salivate at the prospect of reconstituted eggs (air travel does funny things to you). But after ascertaining his preference for curried rice, she sashayed away back down the plane without the merest glance in my direction. I was a little hurt.
“How come you get special treatment?” I asked.
“Miles, man. 150,000 of them. I’m gold,” he told me with the pride of a seasoned road warrior.
Over the meal, he told me his story. For 2 weeks out of every couple of months the 35-year-old Mr Kumar lives out of a hotel in Hounslow, drumming up business for his small Calcutta IT company. He has tried to persuade his wife and nine-year-old son to move to London, but the son will not be moved from his friends. (Besides, his son had said, kids in London just play on their X-box all the time).
As we continued talking my newfound friend glanced down at my FT where the front page carried the story of David Cameron relaxing the rules on wealthy immigrants as the UK scrabbles around for cash. I smiled, weakly and returned to my book “Calcutta” by Geoffrey Moorhouse.
In glittering prose Moorhouse describes the gradual settlement of this Northeast Indian riverport by British adventurers in the eighteenth century and the gradual emergence of Calcutta as “the second city in the Empire” (to London) during the Victorian era. Calcutta itself is in a bit of a mess today but, as Mr Kumar’s six fortnights a year in Hounslow show, things are changing for the rapidly growing middle classes.
Moorhouse was writing in 1971 when poverty was undeniably the dominant impression and it is still impossible to miss. Not so visible to Mr Kumar perhaps – as he flicked idly through the photographs in the book he pointed to a picture of a malnourished beggar lying sprawled on a pavement.
“That doesn’t happen today,” he said dismissively. Not strictly true but I knew what he meant.
I’m here for 2 months. It’s a different sort of visit this time, but hope to write a bit about the changes since April 2008. I’ll be in Calcutta, Darjeeling and Sikkim and Delhi.