National Geographic : 1973 Apr
mean that much less rent for each. "What ever I earn, after my expenses, I send home. Every month I send something." Isn't a flooded street especially hard on ricksha pullers? Won't they hurt their bare feet on unseen obstacles? The man says: "If it is my fate to be hurt, what can I do? When there is flooding, more people want to ride, so I can charge more." Would he prefer more flooding then? He stares at me, as if he doubts I'll ever learn. "Look, it means money...." HOW DID SO MUCH of Calcutta get to be such a mess, and yet a magnet attracting so many? A sociologist steers me through vagaries of history and geography. In the 18th century Britain's East India Company built up a trading port on the east bank of the Hooghly; the nearby swamps were advan tageous then, for defense. The 19th century brought industrializa tion: Mills weaving cloth and gunnysacks from Bengal's golden crop of jute spread up and down both banks, to profit from cheap water transportation. And machine shops, utilizing Bengali coal and iron. Calcutta's middle-class Bengalis educated their sons to be clerks and teachers; to man the factories came landless peasants, chiefly from the neighboring State of Bihar. They occupied neat bustees, meaning living quar ters, near the factories. Most of the wealth thus produced went to England, but Calcutta -now capital of all British India-prospered, grew, and became known as the second city of the British Empire, a "City of Palaces." The 20th century brought shocks. Famine drove masses into the city in World War II; thousands starved to death in the streets. Religious riots raged on the eve of inde pendence, just before the partition of India split Bengal, making East Bengal part of Pakistan. Many Bengali Moslems left, but many more Bengali Hindus moved in, across the new border only 35 miles away-eventu ally a million or more. The refugees squeezed into bustees through out the city; bustee became synonymous with slum. Huts sprouted on swampy tracts, city services went to pot, drains clogged. Magnet to millions, Calcutta and dozens of satellite communities sprawled from riverbanks onto marshy areas, where a lack of sewers compounds drainage problems.