Kolkata, India. This city has a well-earned degree of infamy, starting when the East India Company began stretching its muscles in Bengali in the early 17th century. What was all about trade shifted to being all about empire, and the rest is history.
Some of that history is pretty grisly. On a walk around the former British administrative center of Calcutta, we visited St. John’s Church, built in 1787 and the center of religious life for the British rulers of this world.
Warren Hastings, the first Governor of Bengal, had his office here and was married here. While the church is pleasant and hardly a victim of renovation or restoration, what is placed on the church grounds brings up an old story that triggered massive repercussions for India. The memorial to those British inhabitants of the nearby original fort who died in what is now called the “Black Hole of Calcutta,” tells a bit of the story.
The Nawab of Bengal captured the fort in 1756 and put 100 Brits in a small, airless cell for a full day. Only 23 survived who had not died of thirst and asphyxiation.
After that, any kind of violence against the native population was considered justified.
(Don wants me to add that he always thought the Black Hole of Calcutta was the no/low-rent district where the really poor people lived. He assumed that was the part of Calcutta where Mother Theresa worked with the most desperate of Calcutta. But, as there is no real zoning in India that we have seen, it would be impossible to segregate the poor from the rich, without a very different view of real estate. As Bernard of India said, “If you see an empty space, occupy it!”)
We also saw some of the key buildings where the business of the empire was carried out. And today those buildings house the Indian government business of activities similar to the British. All the main buildings were set up around a small tank (lake), fed by springs, which must have made for a lovely view. The General Post Office stands on the site of the old fort and is much prettier outside than in. Other buildings nearby speak to a great admiration for signs that indicate a great love of officialese, in this epicenter of Indian bureaucracy, well-learned from the British. It looks like the British did their best to make this section of Calcutta look like London. All these buildings, by the way, are not open for casual touring. It’s business only.
The large red building is called the “Writers’ Building,” as it was filled with the clerks of the East India Company, who spent their days keeping the all-important records of the corporation. This building was the site of the 1930 assassination of an unusually brutal British Chief of Police by three Indians, now considered heroes. The square in front of the Writers’ Building was renamed in their honor after independence in 1947.
We had some ambitions today that went unfulfilled. One goal was to see the Marble Palace, which you will hear about tomorrow – we hope. The other will be a surprise. But in order to tour the Marble Palace, one needs written permission from the Tourist Office. And not just any branch of the Tourist Office.
Yesterday Don spent hours finding the right place – a dismal office tucked on the fourth floor of an unmarked building, only to learn that our passports would be required to secure the official passes. We went back today, passports in hand. And we did get our passes.
But by then, we were almost ready to pass out. The temperature was 95° (35° C), with – my personal favorite – 85% humidity. We both were drenched, and we had completely lost interest in going to the Marble Palace.
In fact, we looked at each other in misery and just Ubered straight back to our hotel and its pool.
We’re not proud of our inability to stop perspiring heavily and our tendency to get dizzy when we’re in the sun on these busy streets too long. But we are starting to dream about the cool Himalayas, so maybe we just need some personal climate change to perk ourselves up.