Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) is like a kaleidoscope; the scenes are constantly changing. It’s 6:30Am and Rekha, my guide for the next few days, and I get an early start. First thing, we head for Victoria Memorial Park. The playing fields are filled with activity. At one side is a group of men who come everyone morning for one hour of yoga. I speak with a doctor, a journalist and a businessman. They tell me it’s a kick-start to their day and they’ve been coming for years. An 80-year-old man, keen to get into the conversation is pleased to say that it’s his 40th year. Naturally, there have been changes of teachers over the years. The yogi today proudly tells me that there is a minimum of 75 men each morning. He supplies the mats and the sessions are free. I walk to another section of this large green patch dominated by the stunning architecture of Victoria Memorial Building, a mix of Occidental and Oriental styles- with a huge sour-looking bronze of Queen Victoria- both a reminder of British Calcutta. A cricket game has young students urging each other on in loud voices. This pretty oasis in the middle of the often-squalid city is flanked on both sides by two small man-made lakes. The gardens are indeed still very British even though India received its independence in l947.
When I drive by the gardens later in the day, when the pollution has made my eyes tear, traffic is at a standstill, the noise is deafening and the heat oppressive, I see that the grounds have now become a grazing field for a herd of sheep which will go back with their owners to an out of town village. Yes, Kolkata is a kaleidoscope.
But who would have thought this city would grab hold of me. Beyond the abject slums, pollution, endless traffic jams, constant horn honking, touts that don’t take no for an answer, is a vibrant city with serious cultural, literary and religious outlets. Like most Westerners, there is a shock factor relating to the poverty even in the most up-market area.
It’s still early and with water gushing out of water mains, the poor sit on the streets washing themselves and brushing their teeth. The homeless women, I’m told, do their ablutions earlier so that. they “will not lose their dignity”, Rehka tells me. There’s an obvious inequality since there are many five star hotels with services to match and former British bastions – the private clubs.
I visit the l00 acre Tollygunge Golf Club and the Bengal Club. Tollygunge, an oasis in the heart of the bustling metropolis, once was used purely for equestrian activities. Now there’s a l8 hole golf course, indoor and outdoor swimming pools and tennis courts. It is a true city retreat. The former small race course includes a property filled with tropical plants from distant lands and indigenous palms. This has in turn, become a natural sanctuary for birds and small mammals. Inside, the fine old public rooms are as expected, decorated with wood paneling and oversized, comfortable but tired looking seating. It could be described as shabby chic. The upstairs of the two storey building is devoted to 70 guestrooms for members or ‘friends of’, who also have reciprocal arrangement with similar clubs in many countries such as Singapore, England, US. With the sun beaming down, I head for the outdoor restaurant for a cold drink and watch a few privileged Indian teenage boys eat their club sandwiches and get ready to play tennis. At another table is a group of stunning sari-clad women, obviously having a good gossip before ordering lunch.
About 10 minutes away and also in the city is The Bengal Club, which has the same reciprocal arrangements. However, it has become dingy and hasn’t fared very well. The Colonial façade with a grand porte cochere, nevertheless, is newly painted in a pure white giving the impression of a still grand club. Unfortunately, the interior is now seedy –looking and even smells damp.
The real India is at the train terminal. Over l million people use the system every day. The flood of humanity, some hanging out the doorways, comes from a variety of destinations on the outskirts of Kolkata. Patience is a must. Much to my surprise and amazement no one seems to be pushing or shoving to get out of the station. This being Tuesday, there’s an open market which stretches over several city blocks from the entrance. Clothing of every need can be purchased at great prices. Early morning and already there are jostling crowds, intense hawkers and unfortunately, dozens of beggars.
With the myriad of temples and the thousands of years of history, I head to what is rated one of the best museums in India, the Indian Museum. The rooms include meteorites, stuffed animals, miniature paintings and a great collection of Buddhist art. It’s so dimly lit and dusty. I wonder if the curators and the government officials are concerned about the possibility of corrosion of these priceless, ancient works of art since the museum is in such a sad state of disrepair
Wednesday and our sightseeing starts at a more reasonable time- 8 AM… later than yesterday but and before the heat and traffic settles in. Our first stop is to the Missionaries of Charities, the late Mother Teresa’s building which is off a busy street with the entrance on a narrow laneway. I pass several novices washing floors and stairs while others, behind a curtained-off outdoor area, are washing and wringing cloths. On the first floor is Mother Teresa’s tomb. There is a humming of prayers; reverend chanting and someone fixing the floral arrangements. Although still devoid of tourists, at this time of day, the chapel on the second floor is a spacious and sparse room.
By the time we leave, the roads are bumper to bumper with motor rickshaws, bicycles, cars and vans, but through the juggernaut of traffic, we manage to arrive at the ornate and down right marvelous and admittedly somewhat gaudy Jain Temple. Where to look at first? There are so many architectural influences plus tiles from around the world and mirrors everywhere. It’s a jewel box set in a stunning garden setting. In fact the builder Rai Budree Das Bahadoor Mookem, was a jeweler. There are Moorish styled doorways, Colonial influences, huge carved elephants which are a symbolic form of welcome, Venetian chandeliers, crystal objects from Belgium and Czechoslovakia and it isn’t hard to see why it took l0 years to decorate. But the overall affect is charming. In great contrast to this serene atmosphere is
Dalhousie Square. We drive around and I’m surprised to see the proximately of the serious slums in this up market business section of the city. The monumental buildings need constant care and these edifices employ the poor who live close by. But since they can’t afford to come into the city each day because of cost, tents and make- shift living quarters are pitched next to the buildings. Some of these dates back 200 years and built in British Colonial style. Outstanding are the General Post Office, St. John’s Cathedral, and the oldest church in Calcutta, the Reserve Bank of India, Writers’ Building and Fort William, with the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta, a tiny guardroom at the north east corner of the post office. It’s here that 146 people were forced into the tiny cells when the city fell to Suraj-ud-daula. Only 23 survived, as did the name. It’s almost impossible to walk too long without finding small shops, stalls and markets. We walk through one, which specializes in clay pots, and lightweight pith religious statues. All the merchants in this area produce the same merchandise and if you close your eyes and chose one, there’d be very little difference. Pith is so lightweight that when I’m handed a statue of Vishnu, I expect this white artifact to be heavy. Instead it weighs just ounces. Pith is a water reed. The men, to whom I speak, sit in their stalls all day turning out the most intricate objects from this reed.
I like the busyness of markets. It’s where you see how the locals live. Rehka suggests we go to the flower market. It’s as colorful as I expect and there are mounds of various colored flowers ready to be made into arrangements or garlands. Marigolds seem to be the most used flower, probably because they last longer in this extremely hot climate. By the end of the day, the total sales are usually over l million units. But in a city with a population of 16 million, it‘s a realistic amount.
The rush of humanity, the colors and the smells all mixed together gives me the ultimate insight into India. A most complex country that manages to continue to work. Hooghly River, a tributary of the Ganges River, is where I see Judges’ Ghat. This open sided room is where I see men washing themselves or being shaved after the morning period of the death of a relative. It’s low tide and there are heaps of clay pots, which once contained the ashes of the dead, which have been washed up on the shore along with sewage and garbage. Instead of feeling a sense of remorse, I feel ill by the stench and the refuse that comes in with the other more religious artifacts. Since religion is so very strong here, I decide to go to one of the surviving synagogues. The Maghen David Synagogue built in the late l800s is located behind a busy, frenetic market and locked iron gates. The irony is that it kept immaculately by two Moslems who allow me to walk around. Since there are just a handful of Jewish families remaining in Kolkata, they alternate their services every other Friday and Saturday with the nearby Beth El synagogue. .
For the shopper one of the areas is Chowringhee Road. The wide boulevard is just a mass of cars with the drivers all leaning on their horns, the noise constant and deafening. Somehow, I get accustomed to the cacophony. Every shopkeeper, who sees that you have the slightest interest, offers you tea, coffee, a cold drink. At one shop I’m shown a shatooch, a pure cashmere shawl, which is illegal since these scarves are made from goats which had to be killed. The shopkeeper continues to go down in price and I continue to tell him that not only am I not interested; they are illegal, no matter what the price. As though he hasn’t heard me, he continues to bargain.
Since I have witnessed several women loaded down with heavy bundles, have heard about arranged marriages, the hardships of females, it is at lunch at Shenaz, a restaurant known for its great Indian cuisine. We’re now four, two men, Rehka and myself. Our conversation is most animated about the rights and plights of the women in India. Since I am aware of the various demands on even the educated modern working Indian woman, I’m not surprised to hear that housework and childcare aren’t considered a job and it is expected that the career woman also manage the household. Unfortunately, sati, the burning of a woman when her husband dies, does occasionally still happen, as does dowry burning. Rehka is an anomaly. She has opted to work while her husband has a job 200 miles away in a small village where she’d have very little to do. They meet once a month. It was her decision, which to the average Indian puts her into a very difficult social category. India is complex.
As Winston Churchill wrote to his mother referring to the then Calcutta. “I shall always be glad to have seen it – namely that it will be unnecessary for me ever to see it again”. However, feeling much the same, I’ll never regret having spent time in this throbbing, mishmash called Kolkata.