Published: January 26th 2012May 26th 2011
Stepping off the flight in Calcutta, I felt a twinge of trepidation. The only other occasion on which I’d been to this inadvertent icon of India’s romantic past and chaotic present I’d been hiding behind the tails of Prateek’s kurta. I had found the juxtaposition of even moderate wealth and poverty oppressive – street people asleep on the gorgeous staircase of his grandmother’s colonial apartment building – and the humid, dirty, grey heat overpowering. In an attempt to dress conservatively yet remain cool, I had bought a salwaar kameez in the market, but it was made of a nasty nylon-type material, the salwaar hopelessly short for European legs, and I had felt scruffy and over-cooked.
This time was going to be different. After all, I was different. No longer the anxious junior lawyer on her hard-earned fortnight’s holiday, with a crammed timetable and a list of Things To See, crashing against the frustrating intransigence of India. Now I was an old hand, accepting of India’s vagaries and quirks, and content to wander around and absorb life at India’s pace in India’s time. But yet, this was Calcutta, with all its crowds and poverty and filth, “the third-most populous metropolitan area
in India and the 13th-most populous urban area in the world; its urban agglomeration is the world's eighth-largest” so Wikipedia relates. And I was with Lorraine, still an Indian “newbie”, although one who seemed to be coping remarkably well with what she had seen so far in Delhi, Darjeeling and Guwahati. How would she react to the extremes of this sprawling behemoth?
Our journey from the airport to our intended hotel in the centre of Chowringhee was entertainment in itself. We’d appreciated that our taxi driver didn’t look to be long out of diapers (did he really have a driving licence?), and he’d – wisely, we credited him – stopped a colleague to ask for directions before leaving the airport. But he had the memory of a demented newt. Driving into town was one thing; finding this well-known business and tourist neighbourhood threatened to defeat him, however many people he stopped to ask. Lorraine pulled out The Book, and I peeled my eyeballs to look for street signs. This is no easy task in Calcutta. While many shops thoughtfully put a street address on their over-door signs, this is not necessarily conclusive as to the name of this particular
hope the lift keeps working!
stairs up to the seventh floor Sunflower Guest House
street. As often as not, it’s the name of the street round the corner, regardless of how far the shop is from the nearest intersection. It also doesn’t help that, at least in one instance in Chowringhee itself, there are two streets with identical names in close proximity and running in different directions. And then there are the one-way systems… Our senses of humour began to feel a little strained, though we resolutely pasted on resigned half-grins whenever we exchanged looks. Miraculously, Lorraine eventually found where we were, and, thinking that our hotel couldn’t be far away, we asked the driver to pull over so that I could scamper back to look for it on foot. Ascending the creaky old attendant-operated lift to the seventh floor and the Sunshine Guest House, I felt we’d more than deserved our beds that night.
Calcutta, like every other Indian city I know, rises surprisingly late in the morning. I always expect that people in the Tropics, particularly when so many are sleeping on the street – quite literally at this time of year, lying directly on pavement or with only a blanket as padding for ill-covered bones, when sleeping under any kind
of sacking or other A/C-less roofing is impossible in the overheated humidity – will be up and about early. But this doesn’t happen. Maybe it’s quite simply because the morning is the coolest part of the day, and the only chance at this time of year to catch up on a little more sleep. By the time we’d roused ourselves after the excitements of previous day – Guwahati-in-a-day sightseeing, last goodbyes to our Bhutanese-trip companions, an evening flight and the eventful journey into town – the local coffee shop was only just opening its doors. Breakfast would have to wait until a passing chapatti-and-dal wallah could provide us with hot, fresh bread; for now, we settled on much-needed caffeine.
If Mumbai is a city of sharp, dramatic contrasts, Calcutta is a mishmash, a casserole of conflicting flavours. The starkest contrast here is between the agonising panoply of small grubby outstretched hands by the gates and the beautiful people taking their evening walk in the grounds of the Victoria Memorial. Elsewhere, the edges are blurred, indecipherable, confused; between rich and poor, old and new, technology and tradition, animal and human. South Park Street Cemetery contains memories of a Merchant Ivory
colonial past, such as the “celebrated Miss Sanderson” whose husband is described as “the friend to Warren Hastings”, India’s first Governor-General. She died at a tragically young – through far from unusual – 23, but the bare details here are surely a film script in the making. Meantime, her tomb gathers algae, and the neighbouring mausolea provide cool resting places for the Cemetery’s dogs. Parts of the grounds – as we would later find at the Victoria Memorial – are immaculate; others, randomly, are left to run wild. The plump official at the gate asks us to inscribe the visitors’ book, and chances his luck as we pass him on our way out, “Something for me, madam?”
Further up AJC Bose Street we find our chapattis and munch happily for a couple of rupees. The day is heavy, overcast, threatening rain, but as yet the monsoon is holding off, leaving us to melt in its overture.
Mother Teresa’s Mission generates a confusion of emotions. She died since I was last here, and there’s now a tranquil chamber on the ground floor devoted to her tomb, a disproportionately large but simple marble edifice lovingly decorated each day with fresh
flowers. Despite disconcerting warnings about removing your shoes (lest they be stolen), those coming to pray do just that, with the same unthinking courtesy for a Catholic shrine as for a Hindu temple. Next door a pair of rooms have been turned into a museum to her life. Quotations from her “conversations with Jesus” adorn glass cabinets of memorabilia; everything from Bibles, clothes and letters to the syringe and needles used to ease her final hours. Upstairs, her room is untouched from the time of her death, a humbling small cell, with little more than a thin mattress on a slatted bed, a simple desk and a jarring grey filing cabinet by way of furniture. Forswearing more comfort than others at the Mission, she insisted on taking the room above the kitchens and refused any kind of fan. All around us Sisters in their white and blue saris continued with their work, oblivious to our presence. I longed to stop and ask one about her calling, her life, her hopes and aspirations, as if to work out where I fall short.
We meandered. Chowringhee and the neighbouring BBD Bagh area don’t lend themselves to maps. We followed our inclinations,
and I would soon have been happily lost were it not for Lorraine’s sense of direction, duplicate street-names notwithstanding. I wonder when it was that Chowringhee looked glamorous. Now its buildings are crumbling, hints of their old splendour in wrought-iron windows and red-brick archways. Now they are wreathed in the ubiquitous spider’s web that is Indian electrical and telecoms cabling, out-of-date election posters pasted to doorways and nearby street lights. The local rubbish dump is assiduously worked over by pigs, dogs and crows. A young boy hacks at a block of ice on the pavement, his only tool a crude cricket bat. A street seller entices us with his spectacular display of bangles. Beyond, the lively chaos of New Market – when was it “new”, I wondered – with its narrow crowded alleyways on two floors; everything for sale if one could only find it, and then find the way out again. A little further away, under the Howrah Bridge, the dazzling colours of the Mullik Ghat Flower Market: endless wreaths of yellow and orange marigolds, and piles of other flowers and greenery whose names I do not know, all destined for puja ceremonies. No hassle for tourists here; we
are not likely customers. For once we feel invisible, irrelevant in the bustle of floral commerce, simply another obstacle for vans and porters on the too-narrow path between stalls.
By the banks of the Hooghly River, we paid our few rupees for the chance to escape the streets and walk through the thin slices of Centenary Park squeezed between Strand Road South and the river. Hand-prints of the famous decorate the path like a small-scale Hollywood Boulevard, and I half-expected those of Sachin Tendulkar to be fenced off and piled high with offerings: it was only weeks since India had won the Cricket World Cup, Tendulkar the top run-scorer for the team, and the country had gone wild in celebration. More prosaically, the Park is a favoured destination for courting young couples, though their search for shade as well as privacy meant that, more than once, we nearly tripped over them.
By now we had been walking for five or six hours, with only a brief respite for a lunch of kati rolls, Bengal’s trademark fast food. Dinner the previous evening had a conspicuous by its absence. After the unintended excitement of the journey from airport to hotel,
St Paul's Cathedral, Calcutta
we’d had little inclination to go out again in search of food, contenting ourselves with Lorraine’s UK-sourced muesli bars. Kati rolls – rotis coated with egg on one side and then rolled up with a mixture of spicy onions, potatoes and paneer, finger-lickingly hot in their paper wraps – were just what the doctor ordered.
This was an unwelcome contrast to our final meal that day. Grubby, footsore and meltingly hot, we chose Radhuni’s on the basis of its minor write-up in The Book and because of its proximity to the Sunshine Guest House. While nice enough inside – air-conditioned, and with food that would have been perfectly adequate, if unremarkable, in any other situation – this outward appearance gave no hint of the busy wildlife in the ladies’. Lorraine grimaced on her return, but our dinner was then arriving and I didn’t ask further. Only the next day did she describe the crawling paint-peeled walls, and how she had dug out her torch to make sure she didn’t touch too many cockroaches as she tried to close the door. That’s not to criticise The Book for its recommendation. My copy is well-travelled, its rumpled corners and scribbled, discoloured
pages the product of four trips to the subcontinent: nothing remains the same in this frenetic country.
In the meantime, we decided our feet needed a rest, and made for the MG Road station on Calcutta’s Metro. Somehow I tend to forget that there might be an underground alternative in Indian’s bigger cities. Delhi’s is still glisteningly new, an wonderfully efficient and airily spacious system that makes a world of difference to travelling around the capital. Trains must be two or three times wider than those on London’s antiquated system, and, with the advantage of height in a ladies-only carriage, I didn’t even feel particularly bothered by the rush-hour crowds. Calcutta’s, on the other hand, is older and creakier and sadly lacking in air-conditioning, but still sped us south to the other end of the Maidan in a gratifyingly rapid manner.
Once across the busy Ashutosh Mukherjee Road and down a gated pathway, we could have been in another world. In the midst of varyingly tended gardens, St Paul’s Cathedral towered above us, blindingly white against the pollution-faded blue sky, a startling sight in a city more renowned for its grime than its beauty. Inside, we were once
Mullik Ghat Flower Market
again transported back to the city’s colonial past, tombstones and memorials hinting at the hardships of those times, the perils of travel, the unknown illnesses that could strike at any time. As with St Thomas’ Cathedral in Mumbai, I found the words extraordinarily evocative, opening a momentary door to the past. Despite the heat even here inside the Cathedral’s dark heights, I shivered, and went outside for air.
Beyond the Cathedral, on the other side of one of the Maidan’s criss-cross of roads, resides in glorious and greedy splendour Calcutta’s crown jewel and our final sightseeing destination that day, the Victoria Memorial, where the Queen herself makes an appearance, dominating the approach to the building, through reluctantly holding sceptre and orb, and gazing down disinterestedly at the passing throngs. It was late afternoon and neither of us were particularly minded to go inside. Instead, we sat awhile under one of the trees in the grounds and contemplated: an unexpectedly blue sky, the people around us, squirrels chasing their tails up nearby trees, pied starlings and Indian mynas chittering at each other, the day’s sights and sounds.
As the sun began to go down, disappearing prematurely into the haze
of pollution, we made our way slowly across the Maidan and back to Chowringhee. Now we needed to tackle some practicalities: a much-needed coffee, an internet café to research accommodation in Kerala, and a phone booth to book the hotel in Mumbai and for me to ring home.
Such was our Calcutta. The pre-monsoon humidity would haunt us for another fortnight, but it hadn’t hampered us too much that day and we were pleased with all we'd managed to see and do. Yet I remembered Ashok, the silk-seller in Varanasi: “Spend a day in India, one could write a reasonable article. Spend a month, it would be a better one, maybe even a book. But spend a year? You couldn't even pick up a pen.” We certainly couldn't claim close acquaintance with this complex, humbling, bemusing, intriguing – even, at times, horrifying – city; we had only had a day, and these are just a few of my memories.
[My apologies for yet another much-delayed blog. As some of you will know, I was in India last spring/early summer, but I wanted to try and rectify my tardiness in completing the blogs for that trip before I set
off on another adventure in a fortnight’s time…]
There are more photos below