Calcutta, as a novelist once wryly remarked, has been dying for more than a century now. Stereotyped by the world as a pauperised metropolis teeming with the homeless and the poor, the city has become synonymous with civic dysfunction. Six years after the death of its most famous saviour, Mother Teresa, the image still sticks. So much so that Calcutta is now the chosen destination for the jetsetting international bleeding-hearts: celebrity cricketers, footballers and Hollywood stars such as Penelope Cruz and Melanie Griffith.
In the beginning was French author Dominique Lapierre, whose bestselling City of Joy reinforced the image of a poor, sometimes gory, city with a heart of gold. (Roland Joffe made the Lapierre book into a listless $27 million film which bombed at the box office.) Former Australian captain Steve Waugh rekindled international interest when in town in 1998 to play a Test match, he visited Udayan, the six-acre 25-year-old rehab home of 300 children of leprosy patients. Since then Waugh's come back at least once every year, raised over Rs 13 lakh through auctions of memorabilia, made his brother and former Test player Mark adopt a girl resident and even started a fund-raising facility in Australia. "Each visit to Calcutta gives me more and more pleasure," Waugh has written in the home's guestbook.
Whether it gives the likes of Cruz and pop icon Ricky Martin as much pleasure, one doesn't know. For unlike Waugh, the Calcutta causerati (see box) flits in and out of the city rather mysteriously, checking in quietly into five-star hotels, shutting themselves off from the media, making fleeting private visits to homes where they sponsor destitute boys and girls, and leaving silently, offering no bytes or photo-ops. Wooing them is a hitherto little-known four-year-old NGO called Sabera Foundation, headquartered at sleepy Gazipur on the southern outskirts of the city and running two slum schools, three medical clinics, several feeding programmes and a shelter for destitute girls. "The streets of Calcutta," goes one Sabera pitch, are "teeming with children either abandoned by their parents or forced to beg for money and found, in some cases, prostituting themselves". The foundation is "committed to making a difference in these young girl's (sic) lives, by providing safe shelter, proper nutrition and education". The NGO, founded by popular Spanish pop music icon Ignacio Cano, professes to have become interested in Calcutta in 1999 after producing a documentary, which "depicted the great difficulties thousands of people face...in Calcutta". Today, Sabera is sponsored by the likes of British Airways and Pfizer and boasts a board of such celebs as Penelope Cruz, Melanie Griffith and model Esther Canadas.
So the Sabera-inspired celebrity invasion of Calcutta has begun in right earnest. Cruz, who apparently donated her first Hollywood cheque to Mother Teresa, slipped into Calcutta two years ago to shoot a documentary. "Calcutta is like another world," she told Premiere magazine later. "People there are very special and grateful. It was an amazing experience." There are unconfirmed reports that Cruz has visited the city subsequently too. This year, Ricky Martin was the first off the mark, arriving in his private jet in June. Ringed by some 50 local securitymen, he met with the three girls he sponsors at the home, played football, took some pictures, danced with the kids and cut a few songs at a state-of-the-art Universal Studios-funded recording studio the NGO has set up at its Gazipur headquarters. July-end saw the equally hush-hush arrival of Melanie Griffith who holed up in a city five-star with her six-member entourage, including her country singer sister Tracy. Melanie also met with a girl she sponsors, and cut some songs at the studio."Melanie was permanently teary-eyed while she was here," Carlos Duran San Roman, a Spanish Calcutta-based engineer-turned social worker and the brain behind Sabera, told a reporter. "She is a very sensitive person and was overwhelmed by the love of the girls."
What—and who—next? The buzz is Latino popster Martin will pay another visit soon, and Real Madrid footballer Raul will follow. It's all in the family when you consider the possible visitors' line-up in the near future: Cruz's present beau Tom Cruise, and Melanie's husband and Hollywood beefcake Antonio Banderas. Also planned on October 10 is a 300-people, 30-table gala fund-raiser and fashion show in Los Angeles, co-hosted by Cruz and Griffith, at the latter's home. An album featuring Mick Jagger, Sting, Antonio Banderas and Ricky Martin (who has reportedly sung a Bengali number) is also slated for release on the occasion. Earlier, on August 10, England and Manchester United football star David Beckham joined 21 other international footballers to raise money for the education of Bengal's underprivileged children.
Back at Sabera's Kalitala shelter, where photography is a no-no, eight-year-old Sangita Biswas can't stop talking of her sponsor, Griffith. "Melanie aunty gave me a lot of toys and other gifts," she says. One day, with the help of her Hollywood benefactor, she hopes to become a doctor. The shelter also houses Penelope's 'girls'—Mongoli Das, all of six, and Manjula Khatoon, a year younger. Martin's sponsorees are also girls, Ashia, Anwara and Moyna.
While the children at Udayan and Sabera need all the help they can get, the 'charity city' stereotype does irk some Calcuttans. Writer Amit Chaudhuri says he admires Waugh's commitment to Calcutta, but adds, "While one is grateful to celebrities for getting involved in charity work, it is important to remember the far more intensive work done by many indigenous organisations that have been functioning in this area for decades." The fascination for international celebs hawking charity for Calcutta may have something to do with local attitudes as well. As Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, former editor of The Statesman, says: "Bengalis crave to be noticed. It doesn't matter who notices them and why, so long as the person is foreign, preferably white. A white celebrity like Gunter Grass, Mother Teresa or the Puerto Rican pop star, Ricky Martin, is heaven's own gift, even if their presence in Calcutta is itself an indictment of the material self-sufficiency that alone can sustain true intellectual pride. Move into cultural and political circles and this desperate hankering for attention becomes a disease." Clearly, Calcutta's bleak image is possibly as much a problem of its residents as it is of its famous 'saviours' from the West.
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