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Kolkata: Summertime on Sudder St.

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The drug-dealing pimp I had tea with this morning was critical of my candid description of today's weather. "Bad language," he scoffed under his breath, and looked away disgusted. Although "hot as fuck" may have been a touch insensitive, it was no doubt apt. Though perhaps not too warm to commit the act (does such a climate exist?), Kolkata in the summer time is surely as hot asthe act itself. Before I continue, I should perhaps also qualify the equally-harsh label I attributed to my new companion.

Rajesh introduced himself, after the usual barrage of affable personal questions ("Where are you from? Oh, nice country. Married? No? So handsome and not married?") as a dealer in textiles, and this was followed by an invitation to his shop ("very near here") which I politely declined. Next, he upped the ante by revealing a pair of stunning blue diamonds, uncut, which had hitherto been lingering in his breast pocket. I declined these (blood?) diamonds also, though his persistence never threatened to wane. Next, an offer of drugs -- "hashish, marijuana, LSD" -- came, which, though momentarily tempted (if only to make the heat - not to mention my company -- more tolerable), I also turned down. Finally, nearly out of options, came the offer of women ("Indian, Thai, Japanese..."), and Rajesh graciously offered to take me to a nearby brothel. By now, my patience wearing thin, came my frank description of the Bengali heat, in a desperate attempt to change the subject from sex to sun. This particular breed of entrepreneur -- a sort of jack-of-all-illegal-trades, if you like -- is certainly not unique to Kolkata. I could encounter identical characters in Los Angeles, Toronto, or Berlin. I have long felt the Mother Teresa-sponsored depiction of Kolkata in the West as an ocean of destitution, disease and death as misleading, inaccurate, and offensive: India's poverty is no more visible in Kolkata than any other major city, though still it maintains this damning reputation in certain quarters through media, myth, and rumor.

Indeed, I rank Kolkata as the most appealing of the Indian metropolises. Sudder St., the so-called backpacker "ghetto" of Kolkata, is undeserving of this description, unlike its counterparts in Delhi, or Mumbai. The room I rent -- humble, though comfortable at 200 rupees per night -- would easily cost three to four times more in Delhi or Mumbai (complete with the Buick-sized cockroach who has claimed sizeable territory in my bathroom. His disconcerting presence was enough to compel me to employ an empty water bottle for the first night of my stay. We have since come to some sort of understanding.) Sudder St., though no doubt boasting the touts, beggars, and otherwise shady characters (such as the aforementioned Rajesh) that frequent any tourist town, is a comfortable area to call "home," with friendly restaurants, shops, and Kolkata's answer to New York's Central Park -- the Maidan -- merely a few steps away.

Furthermore, no other city in India can boast such an impressive contribution to the arts. The country's greatest filmmaker (Satyajit Ray [d. 1992]) and poet (Rabindrinath Tagore [d. 1941]) hail from Kolkata, not to mention the dozens more who have left, and continue to leave their mark on the vibrant cultural tradition of Bengal. This is to say nothing of the city's vast riches in architecture, history, and cuisine that continue to make it such an attractive destination for so many.

Today, Kolkata lingers on the precipice of substantive political change for the first time in decades. Just last week, the Leftist government was soundly ejected from the political leadership of the state of West Bengal, ending a 34-year run that had overseen Kolkata's population continue to rise, though with few of the improvements in infrastructure the city so desperately requires. The freshly-elected leadership promises industrialization and a "change in the work culture" leading to more jobs, cleaner streets, and greater prosperity for all. The night of the election, firecrackers could be heard throughout the downtown core, and large speakers blasting Hindi pop were crated out to Sudder St. in a sort of impromptu street party. There is a mentally disabled boy who roams my street nearly every day, who spent most of the evening rocking back and forth to the music, his chest only a few feet from the pulsating beat of the speaker. I wondered what he stands to gain from a change in leadership.

Far be it for me, a temporary resident at best, to claim knowledge of where Kolkata was, is, or is heading. I can only hope that the newly-elected representatives of this immeasurably rich city are worthy of the responsibility of governing it.