On Divali morning I was walking out of a Kolkata bookshop lulled into a Zen
like state having lingered over a vast range of poetry and novels written in
English by Indian writers when I heard what sounded like a gunshot followed
by an explosion.
I started, then stumbled. A little girl on the street laughed. “Pataas,
patakas” as a rocket shaped firework shot up in a burst of smoke. Divali
celebrations had begun all across India and this year we would see them in
Calcutta in the morning and Delhi at night.
The Demerara Wharf where my husband’s ancestors would have got on the ship
to make the journey to Trinidad over 165 years ago no longer exists. It is
an abandoned ship yard. The plans to place a plaque on its 19th Century
Clock Tower announcing the historic odyssey of indentured labourers to the
West Indies is yet to materialise. This landmark does not resonate with my
What hits him hard are conversations with Rakesh, our taxi driver from Bihar
a skinny man/ boy with a gapped front teeth who tells us his story over
three days. His mother died when she was just 32 and he, 14. He doesn’t know
how she died, of what disease or whether her life could have been saved. (I
suspect HIV Aids since Bihar has been in the grips of an epidemic affecting
25-45 year olds.) His father married three times. Rakesh and his siblings
are offspring of the first wife.
His eyes, prematurely old, ringed with black from a tough life are moist as
he recalls how his older brother died of snakebite and how his young
sisters, 16 and 12, live alone in a village in Bihar, the poorest state in
India. He lives in the Kolkata in a cramped shared space. Rakesh is one of
millions of poor Biharis who migrate to other states for work as seasonal
farm hands in Punjab or construction workers for skyscrapers in Mumbai,
When he first came to Kolkata looking for work he ran back to his village
because the big city one of the most populous urban areas in the world of
over 15 million people was terrifying. He came back to the city to drive a
truck because he and his sisters would have starved if he had not.
His story is a reminder that despite the fact that India has already “risen”
as Obama put it, (its stupendous growth is expected to make it third largest
economy worldwide in the next three decades) it is uneven. Delhi and Punjab
are well off but half the population in states like Bihar and Orissa live
below the poverty line.
India also favours the wealthy and powerful. The Kolkata Telegraph now on my
lapreports (in a supreme irony of reverse colonisation) that yet another
iconic British building, London’s Grosvenor House Hotel, a prestigious Park
Lane Property in Mayfair, worth 500 million pounds has “fallen” into the
hands of yet another Indian billionaire businessman, Lucknow-based Subrata
Roy of Sahara India Pariwar.
The country’s poor, like Rakesh (some 37 per cent of Indians of Indias 1.18
billion people live below the poverty line- that’s about staggering 380
million people) are left behind. The trickle-down of the booming economy
could have worked better for them if it weren’t for the haemorrhaging
created by widespread corruption. While we are there, there are calls for
the resignation of a telecom minister A Raja whose dubious practices in the
award of licences cost the Indian government 39 billion US Dollars. The
Bihari poor are the worst off as they are represented in the Bihar assembly
by a “sizable number” of politicians who face serious criminal charges from
murder and kidnapping to extortion and loot.
My husband says on our flight from Kolkata to Delhi “I can imagine my great
grandfather being like that, small, lanky hair falling off his forehead,
earnest, willing to work hard, climbing on a boat for the same reasons that
Rakesh came to Calcutta. The only difference is, we have grown tall in
Kolkata is his favorate Indian city. Delhi is mine. As we speed to our hotel
past wide green boulevards of enormous trees, embassy homes. (Stunning
colonial preserves with circular driveways. liveried doormen, rose gardens,
and vast lawns) I survey Delhi with familiar pleasure. Built on the banks of
the River Yamuna, Delhi, a city of 12 million, has been inhabited by many
conquerors since the 6th century and is the site for ancient and medieval
monuments, archaeological sites and remains.
In 1639, Mughal Emperor Shahjahan built a new walled city in Delhi, the
capital of the Mughal Empire from 1649 to 1857 which adds to its magic.
Barack and Michelle Obama’s visit to Humayun's tomb, a precursor to the Taj
Mahal in Agra is eagerly anticipated.
This year India is whipped into a double Diwali frenzy of awaiting Obama.
Delhi and Mumbai are turned into fortresses and streets are blocked off
everywhere. Forty aircraft - including the Air Force One military plane -
and six heavily armoured cars will follow the president around the country.
My cousin in Gurgaon part of Delhis sprawling suburbia, who works at the
Maaurya Sheraton Hotel tells me that three floors, including the
Presidential Suite where Obama will be staying have been ‘sanitized’ with no
guests, visitors or unauthorised hotel staff allowed to enter these floors.
The neo colonial spirit has also turned as India has no expectations of gain
from America but wants to help out Obama. Newspaper editorials countrywide
are a variation of “Obamas” a good guy going through a tough time. Let’s
give him a few jobs.” Accordingly Obama announces on his first day in Mumbai
(where he is symbolically staying at the terror struck Taj at a huge cost to
Indian and American tax payers) as the US and Indian air force that he
secured twenty deals worth 10 billion dollars creating 50,000 American jobs
with Indian money.
Delhi on Divali is transformed into a smoke light and sound show as
firecrackers go off all night and there are shouts from children and music
everywhere. The cool is a reminder that winter will be along soon requiring
My cousins drink whisky; their wives call us to do arti and pray for a
minute after which we light a few deyas overshadowed by the glut of fairy
lights everywhere. Crackers follow, a sumptuous dinner including lamb
kebabs. Neighbours are playing cards and drinking. The din is celebratory;
bars are doing a brisk business.
It’s not the kind of Divali my
husband in used to in Trinidad. He is Muslim but feels disrespectful holding
a drink on Divali. My Hindu cousins encourage him. “No fasting in India bhai,