CALCUTTA THEN, KOLKATA NOW
I am doing a risky thing. I am revisiting Calcutta (Kolkata as it's now called) - a city where I was once a little girl living with my parents and my sister in the long vanished world of Raj. So now, after all these years, will my childhood memories of the city I loved be shattered? If I'm to believe ex-Calcuttans who have returned on visits, the city is a sweltering hellhole of teeming crowds, beggars, crumbling tenements and overflowing garbage heaps.
Their warning comes back to me on my drive from Howrah Station to my hotel on Middleton Row. We hit the Bow Bazaar area plunging into a pandemonium of buses, trucks, cars, hand-pulled rickshaws, animals and pedestrians and I have to roll up the taxi windows against billowing clouds of diesel fumes. I am, however, glad to see that the Calcutta trams, which once resembled battered biscuit tins on wheels, have been modernized and jazzed up with bright yellow paint and eye-catching ads.
I study a map of the city the next morning. In a burst of nationalistic fervor, many street names have been changed, but it takes more than a cartographer's pen to wipe out three-hundred years of history; so for me, this is as much a journey into colonial India's past, as it is through my own childhood years in the city.
Calcutta (before it became "Kolkata") was, for over two centuries, the domain of the East India Company which established its richly profitable commercial base here in the mid-1700s. After the British Crown gained dominion over the sub-continent in 1858, the city assumed the mantle of the nation's capital. Much of that history lives on in Kolkata's architectural heritage.
With that in mind, I head over to St. John's Anglican Church to pay tribute to a man without whom Calcutta would not have come into existence at all. Job Charnock, the founder of Calcutta in the 17th Century, rests here along with his Indian wife in an impressive mausoleum.
Not far from St. John's is a red brick building, appropriately called "Writers Building" where the Company's clerks, known as "writers" laboured under punkhas (cloth fans attached to rods and suspended from the ceiling) pulled back and forth by coolies. Today it is the West Bengal Secretariat and clerks, known as babus, still process Government files tied up (literally!) in red tape!
Around the corner is Raj Bhavan, a dazzling white domed structure set among orderly lawns and flower beds, which was once Britain's Governor-General's residence, and which is now the address of the Governor of West Bengal.
Probably the most iconic examples of Calcutta's colonial architecture is the imposing Victoria Memorial. Situated at the south end of the Maidan (a 400 ha. field) it is a massive marble-domed building embellished with statuary and exquisite bas-relief artwork.
I walk up the broad gravel driveway, breathe in the scent of marigold flowers, and pause to listen to the plaintive call of the Indian Koel bird—a nostalgic sound that takes me back to childhood—wafting across the lawns. To the left of the lofty entrance hall, is an air conditioned wing where I spend a couple of hours absorbed in a magnificent display of paintings, photographs, articles and memorabilia spanning the city's 300-year old history.
St. Paul's Cathedral across from the Victoria Memorial is eerily reminiscent of England's Canterbury cathedral. Memorial tablets along the walls pay tribute to the lives and careers of British army officers and administrators who once worshipped here. This is where we would attend Easter and Christmas services, and as I stand here now, touching the familiar carved wooden pews, looking at the altar at the far end of the long nave and the Cathedral's magnificent stained windows, the present and past merge into the moment.
Among other reminders of Calcutta's past, are the graves at the Park Street Cemetery with headstone inscriptions going back to the 1700s. Among other notables, William Makepeace Thackery's father rests here, and tucked to one side, I find a half-obliterated memorial stone marking the death of Lieutenant Walter Landor Dickens, a son of Charles Dickens.
Despite its colonial overtones, however, today's Kolkata is very much a contemporary Indian city. Its cultural heritage is rich in music, theatre, dance, literature and art. It has counted among its citizens the likes of Satyajit Ray, internationally acclaimed filmmaker and writer and Rabindranath Tajore, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. Theatrical dance/drama performances take place regularly throughout the city, and the India Coffee House near the University is where Bengali scholars, poets and writers hold forth with passionate loquacity on subjects ranging from radical political theories, to abstruse philosophical speculation.
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IF YOU GO: Information: http://goindia.about.com/od/cityprofiles/p/kolkata-profile.htm http://www.kolkata-online.com/kolkata.html
PHOTOS by Margaret Deefholts
1. A street view of Kolkata's Raj Bhavan (previously known as Government House)
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