It’s only been six months since we were last in Kolkata, and the man who works the antiquated elevator at the Sunflower Guest House greets us with a formal bow as he takes us to our floor. His young wife and child used to sleep with him on the ground floor beside the elevator. I ask how they are. “Back in Bihar.” he says sadly. Like so many other restaurant and hotel workers, who are forced to leave their families hundreds of miles away in the impoverished states of Bihar and Orissa. The multi-floored Sunflower with its wide well-worn wooden staircase (an option to the elevator), has the shabby imperialism of a Russian apartment building before the revolution- surrounded not by silent snow but the dusty chaos of crowded streets. In addition to the guest rooms, each floor includes flats where families stay long term although, looking at the state of their rusty mailboxes in the entry way, there’s not many living here any longer.
Last March, in overwhelming heat and humidity, we spent our time on the publicized major attractions (Victoria Memorial, Botanical Garden, Park Cemetery, Flower Market etc.). Now, with cooler weather, we decided to just walk the streets. Like NYC the best way to experience Kolkata is on foot.
We took a walk along Chitpur Street (renamed Rabindra Sarani) which was the nerve center of Black Town during the starkly segregated days of the Empire. Along the way are mansions of the rich who patronized the British and embellished their houses with European arts. These decaying old buildings display architectural features from Greek Classical to French Gothic and everything in between. From street up you can see how the style changes– early English arcading, window carving in the Mughal style, and Gothic decorated stone balustrades, with small trees now sprouting from their moldy ledges.
The MarblePalace is the most opulent with Corinthian pillars and nymphs on the pediments. Built by the Maharajah of Calcutta around 1815 – some of the family still live in an annex. An art collection includes fine paintings from the West – a Gainsborough and Rueben, Ming vases and stone lions and goddesses. The ball room alone has 13 crystal chandeliers. Geoffrey Moorhouse, in his book, “Calcutta: The City Revealed,” was more cynical in his appraisal: “it looks as if (the artifacts) had been scavenged from job lots on the Portobello Road on a series of damp Saturday afternoons.”
On neighboring small lane sits the home of Rabindranath Tagore, telling us much about the rise of the Bengali renaissance. He was part of a dynasty of wealthy merchants cum artists, intellectuals and religious reformers. The house displays some fascinating paintings especially by his uncle which look as contemporary as anything painted today.
At the turn of the century a nationalist movement was rapidly developing in and around Kolkata of which the Tagore family were very much a part. So the English in their wisdom, decided to partition Bengal to reduce the risk of the growing nationalism. The Tagores were very much against the division of Hindu and Moslem; for years they had stressed the importance of unity. But in 1910 the Queen reversed the partition because of the bitter resentment it created and the rift between Hindus and Moslems was a direct result of the second partition in 1947 when east Bengal became East Pakistan. Rabindranath attracted such distinguished supporters to the cause as Swami Vivekananda the prominent disciple of Ramakrishna, and Nivedita, an Irish disciple who devoted her life to the Indian independence movement. The museum also had a lot of pictures of Rabindranath’s travels especially to China and Japan where he felt a close affinity.
The following day we walked down the Esplanade to so-called “WhiteTown” – where the English governed. Today, it is still the seat of Bengali rule. There’s such a concentration of government buildings in the European style that for a moment you can actually forget where you are if it were not for the smog and the din of car horns at any given moment.
A whimsical twist to all the confusion at the intersections is the soothing sound of a woman’s voice singing a devotional song. We’re not sure what it’s about other than soothing the frayed nerves of the pedestrians. The next moment it changes to the tinny sound of 1920s Indian film music played on a hand-wound gramophone.
Day workers sit expectantly on the pavement their tools arranged in front of them indicating their trade.
The colonnaded wide pavements (sidewalks) along the Esplanade are crowded with retailers. Each morning they set up their stalls, True to the eastern concept of merchandising they’ll be fifteen stalls all selling shirts, and then past them they’ll be ten stalls selling belts, then sunglasses and so on…
Anticipating the advent of Christmas, young boys sell Santa hats with likely no idea what the red cone with its white pom-pom signifies. There are even a couple of stalls, in the Moslem area (!) with festive mock fir trees and garlands spilling onto the street.unpacking merchandise that has been stored in huge sacks who knows where over night.
St John’s Church is ready for Christmas with Santas hanging from strands of lights. A jovial dark-skinned man with thinning shoulder-length white hair in tangled dreadlocks greet us. He’s the resident organist and plays an improvised version of Silent Night for us. About our age, he can also play Pink Floyd on request. He’s lived in Kolkata all his life and tells us he grew up poor with a mother who had a Finnish last name. It is true – despite his dark skin he looks more European than Indian. He convinced us to attend the Sunday morning service. As we entered, I’m asked to read an Epistle from the lectern. It brought me back to England, attending the C of E. After the service we continued our conversation with the organist over tea and biscuits. He was very interested in black gospel music which Gerard is going to try and send him. Everyone gave us a warm welcome and seasonal greetings!
Gerard’s back has broken out in a nasty rash – significantly more angry than the first one. Hard to tell if it began with an insect bite, or if it’s just some allergic reaction. Out of my eye I catch a Homeopathic dispensary, so we walk in and a female doctor takes a look and prescribes sugar pills made up for us by the dispensing attendant. When we try to pay he says, “Oh no, it’s a government clinic, medicine is free! They don’t do much so we return to our Moslem pharmacist friend from last year who recommends allegra and antihistamine lotion. This has more of an immediate effect
After six days, it’s time to move on to Varanasi. We could definitely have stayed longer. The city holds a strong fascination for both of us, and in a short space of time we’ve met some friendly people.