The huge advert in Kolkata’s South City Mall screamed its message across the marbled forecourt. “At our school your child could become the next Bill Gates, the next David Beckham, the next Katrina!”
Katrina? For a nanosecond I wondered why anyone would want their child to become a natural disaster. But then I remembered the Indian tendency to reduce those they love to a one-word moniker. “Katrina” is the stunning Katrina Kaif, the 26-year-old rising star of Indian pop culture. Half Kashmiri, half English, born in Hong Kong, raised in Hawaii – Katrina has all the globish credentials of a 21st century superstar with hit films and songs under her belt.
The school that is offering to get your daughter to Bollywood (or Silicon Valley or Wembley for that matter) is an integral part of one of the new suburban schemes sprouting up across Kolkata. Besides the inevitable megalithic shopping centre to cater for the indefatigable consumption of the country’s middle classes the South City project will also be surrounded by four 35-storey residential towers. And, of course, the school.
These out-of-the-centre all-in-one lifestyle solutions are not limited to Kolkata or even to India. But South City is a vivid symbol of the urban change here. The pristine future offered by the developers is in sharp contrast to the reality of life in the centre of the city, where crumbling buildings are often so full of families protected by tenant-friendly laws that it is difficult for landowners to either renovate or renew the urban landscape. Fascinating as the fading grandeur may be to visitors, the lifestyle choice is not a difficult one for any aspiring young family. Relative suburban ease wins every time. Especially with the additional lure that your child could be the next Bill, David, or Katrina.
It’s not just Bollywood stars who get reduced to a single word. It can happen to politicians too. I wrote in 2009 about “Lalu” the streetfighting Railways Minister who became something of a folk hero for his transformation of the tracks. Lalu fell out of favour after the 2009 election, but his successor “Didi” is, if anything, an even more fascinating character.
“Didi” (meaning Big Sister) is the affectionate term for Mamata Bannerjee, a 5-foot tall Bengali woman who you may hear a lot more about in the coming years. As Railways Minster for the last eighteen moments, Didi has continued the transformation of the system, smartening things up with new trains such as the Duronto Express that rattles across from Kolkata to Delhi at an average of 90kph. Like Lalu, some have taken her to their hearts.
But her real impact on Indian politics may be yet to come. Didi is seen as a genuine challenge to the incumbent communists for the seat of Chief Minister in West Bengal – the state that houses Kolkata, and is once again becoming a critical Indian political battleground.
West Bengal has always had a strong Communist heritage. In the 1960s, this spilled over into terrible violence as some factions took Maoist philosophy on board and spread terror into the heart of Kolkata in the name of change. Yet in 1977 the voters still had enough faith to put a communist administration in charge (in reality communist in name only) which has been in power ever since. But after three and a half decades the voters may be in the mood for change. Despite the lack of any discernible policy platform, Didi provides the only credible alternative.
But it may not be a simple transition. The Naxalites (Maoists) in the north of the state provide an element of unpredictability. They continue to hold some sway among the villages. Recent bouts of violence have resulted in a number of deaths. In Delhi, the Indian PM Manmohan Singh has made clear that he sees the Maoists as the Number One threat to the state. In Kolkata, Didi and her opponent spend a huge amount of time and energy accusing each other of being in league with the Maoists. It is a horribly complex situation and one that has real potential for flaring into trouble.
In the circumstances, it is perhaps unsurprising that it is Katrina – and not Didi or any other politician – that is the aspirational goal. At least for the moment.