Oh Calcutta

Without warning Ray went very pale and then vomited over the potted plants in the hotel lobby. One minute later he dashed for the toilet clenching his buttocks. When the doctor came he spoke in a low voice about low blood pressure and low fever, possibly gastro-enteritis, or the Back Passage to India. He prescribed a battery of pills, billed us for fifteen hundred rupees, and advised no travel for five days.

That was that. What was meant to be an overnight stop in Calcutta had suddenly become an extended period of confinement for Ray. But what was I going to do? Everything I had heard or read about Calcutta had conspired to form my opinion that it was a decrepit, disease-ridden, beggar-infested, black hole of a place.

After arranging his pills in three lines to be taken two, three or four times a day, there was nothing else I could do for Ray, so I went walking the streets. Our hotel on Sudder Street, just off Chowringhee, was near the red light district and my pink person was immediately perceived as an object of corruptible desires. “You want change money? You like hashish? Bhang? Ganja? Cocaine? Nice Nepali girl? A family girl for you Sahib, very clean?” I found none of it offensive or aggressive and in fact I soon felt more suspicious of anyone who passed me by without wanting to satisfy my every desire. The only aggression I experienced was when I accidently bumped into a fat Brahmin woman who reacted as if she had been stung by a wasp!

Chowringhee’s air of outrageous commercial importance might look sixty years out of date but the bustling, roaring traffic on the street went about its business like there was no tomorrow. The nasal honking of scooter-rickshaws and the Ashok-Leyland busses shouting Horns OK did not help the situation. Men ran along the side of the road with enormous bails and boxes balanced on their heads, moving faster than the snarled traffic. Exhaust fumes spewed across the pavement where people were trying to live, work and sleep. Everybody was coughing, clearing their throats and ‘hawking’ – ignoring the many signs forbidding this.

I went up Shakespeare Sarani then down Park Street to the Oxford Bookshop. Worm-eaten, dusty spines expired before my eyes. After visiting the Sir James Stuart Hogg Market on Lyndsay Street I became a vegetarian. Atrociously hacked up lumps of flesh were flung onto green marble carving slabs for the inspection of a few discreet customers. Offal and off-cuts of fat and all sorts of filth fell to the floor for rats to snatch and drag out of sight. Crows crapped from the rafters and swooped on any scraps left by the rats.

In the middle of Sudder Street I stopped to watch a man being lowered on a rope into a manhole. He stood waist deep in raw grey sewage before holding his nose and submerging himself. He emerged holding something unimaginable to the cheers of the onlookers. A legless beggar propelled himself across the road on a trolley and pawed at my trousers. I was told not to patronise the beggars because they were all controlled by racketeers. They bought and sold beggars like cattle – worse than cattle, for cows were sacred. They cut off arms and legs and got girls pregnant – they did anything that might excite greater pity from the public.

On Sunday I caught the ferry from Chandpol Ghat to the Botanical Gardens. Hundreds of people were bathing in the litter floating in the Hooghly, pushing aside marigold wreaths from funeral pyres and ducking underwater. When we docked hundreds of butterflies flew out to greet us, eclipsing the colourful Sunday saris for a moment. Everybody was happy. Circumambulating the Great Banyan Tree - a distance of four hundred and twenty paces - I reflected: somehow Kali’s City, this City of Destruction, had destroyed many of my illusions, prejudices and preconceptions. Everything I had heard or read about Calcutta was true, and yet, after five days, I was able to see through the shit to the soul. The filth, poverty and sickness were obvious but what was not so clear at first was an underlying lust for life, love and laughter. This city had affected me more than the Palaces of Rajasthan, the Red Fort of Agra or a full moon over the Taj Mahal. I would never forget it. “O quel cul t’as!”

K Sutton

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