Some kind of bizarre paradox
29 November 2007
I’m now in Calcutta, and have been here for a week, give or take. What can I say about it that hasn’t already been said a million times? It is as full of people as you can imagine, but somehow keeps flowing, and other than evidence of rioting (the day before I arrived, something to do with the author Taslima Nasreen), there is seemingly no aggression, and it is far less bother than I imagined. The streets are full of little shops which seem to be built in cupboards in the walls – and they contain everything. 50cm up off the roadsurface (for when the monsoons come), you can
find a tailor, a fruit juice stand, general grocer, chemist, material shop, mobile phone shop, travel agent, shoe shop all within about 10 metres.
Calcutta’s buildings are big and were once grand – it still shows aging signs of it’s colonial past, and the streets are still washed, every so often, but the buildings seem empty. I’m sure they’re not, they just give that impression, broken windows, peeling and cracking facades…it’s on the street that life happens… People live on the street. They sleep on the street, they eat breakfast, lunch and tea, wash, shave, have haircuts, laugh, play, cry, piss, shit, and presumably have sex, give birth and die on the streets.
Walking over the bridge to the flower market I nearly stepped on a bundle on the path. My brain managed to make my foot move at the last minute, and as I
focussed I saw two tiny babies, laid out for a nap on a bit of rag, one of them couldn’t have been more than a few days old.
Even people who have homes eat at roadside stalls, and the welcome is warm and they are scrupulously honest.
Breakfast today cost me 6 rupees and then I sketched the boy who served me, and an old man chatting to him, ex-army, who then offered me another cup of tea..It’s
humbling. I have tried all forms of transport possible except horse and cart so far, and mostly they have been friendly and relatively efficient. The less it costs,the more they try to be helpful. Calcutta is some kind of bizarre paradox. The metro, quite frankly, is better than bits of the London Underground.
I have visited the Victoria Memorial and seen paintings done by artists who ‘travelled up the Ganges sketching and painting as they went’, so I’m not even being original…
I also visited St Paul’s Cathedral, where my great (x4) Grandfather (for those of you who don’t know) was Bishop and laid the foundation stone. The present bishop was sadly not there, but the Sunday morning Sung Eucharist vicar ( a fine tenor voice) gave me permission to take photos of the inscriptions and the interior of the cathedral, which is otherwise not allowed. The service was very Church of England, and the sermon started with some mention of Jesus Christ Superstar, but I lost the rest as the birds flying around inside made too much noise.
India seems more solid than Bangladesh. I can’t be sure if this is just my state of mind, but the buildings seem as if they could last another couple of hundred years at least, and the taxis and buses seem as if they have been here for that long. Bangladesh, especially since last week (I begin to think that the figures were not exaggerated, but India isn’t much interested) seems incredibly fragile. Calcutta’s
yellow taxis roar like tigers down the wide roads, its blue buses thunder like elephants with their loud, trumpeting ‘Tata!’. Bangladesh’s rickshaws twittered
like birds, but you felt at any moment that the whole lot could be swept away by a gust of wind….
My love to you all, wherever you are. And the blessings of all the many and varied gods and religions that I cannot possibly keep up with here.