Love and Pudding in Old Calcutta
Rather than let this become a tale of three cities, my narrative will proceed quickly to Benares, as quickly as I traveled.
It was 27 hours by train from Madras to Calcutta, and I thought to break this up by visiting a city halfway between in one of the states scarcely attended by tourists. The city I visited in Orissa is worth mentioning only once and in the following way: do not visit Bhubaneswar. It is interesting only because of the nearby Sun Temple, and the annoyance of the city’s rickshaw drivers, newly come down from a strike where they blocked all the roads and halted the city. At issue was the municipalities proposal of a few local city buses, which would have deprived them of business, and this in the context of a recent hike in gas prices to 50 rupees a gallon (and that’s more expensive than in the states).
I arrived there in the morning and left at night; another night asleep on a bunk on the train, and in the morning, Calcutta, the City of Joy! A place with a reputation that perhaps cultivated my own favorable impression. Ironically, we tend to enjoy things most when we go into them with low expectations and an open mind.
I exited the train station in a cheerful mood and took a ferry across the River Hooghly to the east bank. I meant to go to Babughat, but ended up at another one much further north, and so instead of arriving amid the old Victorian mansions debarked on a run-down neighborhood full of clay workshops making god statues. These began as anthropomorphic but headless figures, for the artists added the much more detailed heads added later, and finally painted the cast, set it on a log, and floated it out into the Hooghly. Some of these turned up on the paradise shores of the Andaman Islands, where the travelers wondered at them.
I wandered south from there along the wharf and got some breakfast from a stall that was handing out palm leaf plates to the poor. The buildings were gaily painted ramshackles. The asphalt of the road had rocks set in it, to keep it from melting around that time of year and that time of day, as it was noon and crushing hot. Turning east, I made for the main road and the metro station I knew to be nearby. It was actually very far away. Some young Indian heading in the same direction told me to follow him, and he walked ahead, blasting music from his headphones.
“This neighborhood very famous,” said my guide, turning back to me. I asked him, “For what?” He looked embarrassed and said, “Sex. It is bad neighborhood.” I looked around and noticed the sly alleyways, the promiscuous women hanging around one of the BP filling stations, and saw what he meant.
The metro was closed for Sunday, so I took a bus to Sudder Street, the travelers ghetto near the great green field of the maidan, where some gamble and some watch a dog spin around on a can and some play cricket and some play a game called kabadi, where the players hold hands and try to touch each other, lowering their heads and chanting, “Kabadi-kabadi-kabadi!” Anyway, I got a room at the Hotel Maria, which someone later described as “a field hospital.” Filthy walls, monastic accouterments, putrid bathrooms—but it was a traveler’s place, and the rest of Calcutta looked very fine, having been cleaned up substantially in the last two years. No Sacred Cows walk the street, and few beggars, and every morning the sweepers go up and down the gutter.
It is unfortunate that the City of Joy is known for Mother Theresa and for its poverty, which is much less than the rest of India. It is the city of the poet Tagore, the filmmaker Satyajit Ray, a city of art and culture and progress, and a colonial capital. It suffered under an influx of refugees from Bangladesh, first during the Partition and then during Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan. By the fluke of its population’s religion, all Bengal’s agricultural hinterland went to Bangladesh, and all it’s industry and its chief port, that is Calcutta, went to West Bengal and India. The city has learned to live without the country, which will still suffer from Jinnah’s greedy dream for decades to come.
On my first visit to Calcutta, I saw mostly its tourist ghetto. There are plenty of used bookstores and music shops with old vinyls and cassettes, plenty of rickshaw pullers hassling the tourists, and many guesthouses and rooftop terraces. The Western cafes on Sudder Street sell pancakes and burgers and fried chicken, but there’s little need for continental fare when sub-continental is so delicious.
Bengalis especially have a reputation for culinary excellence. Any average Hindi-speaker, visiting a produce stand, will take the first things that come under hand and pay somewhere close to the asking price. The Bengalis are reputed to be more particular. They squeeze-test each fruit, piling a small amount of choice items in the corner, and conclude their survey by saying, “I will pay this amount, no more.” You can get very good deals on produce if you speak Bengali to the merchant. Bengali food itself is sweet and spicy with lots of coconut and often river fish from the Hooghly or the Ganges Delta.
There are fine restaurants on all of Calcutta’s streets. Even the ones that cook chapathis on clay ovens full of red hot coal serve delicious fare, and a whole meal will cost 20 rupees. Pedestrian can get thalis at streetside picnic tables, and the vendors sell all sorts of things: shirts and padlocks and fake printings of books. The neighborhoods appear ancient. Trees sprout out the sides of the old colonial buildings, rotting in the tropical air. The upper floors may look similar to the century-old ones, in style and their state of degradation, but they are new additions—and severe fire hazards: one great blaze struck the nearby Park Street just a few days before I arrived. In the streets below, New York-style taxis vie with hand-pulled rickshaws for business.
Calcutta is, in short, a city that simultaneously occupies the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, in the paradoxical way that only comes about in India.
The Indian Museum is housed in the wings of a monstrous Victorian palace on the end of Sudder Street, and is organized in the way that museums used to be; that is, a collection of historical, geological, and fossilized flotsam and jetsam, arranged by era, genus, species, family, or whatever taxonomic category applies, into ancient wooden chests and cabinets, and hastily labeled with a mere name, I believe by the Brits that composed the collection, for specialists, with little in the way of elucidation for the general public.
Little has changed since John Anderson organized the zoological and anthropological sections around the time of Abraham Lincoln. There remain, especially in the upper floor, rooms full of cabinets with thousands of mollusks or rocks or types of fabric. Antlered skulls and stuffed birds line the walls, the trophies of some British hunting expeditions. There are Egyptian artifacts, Maryan statues, Bihar bronzes, a whale skeleton from some maharaja’s palace, a full glyptodon, and several mastodon skulls.
I was sitting on a bench on the Museum's second floor and a young Indian in a blue silk shirt and colorful party hat sat next to me. "Which country?" he asked, along with the other standard questions: "How old? Married?" and I told him all these things and found out that he was 25 and also unmarried and here with his family. "You are very handsome," said the Indian.
"Hey, well, thanks man," I said, thinking this no more than the pseudo-gay manner of most Indian men—and incorrectly!
"Did you hear me?" asked the Indian, "I said you are handsome." I told him that was very flattering, and he added, "I think you are very sexy," and, "Can I kiss you?"
"What? No, sorry man, but we're not going to kiss."
"I want to kiss you. Hey, you come to the bathroom," and he kind of nudged me.
"I'm not going to do that."
"Come to the bathroom," and he leaned too close and whispered, "I want to kiss your penis."
"Well, you can't. Sorry man, but I like girls, you know, so I don't think it will work out between us. I'm really flattered and all. I mean, it's really confident of you to just ask me. That's pretty cool. But I don't roll that way, and I'm not going to go to the bathroom."
He followed me around for a while, saying, "Hey," and informed me several times of the most direct route to the bathrooms, and once he grabbed my ass; but eventually he was discouraged and left, I suppose to find his family.
Visiting the great marble palace of the Victoria Memorial, or rather its surrounding gardens, was an altogether more comforting experience. Indian lovers nestle under every bower, displaying their affection with the innocent and timid tenderness that is permitted to them, as gangs of grim young men swagger about, staring with envy at the spectacle of romance, and often holding hands with each other in the manner of the love-starved Indians.
Yet the highlight of my visit to Calcutta was surely a small restaurant called Khalsa, just around a corner from Sudder Street, that served rice pudding! Many Indian menus include it, but serve it hot like porridge and not cold as God meant it to be, as I had not had it since leaving Cairo. Not Khalsa! Their kheer was a Punjabi delicacy, served cold and sweet, with cashews and grapes or raisins mixed in. I savored it after my meal and thanked the owner profusely, that venerable old Sikh with a huge gray beard and a baritone voice. As I sauntered back down Sudder Street, picking my teeth, I saw the Swedes Morris and Tora coming the opposite direction and immediately informed them of my discovery, thereby winning an excuse for a second trencher of the Khalsa kheer.
The next day I returned for more (and some fine chicken korma), and nearly missed my train because of it.