Just another day in old Calcutta

Kolkata, India. Dedicated Don got up before 5 this morning to take a cultural tour of the city, and saw parts that we may have seen before, but which now got explained in context.

His experience:

This tour, which started at 6AM at some distance from the hotel, was a three-hour stroll through what the tour operator considered the “melting pot” area of Kolkata. Originally, what is today Kolkata was a series of villages separated by jungles. The British Indian Company bought the villages from the local leader and then separated the area the British inhabited (White Town) from the native areas (Black Town). But in between was a jungle that got settled by a range of other people — Chinese, Jews, people from other parts of India — who were not part of those original villages. Today, remnants of those original settlers are still visible while a whole new — and exceedingly complex — culture grew up around it, with all types of religions and ethnic groups living and working side by side in apparent peaceful co-existence.

The tour included sampling various street food offerings from places that the guide assured us were safe. Among the best samplings was from a guy who roasted peanuts in a wok-type vessel filled with hot ash. The peanuts were tossed in the ash, screened from the ash, salted and put hot into bags made from old newspaper. Fantastic. Then there was the ritual of chai — hot tea mixed with boiling milk — and poured into disposable clay cups. My favorite, however, was the jalebi, a squiggle of dough deep-fried and then dipped into a large vat of boiling syrup. The syrup-soaked fritters were handed out fresh and hot into little paper plates. All of these delights cost pennies. I would not have tried these on the street without a guide.

We visited a Jewish temple, a Hindu temple, a Zoroastrian temple and a Buddhist temple. Also, we saw a complex of buildings that had been built by the British during World War I to house Anglo-Indian soldiers and their families. This is the Christian center of Kolkata, where the biggest Christmas and Easter celebrations are still held today by the descendant families of those Anglo-Indian soldiers.

This is also the area that seemed to display the greatest amount of poverty, with people living in the little shops they run during the day, man-powered rickshaws (in the last city on earth where it is still legal) and a particularly touching scene that I witnessed of a mother who was getting her two children ready to send off to school. They lived under a tarp attached to the wall of a street market. But those kids couldn’t have looked tidier in their (Catholic?) school uniforms. As our guide pointed out, the mother knew that if she didn’t get those kids off to school that they would end up living on the street like she did.

Of the other many fascinating sights, I was taken by a herd of goats that traveled along with their handler from customer to customer to provide fresh goat milk. The goats are milked as they arrive at each customer. Fresh, and cuts out the middle man. The goats had the stops memorized and they basically led their master to the right places. Also, live chickens were inspected by prospective customers in the market and after weighing and much looking under wings, the chickens were taken away by young boys for slaughter and preparation. Some of the customers carried live chickens away with them. Maybe the on-site butchering came with an added charge.

There are so many layers in this complex city — complex country — that it’s hard to absorb it or to fully sort it out. It’s a mix of the ancient and the modern. You’ll find people washing clothes on the street by beating them on stones or baking breads in ovens hundreds of years old and all while talking on cell phones. Our guide told us that even people without homes have cell phones.

It was noted today that the Indian national economy moved into fifth place in the world, pushing Great Britain into sixth place. I heard a few expressions of delight about that new world order – it’s just filled with delicious ironies. But it’s pretty clear that the impact of such a large economy has not reached into every corner of this society.

Then we started our next tour, by heading for the Motherhouse of the Missionary Sisters of Charity, home of Mother Teresa. It is a very simple building, in what is actually a very nice neighborhood today, by Calcutta standards, Mother Teresa’s tomb is here, and one can see a museum of her life, as well as her bedroom. Except for the tomb, photos are not allowed, so I took one accidentally in the lobby and one of her tomb, but cribbed the one of her bedroom – which we could visit – from the web.

I will have to issue a spoiler alert at this point for those who have a very benevolent view of this saint. There is quite a body of revisionist thinking about the work she did and how she actually aided the poor. I won’t pour fuel on the fire, but if you are interested, do some reading about her life.

Then we went to the Marble Palace, for which we labored long and hard to get a pass – which it seems you don’t really need. And then we found out you can’t take pictures there, which always makes me crazy.

But now I know why you can’t take pictures of this Tennessee-Williams-meets-Mrs.-Havisham monstrosity. All except two pics I took from the front are also cribbed from the web.

The house was built in 1835 by Raja Rajendra Mullick, a wealthy Bengali merchant with a passion for collecting works of art. The problem is he needed a better art advisor. The house continues to be a residence for his descendants, who should be shot for the condition of the place. There is no air-conditioning, of course, which is fine for the marble statuary, which must have been bought by the crate at yard sales in England. Many effigies of Queen Victoria mingle with Napoleon, the Greek gods, George Washington, Alexander the Great, King Kong and any excuse for female nudes. But when one hangs a dingy Rubens and a Reynolds in a dusty room and never attempts to clean or preserve them, there is a problem. Many of the multitudinous items here are now pure tat, but I still yearned for a dust cloth and some furniture polish. The crystal chandeliers may have been turned on, but it made no difference at all in the illumination.

The current owner needs a serious yard sale, but the place is certainly evocative of another era. Truly the largest white elephant we have seen in India.

We are on the move again tomorrow, headed for cooler climes. There may be time to post a report on another tour Don is taking tomorrow morning – such dedication – or, maybe not.



3 thoughts on “Just another day in old Calcutta

  1. Don, the walking tour looks exciting. Happy you tried some street food. Remember Lion from the movie “Lion” was able to trace back his roots after having Jalebies at a party in Melbourne? Of course you had the real stuff…

  2. I hope all of your shots are still in good working order. It was brave of you to try street food.

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