Sunday, 23 December 2012

The City of Dreadful Night

The Victoria memorial - To the glories of the British Raj
A Calcutta Street scene
The Holy cow forages in amongst some holy s***

 “Alas! For the lost delusion of the heritage that was to be restored. Let us sleep and pray that Calcutta may be better tomorrow. At present it is remarkably like sleeping with a corpse”
(The City of Dreadful Night by Rudyard Kipling)

Calcutta.*  A name synonymous with poverty, squalor, deprivation, famine, civil unrest, riot and waves of refuges - this is a city with a fearful reputation, a metaphor for all things bad and consequently Calcutta attracts fewer western visitors than other parts of the country and to be honest nothing can really truly prepare you for visiting this city. To be fair though, not all of these terrible events happened at the same time but this is a city that has had more than its fair share of strife over the years from the time of the East India trading company, through independence until now Calcutta has remained a hot bed of politics*. 

Calcutta’s history began when an Englishman by the name of Job Charnock planted a flag in a patch of swampy land on the east side of the great river Hooghly, claiming this as a base for the East India Trading Company which traded in salt, silks, opium, cotton and tea. This company was owned by wealthy British aristocrats and protected by its own private armies the British government at that point had little direct input or control. As the trading company grew so did the extent of its control over areas of the country and in 1757 after losing the battle of Plassey to Sir Robert Clive (Clive of India) the Nawab of Bengal surrendered his lands to the Company. In 1772 the Company established its capital in Calcutta and appointed Warren Hastings as its first Governor. The rule of the East India Trading Company lasted until the Indian uprising in 1857 which was put down and the British government assumed rule of India.

Calcutta on the banks of the river Hooghly

The black hole of Calcutta
I’ve been to the Black Hole of Calcutta. Now that’s a claim to fame not many can make. Ok it’s not strictly true as the Black hole of Calcutta, a prison cell in the old Fort William, no longer exists. After the tragic farce that was the story of the Black Hole of Calcutta the Fort was demolished and rebuilt in another part of the town and the Post Office was built in its place and all that is left to indicate the location of the Black Hole is a plaque on the wall of the Post Office. 

Most people have heard of the Black Hole without really knowing what it was so the story goes that the year before the Nawab’s defeat by Clive at Plassey (Sir Robert Clive = Clive of India) the Nawab led an uprising against the East India Company and took some British prisoners who were held in a cell at the fort nicknamed the “Black Hole”. The account of one of the survivors tells that 146 prisoners were held in this cell which measured only 14 x 18ft in the stifling heat with no access to fresh air or water and by morning 123 prisoners had died and, although these numbers vary according to different accounts, this prison cell has passed into history and notoriety as the Black Hole of Calcutta. The uprising and the Black Hole incident lead to Clive’s involvement in the battle a year later and the Nawab’s subsequent defeat. A memorial to the victims of the Black Hole stands in the peaceful oasis of the grounds of St Johns church.

St Johns Church - An oasis from the chaos that is Calcutta

Memorial to the victims of the Black Hole fiasco
Johann Zoffany's painting of the last supper

A popular misconception is that the British Raj lived an easy life of luxury while making their millions and, although compared to the local population they probably did, the inscriptions engraved on the incredibly ornate headstones in the Christian Park road cemetery tell a different story, many people died at very young ages from hardship and diseases contracted in this inhospitable climate*. It’s not an easy place to stay healthy even now. Eating turned out to be a high risk activity and I stuck to a diet of vegetable curries and I was ok. Simon braved the fish curry and was very not ok! I’m not sure it’s a choice I would have made given you didn’t have to ask where the fish market was, you just followed your nose. However he said it was yummy at the time….

The after effects of food poisoning Calcutta style!

Calcutta’s most famous former resident is Mother Theresa or Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu to give her real name. She was sent to work in Calcutta and founded the Missionaries of Charity famed for the work they carry out amongst the poor of Calcutta. Although now a saint, she has had her detractors firstly those who felt that her fame only highlighted the negative aspects of Calcutta and not the positives (!)  and secondly those such  as the writer Christopher Hitchens  who object to the whole hypocrisy of religion and who does make a great number of valid points

However, nobody comes to a place like Calcutta and devotes their life to the poor without at least meaning well. Whether that is an excuse for inadvertently prolonging and increasing suffering and poverty, well that’s a debate for another day.

Mother Theresa's tomb
Mother House, the beating heart of her mission and its operations, is located in central Calcutta and her tomb is within the chapel in the complex. I had expected her tomb to be a quiet serene place but it is only separated from the main road by a wall and the open windows allow the sounds of the busy Calcutta street to pour in. Maybe it is appropriate for someone who devoted her life to a city to allow the city into her last resting place.

Mother Theresa certainly had her work cut out

I had expected to be confronted and pestered by a great number of beggars but I was surprised by how few there actually seemed to be. The greatest concentration was as you would expect around the central area where the main hotels frequented by westerners are located. On reflection maybe it is not so surprising – we saw so few other western tourists other than on the street where the hotel was located that maybe the sight of us wandering round was so strange that all people could do was stare (and stare they did, something else you have to get used to in India) especially as we went off to explore parts of the city that were very much off the tourist trail, if there is such a thing in Calcutta. We did see one group of western tourists….being led round in a group by a guide. Maybe they only travel in packs for safety! I thought that by dressing conservatively, with a shawl over my shoulders and dying my hair a darker shade would help me to blend in and to detract unwanted attention but I had over looked one key fact – I was on average a good 12 – 18” taller than your average Calcutta female and therefore I stood out like a sore thumb. Time to swiftly change tactics…. I resorted to standing tall and striding confidently and hopefully scaring anyone off who had any intention of bothering me and to be fair, we got very little hassle and felt perfectly safe walking around. There were areas where it is ill advised to go at night but hey, they say that about Maastricht in Aberdeen. We met a Norwegian aid worker who was staying in the same hotel as us who had opened a school for children of the poor in Calcutta and he was adamant that giving to beggars was a bad idea as he was struggling to convince parents that it is better to concentrate on their children’s future when begging was often the more lucrative option. 

Living on the streets of Calcutta

Another thing that surprised me in this city of surprises is that the main pest or nuisance actually comes from the more well off educated Indians who approach you on the street and strike up a conversation, on the face of it just being friendly. The ulterior motive though is to eventually drag you off to their shop or somehow extract money out of you. In this situation I found that being female was an unusual advantage in that they tended to approach Simon first. Unlike the beggars these people were quite persistent and annoying and you really did have to be quite rude and dismissive to get rid of them.
A market in Calcutta

Crossing the road is another interesting experience in Calcutta and, similar to eating, it’s an exercise in avoiding death.  The city is pretty much lawless when it comes to traffic control and the streets are congested beyond belief, the road signs and sequences of traffic lights make no sense and do not seem to be obeyed. Other than dodgy food it’s the next biggest threat to your well being in this city and many accidents do occur. Everything uses the roads, buses, taxis cars, lorries, tuk tuks, bicycles, rickshaws, horses and carriages, cows (don’t laugh, the cow is sacred and has right of way), I even saw a man herding a flock of goats and sheep down one city centre street as well as a monkey sat on top of a piece of street furniture contentedly having a snack. The traffic police (recognisable in their white uniforms), seemed to take pity on two gormless looking westerners and they stopped the traffic for us. Maybe it’s bad PR for the city if two tourists get flattened. Another tactic was to follow a local who looked as though he knew what he was doing. My last resort was to stride out purposefully into the middle of the road and hold up my hand in the manner of a traffic warden to stop the traffic and I think the Indian drivers were so surprised to see a western woman doing this they stopped in shock which, with the benefit of hindsight, was quite lucky for me.

A Monkey having a little snack in front of the traffic lights and flyover

We visited and walked across the Howrah bridge, built in 1943 it is now the 6th largest of its type of construction in the world which is a suspension type cantilever bridge. It replaced the old pontoon bridge which had been in place since the late 1800s linking the town of Howrah with Calcutta. The bridge carries an enormous amount of traffic every day and seemed to be in much better condition than I expected. Recent repairs had been carried out expedited by a large hole appearing in its tarmac surface one day causing a car and its’ unfortunate driver to plunge down into the waters below. We walked over the bridge to Howrah station peering down into the fast flowing murky waters wandering if anyone could survive a dooking in there. Amazingly I even spotted a dolphin. It seemed impossible that any living creature could survive in that filthy murky water but apparently ganges river dolphins can be seen. 

The Howrah Bridge
The bridge has to cope with an enormous amount of traffic
Bathing in the murky waters of the river Hooghly. Personally i wouldn't...

“Why do they talk about owners and occupiers and burgesses in England and the growth of autonomous institutions when the city, the great city, is here crying out to be cleansed?”
(The City of Dreadful Night by Rudyard Kipling)

We walked quickly through the railway station, or as quickly as it is possible to do in a station through which an estimated 1.2million people pass every day, and headed south parallel to the river to the new bridge which was constructed to relieve the extreme pressure on the Howrah bridge. However no one was using it as it was a toll bridge and we even had to flag down a taxi to get across as there was no pedestrian footpath – Indian planning and bureaucracy strikes again! Every second car seemed to be a taxi and these were instantly recognisable as they are all bright yellow Hindustan Ambassadors and most seem to be of considerable age and lacking in any form of suspension. There is a vast amount of traffic in Calcutta, the roads are jam packed and needless to say the resultant pollution is appalling. The round blood red sun that you expect to see in the tropics had an unfortunate grey hue and the stonework on buildings was black. The pollution even turned the snot in my nose black (too much information?) so I don’t like to think what it does to the lungs.

Roads are often gridlocked

Given the amount of traffic and the general chaos I never attempted to go running in Calcutta although I was devastated to find out that my Heb Half nemesis Hamish had managed to go running when he was there. Looking back it would have been entirely possibly as there is a huge city centre park in Calcutta called the Maiden (pronounced “Moiden”) which always had people out playing football and cricket on it and although I don’t know if a single white female would have been entirely safe running alone in what is still a very conservative society I do curse my cautiousness.

A chai stall outside the impressive museum building

Carriage rides

Preparations for the Hindu festival of Diwali were in full swing

Everywhere the streets are packed with people and stalls. It took me a little time to realise that each “trade” had its own location. One street may be home to street vendors selling books, the next street may be home to street vendors selling car parts such as tyres and spares and the next street may be full of people selling watches. The most interesting was the street full of men typing away on antiquated rusty type writers. This service is for those who can’t read and write so that they can pay to have important letters drafted and typed for them. The butchers street was another one although possibly not for visitors of a delicate disposition. 

The typing service

Bartering for coconuts

No prizes for guessing whats on the menu tonight at this restaurant....

If the city thought less about itself as a metropolis and more of a midden, its state would be better
(The City of Dreadful Night by Rudyard Kipling)

The chai stalls are everywhere selling little red clay cups of chai for 4 rupees a cup (5p), a thick, stewed, sickly sweet, milky concoction with a gritty after taste of red clay fragments. These cups are intended to be disposable, smashed on the ground when finished with and so I got some quite strange looks when I decided that I would keep mine. A couple of weeks prior to going to India I had seen the BBC2 series “Welcome to India” and one of the episodes showed somebody scraping a living from making these cups, thousands in a week from the mud of the banks of the river Hooghly, and so this was a souvenir that I was desperate to bring back although I have to say that chai served Calcutta style was an acquired taste that I never did acquire.
Tasting Chai

Chai cups

It was an acquired taste...

Despite the high risk of food poisoning we did have some quite nice meals in Calcutta and in some nice places such as one hotel with a roof top terrace. I’m sure the view would have been stunning if it wasn’t for the thick grey haze of smog hanging over the city. There are one or two quite stylish bars now appearing in the city for a younger more cosmopolitan generation of Indians less restricted by tradition. We stuck to drinking bottled water or beer although one night I did try a glass of Indian wine. Suffice to say the Indian wine industry needs substantial further development. The hotel we stayed in was luxurious by Indian standards and I was entertained to read in a guide book the warning about low budget accommodation in the city -

“Much of Kolkata’s rock bottom accommodation represents a whole new league of nastiness and where we review such cheapies be aware that we are identifying the least objectionable options rather than making a recommendation”


Calcutta’s modern history is that of extreme poverty. British rule didn’t help and neither has independence . As you can probably tell from the quotes peppering this that Rudyard Kipling was no lover of the city and his short story “The City of Dreadful night” sees him touring the city at night with the Calcutta police as his guides and if his tale of 100 years ago is to be believed then not a lot has changed since then. The grandeur of many of Calcutta’s buildings reflect its colonial past but everywhere the buildings are in a dangerous state of disrepair which I suspect isn’t helped by complete and total neglect with many people living crammed into the buildings, making alterations themselves and of course the swampy ground on which Calcutta is constructed. It is worth trying to take a look upwards when you are walking around but that is not easy in a city jammed packed with a population of about 14 and a half million people and where every pavement is covered by street vendors stalls, heaps of rubbish, dogs, chickens, goats, people sleeping and the odd body which i suspect may have breathed its last – but I certainly wasn’t going to prod it to try and find out.

“But where is the criminal who is to be hanged for the stench that runs up and down the writers’ Buildings staircases, for the rubbish heaps in the Chitapore Road, for the dirty little tanks at the back of the Belvedere, for the street full of smallpox, for the reeking gharry stand outside the great Eastern, for the state of the stone, for the condition of the gullies of Shampooker, and for a hundred other things?”
(The City of Dreadful Night by Rudyard Kipling)
Makeshift houses

Houses falling down

I wonder how much this hotel charges for a room per night...

Every city has “poor areas” but nowhere else have I been in which the squalor and the poverty are so completely in your face. The plastic sheets and pieces of cardboard lying on the street are not there to cover the unused street vendor stalls at night, these are peoples makeshift houses and we are not talking about in backstreets or in poor neighbourhoods this is in the main streets of the main tourist districts in the city centre as whole families cook at the roadside and people wash at stand pipes and carry out their ablutions in the street. I am being polite here, basically the street is used as a bathroom in all senses and although I did get used to, or as used to as I ever think I could, of the sickly sweet smell of rotting organic matter pervading the city my stomach turned as I watched a man brushing his teeth over an open sewer. Calcutta seemed somehow different at night, calmer and stiller, an opaque mist hanging over everything, moving figures taking on an ethereal appearance in the dim lighting. From the plastic tarpaulins hanging on railings on every street which shelter entire families to rickshaw drivers asleep in the seats of their rickshaws the city goes to sleep*. 

Washing at a stand pipe in the street

People making thier homes under the flyover

There is a square on Lindsay street next to the indoor bazaar where people just hang out and the buildings are lit up making it feel as though you could be in any city in the world but that was the only time I ever really felt that.
 It takes time to adapt to the initial shock of a place like Calcutta and if or when I return then I think it would be good to investigate its reputation as the arts capital of the country, home to the only Indian winner of the nobel prize for literature. This is an aspect of the city which is often overlooked and I would like to have had the opportunity to explore it further. The economy and growth of the town is immense but the overwhelming question has to be how does it solve an issue of poverty and social deprivation that is quite simply off the scale. I had come to India to run a race in the Himalayas but in a strange sort of way Calcutta almost became the highlight of the trip. I found the place strangely fascinating in a way I never thought I would. Every sense is bombarded relentlessly and you have to keep your wits about you. It was unlike anywhere I had ever experienced but it’s an experience I would recommend to anyone

Goats being herded along the main street where the hotels and museum are located

*Calcutta was renamed Kolkata in 2000 which is closer to the actual Indian pronunciationon but as most people here are still aware of Calcutta and have never heard of Kolkata I have used its older and more recognisable name.
Statue of Queen Victoria, Empress of India
Street vendors under the Howrah Bridge
  * References = Lonely planet guide to India, Rough Guide to India and Walking Calcutta by Keith Humphries.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Thanks for posting that. Almost feel like I've been. I don't think I could handle it.