It would not be an exaggeration to say that I first went to Calcutta on a dare. During a trip to Rajasthan in 1999, an Indian friend was heard to mutter when I described my bewitchment by India: “Ah, but she has not seen Calcutta. That is the test.”
I arrived in Calcutta a few weeks later with a collection of letters and journals written by earlier visitors to the city, among them the exemplary Fanny Parkes, who lived in India in the 19th century, and the 18th-century Eliza Fay. Enraptured, I returned two years later to take up a winter residence of four months and to write a novel, One Last Look, based on the Calcutta papers of Parkes and of the Englishwomen Emily and Fanny Eden, sisters of Lord Auckland, governor general of India in 1836.
I now visit Calcutta every few years, and between agonizing bouts of service at Mother Teresa’s orphanage and long hot afternoons of study at the Asiatic Society on Park Street, with its collection of 100,000 mildewed and disorganized books, I wander up and down the streets of the city. Calcutta is a noisy place: The sounds of millions of raucous and bold black crows, in addition to almost 800,000 automobiles and buses, mingle with the graceful tinkling of the rickshaws’ bells. A violet haze hangs low overhead, and in June, when the monsoon at last arrives, the streets, sometimes flooded to shoulder-height, are shared with snakes and other unaccustomed creatures. The heat is near unbearable.
At half-past five the cool time of the day set in, and it was possible to go out driving. All European Calcutta was to be met driving on the Esplanade, sitting behind turbaned postillions and coachmen. There might also be a nice English britschka, with good horses and a tribe of running footmen by its side; and in it one of the native princes, dressed just as he was when he first came into the world, sitting cross-legged on the front seat very composedly smoking his hookah. —Emily and Fanny Eden, 1836
The Eden sisters wrote those lines almost two centuries after the Englishman Job Charnock established the city on the banks of the Hugli River. Located in West Bengal, near the northeastern coast of India, Charnock’s settlement was originally built as a safe harbor for the shipping trade, fast growing rich from cotton, tea, and spices. The city, officially renamed Kolkata in 2001, has since grown into a sprawling metropolis of 14 million.
Job Charnock, it is said, rescued a young Indian widow from ritual suicide on the funeral pyre of her husband. Entranced by her beauty, he converted to Hinduism, married her, and gave her three children. (That is the Western myth—in Hindu mythology the city was founded on the spot where a severed toe of the goddess Kali was found.) In the next generation Charnock’s son-in-law shrewdly gained the rights to three small fishing villages nearby, and the prosperous port became a town, serving as treasury to the immensely influential and successful trading consortium, the East India Company. The settlement quickly filled with Hindu moneylenders as well as local traders, shopkeepers, musicians, artisans, dancers, merchants, courtesans, hotelkeepers, and boatmen who rapidly learned to serve and accommodate the increasing number of foreigners (predominantly Scotsmen) in the employ of the company. The foreigners began to build mansions, many modeled after admired country estates at home in Britain. Later, when rich Indian landowners and nobles came to the city to build their own mansions, as did their vaunting tax collectors, commissars, and relatives, Calcutta became the city of white palaces.
Despite its mercantile origins, by the 18th century Calcutta was a center of academic, scholarly, philosophical, and artistic life, a tradition that continues to the present. Bengalis are considered the intellectual elite of India, as well as fervidly political, and the results of their temperament—the films of Satyajit Ray; the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore; the novels of Vikram Seth, Bharati Mukherjee, and Amitav Ghosh—attest to this still-vibrant tradition. The physical decline of the city, however, began in 1912, when the British colonial government shifted the capital from Calcutta to Delhi. Calcutta was overwhelmed with refugees in the violent aftermath of Partition in 1947, and again in 1971, when East Pakistan became Bangladesh. The Communist city government may have been beneficial to its residents, but it did nothing to protect and preserve the white palaces, and the city’s astonishing architecture fell into desuetude, if it did not disappear altogether.
Calcutta, you know, is on the Hooghly, a branch of the Ganges, and, as you enter Garden Reach, which extends about nine miles below the town, the most interesting views that can possibly be imagined greet the eye. The banks of the river are, as one may say, absolutely studded with elegant mansions called here…garden-houses. These houses are surrounded by groves and lawns, which descend to the water’s edge, and present a constant succession of whatever can delight the eye or bespeak wealth and elegance in the owners. The noble appearance of the river also, which is much wider than the Thames at London Bridge, together with the amazing variety of vessels continually passing on its surface, add to the beauty of the scene.…I never saw a more vivid green than adorns the surrounding fields. —Mrs. Eliza Fay, in a letter written to friends, May 1780
Although the groves and lawns are gone, the elegant mansions, in varying stages of dilapidation, haunt the city, particularly in the crowded and narrow lanes of North Calcutta. I use the river as my compass. The Hugli, running north to south, spills across a dense and fertile delta as it finds its way to the Bay of Bengal. There are three bridges joining the two banks of the city. The eastern bank is the most populated; across the river is the enormous railway station and the Botanical Gardens, founded in 1786, in which resides the world’s most elderly banyan tree (250 years old, although, like many things in Calcutta, that is a fact in dispute).
I begin my day by taking an autorickshaw to the Chitpur Road. One of the main thoroughfares in North Calcutta, it encompasses primarily a Muslim neighborhood. The shops are full of things to buy—starched cotton tunics with chikankari embroidery, sticks of black kohl, dates and nuts, spices and herbal medicines. The scent of attar of roses (splashed enthusiastically over the taffeta gowns of visiting Englishwomen in the 19th century by the women of the harem, to the horror and disgust of the memsahibs) is in the air, just discernible through the heavier odors of coal smoke and charcoal fires.
Off the Chitpur Road, which is known more officially as Rabindra Sarani, is the enormous mansion of the Tagore family, built in 1784, and nearby is Raja Rajendra Mullick Bahadur’s Marble Palace on Muktaram Babu Street, full of not very distinguished Victorian statuary, ormolu clocks, gilt mirrors, Chinese urns, horsehair sofas, several stuffed moose, and one Rubens (last March when I was there, I fed a disconsolate hare in the large iron cage that once held the raja’s famous troop of carrier pigeons, as a plump mouse trotted unconcernedly back and forth across my toes). With their Corinthian pillars and rococo architraves, these aging mansions of the Raj evoke melancholy and romance. Despite having once-fashionable European façades, each house is built around a central courtyard with a traditional room, often colonnaded—used for distinctly non-European worship—known as the thakur dalan. One can sometimes make out the balustrades of a delicate grillwork or carved teakwood veranda behind which the women of the harem once sat hidden, gazing through the hot afternoon into the busy courtyard below.
The houses of the poor are built against, and often inside, the crumbling palaces. In this tangle of the baroque and the makeshift, men take their morning bath in a leaking marble trough, and women oil their hair on the broken steps of a tomb overgrown with bougainvillea and jasmine. In the neglected courtyards, now strewn with weeds, the colorful laundry of the numerous families settled in the palaces is draped over the pomegranate shrubs and tattered leaves of the banana trees. There is the sense of a lost, if not doomed, world. The lovely ruins of the long-ago splendid palace of the Nawab Muhammed Reza Khan, in one of the shaded lanes branching from the Chitpur Road, was described by the writer Sophia Goldborne in 1789:
The exterior of Chitpore in some degrees bespeaks the grandeur of its owner, but I am apprised that few things exceed the magnificence of its interior architecture and ornaments. The apartments are immense, the baths elegant, and the seraglio, though a private one, suited in every particular to the rest of the building: nor must the gardens be unmentioned, for they not only cover a wide extent of ground but are furnished with all the beauties and perfumes of the vegetable kingdom.
The palaces abut the neighborhood of Kumartuli: five crowded acres along the river in which 600 families live and work. Packed with small stalls and workshops, it is devoted to the single occupation of making clay idols of the Hindu gods and goddesses (and the occasional national hero—Gandhi, for example). For thousands of years, the gods were worshipped symbolically in the form of a stone or a relic, a tree or a pot, but with the arrival in the 18th and 19th centuries of the newly rich Indian merchants and minor nobility, there grew a fashion for all things European, including copies of Greek and Roman marble statues first seen in the houses of the English.
The trade of making statues is passed from generation to generation in Kumartuli. The mud is collected by divers and dredges from the ghats along the Hugli and carried to the tiny workshops where it is molded into statues of the fearsome goddess Durga and her daughter Saraswati. The lanes are lined with huge mounds of bamboo and straw, bushels of gold foil, sequins, tinsel, sola pith (a reed once used to make pith helmets), and paper roses. The images are made to order, some of them sent round the world in time for the Saraswati festival in January and the much grander Durga Puja festival celebrated in late October and early November. Saraswati, the goddess of purity and truth, art and music, is pictured holding a book and a stringed instrument, the vina. Her familiar is a white swan, on whose back she sits comfortably.
Bengalis are proud—even vainglorious—of their reputation as the intellectuals of India, and in households that cannot afford to commission a statue of the goddess of learning, a book or two is set aside and worshipped on the day of the Saraswati feast. When the festivals are over, the images are carried by the thousands through the candlelit streets to the river, accompanied by neighborhood bands chanting and singing. All night long, small boats joined together carry the images one by one into the dark stream. The boats pull apart and the statue slowly sinks beneath the surface. The boatmen return to shore to pick up the next image to the shouts of “Victory to Mother Durga!” as the worshippers pray and weep with joy.
Leaving Kumartuli, I stop at the Royal Calcutta Turf Club. The racecourse presents a calm, even peaceful respite in the middle of the great city, and I place a bet or two while I have lunch in the garden. There is an atmosphere at the club of nonchalant privilege, and although it is private, one can, as is often the case in India, buy an admission ticket. Sitting in the heart of the city at the edge of the Maidan (visitors praise the green enormity of the park, but in truth it was designed to give the English defenders of nearby Fort William a clear line of fire), the grandstand is a large white wooden building of colonial architecture, with a grass course running from right to left.
What is striking to the visitor is the bettors’ proximity to the horses tethered outside their stalls; one might almost reach out to examine a hoof as the syces curry the horses, traditionally using only their hands. I cannot vouch wholeheartedly for the honesty of the results—horses are scratched long after post time and simply disappear from the course—but it is old-fashioned and louche, reminiscent of an era that has long since disappeared from Calcutta.
I then take a rickshaw to nearby College Street with its hundreds of small secondhand bookshops, stalls, and carts. One can buy examination papers, the newest English novel, political tracts, maps, leather-bound editions by Calcutta’s native son, William Thackeray, broadsheets, illuminated hymnals, and scrolls of Sanskrit poetry. Everything is set out except rare books—these are shown only on request, and sometimes after several requests, depending on whether the seller likes the looks of you.
Across from Sanskrit College is a nondescript doorway, leading to a dark concrete passage, and a stairway, which takes you to a large high-ceilinged room with few windows and many small tables. Built in 1890 to celebrate the visit of an English prince, it has long been the meeting place of Bengali students, teachers, and artists. Indian Coffee House, known for its bohemian glamour in the fifties and Marxist ferment in the seventies, was always considered a sophisticated place, coffee being dearer than tea and philosophical debate rarer than teahouse gossip. Several literary journals were founded here, and court was held by movie stars, revolutionaries, and effusive professors, making it the salon of Calcutta. It is not quite the hotbed it was once, but there is good coffee, served by moody waiters in ready-made turbans, and egg salad sandwiches for tea.
It is near twilight when I leave the coffeehouse, that time of day called cow-dust time by the Bengalis because it was then that the cows were driven home. Sadly, there are no longer any cows in Calcutta. In a mistaken attempt to improve the city, they were banished to the suburbs a few years ago. I am happy to have missed the day of the great banishment; the bewildered migration of thousands of beasts, long horns gilded and draped in bells, their humps capped with red embroideries, as they moved placidly through the crowded streets—alas, no more cows and no more cow dust.
As I walk home through the chaotic and congested streets, I can just make out the jingling of the tin boxes on wheels, with their pitched roofs and cutout windows, pulled by bicycle wallahs, full of young schoolchildren singing Bengali nursery rhymes as they are returned to their families. Surely the same fairy-tale cages seen by Mrs. Eliza Fay at the end of the 18th century. The mansions of the rich foreigners are gone, the cows are gone, but the Indians remain, in the city of white palaces.