Kolkata, India (CNN)As my plane touched down last night in Kolkata, I reflected on how much has changed in the city I grew up in. When I was a child it had a different name: Calcutta, the former capital of the British Raj. Now it’s called Kolkata, the change part of a national wave of linguistic and cultural reclamations — Bombay to Mumbai, Madras to Chennai, Bangalore to Bengaluru.
I left Kolkata in 2001. Every few months I would return. On those visits, everything would feel the same, comfortable, easy, drenched in nostalgia. But when I adjust the telescope a bit and compare then with now — 15 years later — things feel very different: The Communist Party is no longer in power; Kolkata has continued to fall behind the pecking order in India, overtaken by previously lesser metropolises; and there’s been a considerable brain drain, with the best and brightest students packing their bags for other cities.
Even the old world charm of Kolkata seems masked, diminished: new malls and high rises jostle with the old three and four-storey homes that once dotted the city. The changes are necessary, though, as more and more rural Indians throng to the big cities in search of work and opportunities. Meanwhile, India has gotten more middle class, the youth have become more aspirational.
It is less common to hear of a bridge collapsing – in part because bridges are used by everyone, rich and poor, powerful or powerless. They are more democratic. Perhaps that’s why there is a greater sense of anger and surprise in Kolkata.
Disaster relief is also a struggle in India.
According to eyewitnesses at Girish Park, it was many hours before cranes and trucks arrived on the scene to clear the rubble. In part this is also because Kolkata’s roads are so narrow – getting from one place to another in a good time is a struggle, let alone after the collapse of a key arterial bridge.
I’m surrounded by members of the West Bengal Police and the NDRF – National Disaster Relief Force – as I write this, ducked away at a bend in the road. One of the workers glances at his watch and exclaims: “It’s nearly 24 hours – who can survive this?”
But the workers carry on, clearing the piles of debris. It’s a race against time, a race against all hope. I’m fairly sure this isn’t the last such story I’ll cover in India, unfortunately.