Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Ghosts of Calcutta

Hugh Purcell finds stirring memories of the British Rig in this thriving city, a far cry from its dreadful reputation of a generation ago

IT HAS BEEN SAID THAT CALCUTTA ATTRACTS two kinds of visitors, those seeking sainthood by extreme acts of philanthropy and those seeking their past. I belong to the second category. The first time I visited India I felt I had been there before and nowhere do the ghosts of our collective past return more evocatively than in the first capital of the British Raj.

Today Kolkata, as it is now renamed, does not deserve its bad reputation. Kipling called it the 'city of dreadful night' and at times in its history it has indeed seemed that 'above the packed and pestilential town, Death looked down'. In the early 1970s for instance, when it was inundated with refugees from East Pakistan, the travel writer Simon Winchester wrote of 'the hot stench of the slow-decaying poor, the mobs flowing ceaselessly over the Howrah bridge, the treacle of the Hooghly swamps below, the bent and broken limbs and the rotting rubbish piles and the screeching horns and the rickshaw bells and the infuriating calm of the cud-chewing cows.' I remember it too from the Louis Malle documentary film Calrutta (1970), which the Indian Government objected to because its reality denigrated the country. Today's Bengalis do not like the legacy of Mother Theresa either. Whatever you think about her extreme philanthropy, it has been estimated that she cost the city over four billion dollars in lost revenue. Tourists are still frightened off by the images propagated by the Missionaries of Charity, images of begging bowls, of flies on a dying face. Please do not be pui off. In my last two visits to Calcutta I have not encountered this public nightmare and, even if it exists, follow the Paul Scott advice on India and 'seek the scent behind the smell'.

The most evocative view of Calcutta is from the Hooghly river. Take a boat from Fairlie ghat near BBD Bagh, formerly Dalhousie Square where the British built their first fort in 1696. Chug under the Howrah bridge, that singlespan, grey steel lattice edifice that expands four feet in hot weather and carries a million people daily between Howrah on the west bank and Calcutta proper on the east (for India, add a nought to all statistics). On both sides you pass semi-ruins of the old 'go-downs' (an Anglo-Indian word for warehouse where the goods were 'laid down*) factories and counting houses. Then from Garden Reach to Howrah are the long lines of wharves where once the massed masts and then funnels of Victorian merchant steamers crowded the view. For the groundwork of the old imperial impetus is still there, crumbling but visible. Walk along Strand Road South and search on the walls for the faded announcements of trade — First Class Tailors, Hamilton the Jewellers, Spences Hotel.

Calcutta was built by British merchants, by the Mr Five-percents. The first of these was the East India Company's agent Job Charnock who settled on the Hooghly in 1690, little more than 800 years ago. Calcutta is a young city, nearly a century junior to New York, but it grew with a restless energy, some would say with greed. Very soon it became a gigantic emporium. Jute, tea, rice and cotton were transported from all points east and stored along the Hooghly before being shipped on to Europe. And it was the boxwallahs of empire who were the last to leave. It was not the dissolution of the Raj in 1947 but India's economic policy in the 1960s that slowly forced the British out.

Their departure is chronicled on the honours boards of the Tollygungc Club where the Caruthers CBE become Bannerjees between 1955-65. The Tolly' is indeed an 'island of imperial memories' (in the words of Winchester) though the neighbouring 'neat and self-satisfied Calcutta suburbs that John Betjeman might easily recognise' have gone, as have the Joan Hunter-Dunns from the Club tennis courts. Now the members are the new nabobs of Calcutta, Marwari and Bengali businessmen with their families. The last British to leave were Bob and Anne Wright, who ran the Club into the 1990s and considered it their dvity to preserve the relics of empire including the dying and the dead. They even found an undertaker who could preserve in the hot season — heat described by Mark Twain as 'enough to make a brass doorknob mushy' — the bodies of deceasetl Britons long enough for their families to fly out for the funeral. Their most conspicuous achievement, as members of BACSA (British Association of Cemeteries in South Asia), is the restoration of South Park Cemetery. Here the British ghosts live in a city of the dead that was founded in 'the golden age' of Calcutta 200 years ago.

The ostentatious tombs of Georgian classical design are a monument to the richest, most elegant colonial city of all, to the City of Palaces or the St Petersburg of the East as it was called. According to the famous diarist William Hickey, who worked at this time as an attorney, it was also inward looking and self-regarding, greedy and sinful. Poor Rose Aylmer whose tomb in South Park relates that death was caused 'by an addiction to pineapples' must be absolved. The poet Walter Savage Landor certainly thought so: 'Ah, what avails the sceptered race!/Ah, what the form divine!/What every virtue, every grace!/Rose Aylmer, all were thine'. Beyond redemption were the many Writers, as the clerks were called, who died of venereal diseases caught in the brothels that lined the back streets, a result of the scarcity of Rose Aylmers, for in 1800 there were only 250 young British women in a town of 4,000 young men.

India has hundreds of British cemeteries wherein He buried up to two million fatalities of the Raj. Identified by their Victorian Gothic porches they are mostly melancholy places that tell of premature and forlorn death: 'Her only fault was that she left me'. The polished brass plaques in the metropolitan cathedral of St Paul's, Calcutta, tell altogether different stories: of the grandiosity of empire, of the superiority of 'the Heaven born', as the Indian Civil Service was called. Here is a monument to a judge who was also a champion pigsticker, with the smug encomium 'Well done, thy good and faithful servant'. It is tempting to imagine the congregation of sixty years ago, surrounded by marble statuary and cooled by ranks of electric fans, singing the hymn of imperial retreat: 'So be it Lord, thy throne shall never like earth's proud empires pass away'.

Separated on the south side of the Maidan (literally 'great park') by Cathedral Road is the vast Victoria Memorial. The visitor approaches through high ornamental gates bearing the royal coat of arms and is greeted by a statue of the Queen Empress herself, seated on a throne supported by Art, Literature, Justice and St George. Lord Curzon proposed the building as 'a great imperial duty' to commemorate his beloved queen who had just died. Little did he know that it would also become a memorial to imperial Calcutta for the capital of the Raj passed to Delhi in 1911 while it was being built. Cur/on saw it as his Taj Mahal, though built in the Italian Renaissance style, and like its prototype it is made of dazzling Rajasthan marble that is reflected in ornamental pools. Whether he succeeded is a matter of opinion. Some see a civic pile, an oversized town hall under a marble dome, a 'confection of white marble and hubris' (Winchester). Curzon wanted 'a monumental and grand building where all classes will learn the lessons of history and see revived before their eyes the marvels of the past'. So the inside is stuffed with imperial trophies from a lock of Lady Canning's hair to the swords of defeated princes. What can today's Indian schoolchildren think as they wander open-mouthed through the Durbar Room to Queen Mary's Room and across to the Royal Gallery? Whose Raj is it commemorating? (The word raj simply means 'sovereignty'). The truth is that modern Calcutta admires the Victoria Memorial. The Marxist local government that delights in shocking the West — Harrington Street where the US Embassy used to be is now Ho Chi Minh Sarani — have not renamed it, nor has it ever been a focus for rioters.

Visit the Victoria Memorial early in the morning and then sit on the grass of the Maidan, looking north. Let the heat haze mask over the modern city and your imagination replace it with the paintings of the City of Palaces by Thomas and William Daniell that you have just seen. There, shimmering under the blue sky are stately rows of white plastered, neo-classical buildings in the Grecian style; elegant vistas of terraces as Nash might have built them, arched gateways through which further colonnaded palaces appear. Behind are the spires of St Andrew's and St John's. Only the storks perched on ornamental urns or imperial lions give any hint that this is a world away from London or St Petersburg in 1800. Edmund Lear called it 'a humbug of palaces'. Insulated from reality it was, spectacularly. Yet the miracle of Calcutta is that although the past is another country the descendent of the Raj may still visit it today, before retreating to the Tolly' for a gin and tonic.

Hugh Purcell journeys to the St Petersburg of the East, and considers it a good place to witness the remnants of the British Raj, now absorbed in this dynamic city.

Kolkata (Calcutta) in the state of West Bengal has a population of around 15 million.

In September 2007 Hugh Purcell is leading a tour, which ends in Kolkata. to mark the 150th anniversary of the Indian Mutiny. See www.palanquin.co.uk

See www.calcuttaweb.com

By: Purcell, Hugh, History Today, Oct2006

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