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South Asia

Mike Wooldridge
NEW DEHLI - The day after Diana, Princess of Wales died I went to Calcutta. I knew it was a city that had made a powerful impression on her when she visited it - particularly because of Mother Teresa and her work with the city's poorest - and I expected to find people remembering this. But I wasn't prepared for an event that happened quite spontaneously in a narrow backstreet at lunchtime that day.

It had nothing to do with Mother Teresa, as it turned out. This was a street in a famous red-light district in Calcutta, jam-packed with people and cycle rickshaws and open-fronted shops selling everything from saris to soap.

One of the pre-Independence two-storey buildings along the street was the home of a pioneering project designed to increase HIV and Aids awareness among prostitutes, or sex workers as they prefer to be called in Calcutta. The project works on the basis of "peer group education" - in other words sex workers who have themselves become persuaded of the need for clients always to use condoms are now convincing their sisters in the trade, too, and they give one another mutual support in other ways as well.

Discovering that we were asking about Princess Diana and her death, they emerged from the house and standing as a group in the bustling street they observed a minute's silence. Afterwards, they explained that they thought she cared for people like them. They had heard that she was planning to visit their project - it was mooted apparently for earlier this year - and they said this would have given them a great boost.

A year on, the Calcutta doctor who initiated this HIV awareness work among the prostitutes, Dr Smarajit Jana, remains sad that the Princess never saw it.

Although the project has been a success and a role model for other countries, Dr Jana says Aids patients in India continue to be almost "untouchable". He believes that a visit by the Princess "with her approach to the issue and her charisma" could have helped to change attitudes.

Immensely frail, Mother Teresa was clearly much moved, too, by Diana's death. It was unbelievable, of course, that Mother Teresa should outlive her. But it was to be only by a matter of days. Amid all the public mourning for the Albanian-born nun in Calcutta, her adopted city, many equated Diana's legacy with that of Mother Teresa. Just outside the church where so many thousands queued to file past Mother Teresa's body, someone had erected a large red board with tributes to both women.

The Princess's death came just weeks before India hosted the Queen and Prince Philip as part of the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of India's independence. The Indian media joined in the worldwide splash coverage of the accident and how it might have happened - and of the Princess as a mould-breaking member of the Royal Family.

But if India is interested in changes in the monarchy, post-Diana, only one newspaper said it was considering looking at the issue in depth on the first anniversary of her death. One newspaper features department said: "We have almost forgotten about Indira and Rajiv Gandhi in this country, so it's hardly surprising there should be so much less now about Diana."

Whatever memories of her are stirred in the rest of India, there can be no doubt at all that "Diana's People" in Calcutta will have her in mind on the day her life - and work for causes important to countries like India - was cut so short.

Middle East