When I drive by the gardens later in the day, the pollution makes 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, Calcutta is a kaleidoscope.
But who would have throught Calcutta 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, I find 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," Rekha tells me. There's an obvious inequality since there are many five star hotels with services to match and the former British bastions - the private clubs.
I visit the 100 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 an 18 hole golf course, indoor and outdoor swimming pools and tennis court. It is a true city retreat. The former small racecourse 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. As expected, the fine old public rooms inside, are decorated with wood paneling and oversized, comfortable but tired looking seating. It could be described as shabby chic. The upstairs of the two-story building is devoted to 70 guestrooms for members or 'friends of', who also have reciprocal arrangements with similar clubs in many other countries such as Singapore, England and the U.S. 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, a group of stunning, sari-clad women are 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 has not fared very well. The Colonial facade 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 seems damp.
The real India is at the train terminal. Over one 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 Calcutta. 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 for every need can be purchased at great prices. It is early morning and already there are jostling crowds, intense hawkers and unfortunately, dozens of beggars.
With the myriad of temples and thousands of years of history, the Indian Museum is rated one of the best museums in India. I discover their treasures include meteorites, stuffed animals, miniature paintings and a great collection of Buddhist art to name but a few. It is 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 a.m. - later than yesterday, but 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 lane. I pass several novices washing floors and stairs while others, behind a curtained-off outdoor area, are washing and wringing out cloths. On the first floor is Mother Teresa's tomb. There is a humming of prayers; reverend chanting and someone is fixing the floral arrangements. Still devoid of tourists, at this time of day, the chapel on the second floor is a spacious and sparse room. In this simple setting these good people, through their desire to help those most needy, the sick and dying, have become world famous.
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, although admittedly somewhat gaudy, Jain Temple. What to look at first? There are so many diverse architectural influences; and to add to the colour and splendor - tiles from around the world and mirrors everywhere! It is a jewel box set in a stunning garden setting. In fact the builder, Rai Budree Das Bahadoor Mooken, 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. It isn't hard to see why it took ten years to decorate. Overall the affect is charming.
In great contrast to the serene atmosphere of Jain Temple, is Dalhousie Square. We drive around
and I am surprised to see the proximity of the serious slums in
this up market business section of the city. The monumental
buildings need constant care and these edifices employ many poor
who live close by. But since they cannot afford to come into the
city each day because of the cost, tents and make-shift living
quarters are pitched next to the buildings. Some of these buildings date
back 200 years and are built in British Colonial style.
Outstanding are the General Post Office, St. John's Cathedral,
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 northeast corner of the
post office. It was 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 is 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 choose one, there would be very little difference. Pith is very lightweight. When I am 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 is where you see how the locals live. Rekha suggests we go to the flower market. It is as colourful as I expect and there are mounds of various coloured 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 one million units. But in a city with a population of 16 million, it is a realistic amount.
The rush of humanity, the colours and the smells all mixed
together gives me the ultimate insight into India. It is a most
complex country that manages to continue to work. Hooghly
River, a tributary of the Ganges River, is where I see Judges'
Ghat. In this open sided room I see men washing
themselves or being shaved after the period of mourning for the
death of a relative. It is low tide and there are heaps of clay pots,
which once contained the ashes of the dead. They have been
washed up on the shore along with sewage and garbage. Instead
of feeling a sense of remorse, I feel ill from 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 1800s is located behind a busy, frenetic market and
locked iron gates. The irony is that it is kept immaculately by
two Moslems who allow me to walk around. Since there are just
a handful of Jewish families remaining in Calcutta, they alternate
their services every other Friday and Saturday with the nearby Beth El Synagogue.
For the shopper an interesting area is Chowringhee Road. The wide boulevard is just a mass of cars with the drivers all leaning on their horns; the noise constant and loud.
Somehow, I seemed to become accustomed to the cacophony. Every shopkeeper, who sees that you
have the slightest interest in his merchandise, offers you tea, coffee, or 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 has not heard
me, he continues to bargain.
I have witnessed several women loaded down with heavy bundles; have heard about arranged marriages, and the hardships of females. It is lunch at Shenaz, a restaurant known for its great Indian cuisine. I am having lunch with Rekha and two men. 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 am not surprised to hear that housework and childcare are not 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. Rekha is an anomaly. She has opted to work while her husband has a job 200 miles away in a small village where she would 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 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, kaleidoscope called Calcutta.
By Barbara Kingstone
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