You can see some photos from Kolkata here
Bangladesh in the heat almost clings to you, is impossible to wash off or escape from. So I can barely believe that it was a month ago now that Tom, Georgia and I made a little getaway to Kolkata for the weekend. It’s only about 150 miles away from Dhaka, was part of the same Empire until 60 years ago, and predominantly is made up of Bengali people – but it was like being in a different world.
We went on an overnight bus because it only cost six quid, but it did mean I had to suffer the nightmare scenario of following Spurs’ exit from the UEFA Cup via text message, standing on the top of a ferry at 3am in the morning – not the best way to begin a holiday. We reached the border around dawn, and then had to get off the bus and travel the last two miles along a perfectly good road by rickshaw, for no logical reason. Before I came to Bangladesh I would have thought this was nuts, but now nonsense makes perfect sense. We passed truck after truck transporting fruits and textiles and rice in to India, as Benapole is the major land-crossing between the two countries.
In the distance down the queue lay a huge iron set of gates and big trees, and genuinely grass that was lusher and greener, trees that were bigger. We had three hours of waiting and form-filling to do first, but eventually we had the last pointless, un-recorded document stamped and made it across. We were tired, but tired in India. Couldn’t help but smile.
Another couple of hours on the bus later we rolled in to the middle of Kolkata. I didn’t know where we were, as we had no map, but the street was non-descript and fairly crowded. It was hot, it looked much like Bangladesh. But it felt different. We gradually found our bearings and a nice little hotel, and began to explore. First you realise it’s quiet. Then you notice that there’s no horrible smell. Then you notice that no-one else is noticing you; you’re not an attraction to stare at. And then we walked out on to a main road, came face to face with a huge landscaped park and an enormous white columned English building, and all the tiredness leapt away; we were in a real city.
A poorly researched history: When the British came to South Asia, they settled on Bengal as a decent spot, and in 1690 created Calcutta as a trading outpost, buying off the Mughals of Central India and the Nawabs of Bengal. And then the Brits started making mountains of money. To protect their interests against the constantly fighting native population, the British built a huge fort, and as people flocked to it for stability, protection and economic opportunities the British expanded Calcutta and began designing a grand city as the population kept on growing. Indian Princes were initially content at being bought off by the Europeans, but as they realised they weren’t getting their due they started making life a bit less jolly, and by 1857 after the failed Sepoy Revolt the British government took full control.
All the while, to the East a little market town called Dhaka existed, but nothing much happened there.
Calcutta on the other hand was the capital of the British Raj, and the government invested heavily in creating lavish, grand buildings, large parks, a logical, expansive public transport network and even had a dashingly clever idea of building the sewage system underground. I say, full marks, what?
As time progressed the population exploded, gross inequalities became unsustainable, the British were kicked out of India, the capital moved to Delhi, and Calcutta has evolved in to a huge bustling
Bengal megalopolis. But the colonial heritage still remains, and in my opinion is greatly to the benefit of Kolkata. Just to be somewhere with a history, with culture and architecture that goes back more than fifty years was an aesthetic delight after Bangladesh, where nearly all the infrastructure is modern, cheap, functional and ugly.
Kolkata was crowded, as there must be nearly 20 million people there, but it felt bustling rather than chaotic. There were trees, rubbish bins for litter which were actually used (the only things clean in
Dhaka are the rubbish bins), traffic lights which worked, and were even obeyed. Tom and I were sitting in a taxi waiting at the lights, an open road in front of us and both of us recognised this as an impossible scenario in the Desh. Kolkata had lane markings on the roads. Taxi drivers queue up at ranks waiting for a fare, rather than hurtling straight for you and demanding your custom in exchange for not running you over. And they put it on the meter. Kolkata was quiet, as people don’t use their car-horns as if it’s a pacemaker. We kept on getting in trouble for walking in the roads, as we’d forgotten that some cities have pavements. The British had landscaped a lavish maidan right in the heart of the city to offer respite, and it’s still meticulously maintained, whereas in Bangladesh nearly every urban open space is either developed on or becomes a rubbish tip.
So we were very happy in Kolkata. In the middle of the city is the Victoria memorial, which was simply breath-taking in its scale, beauty and arrogance. Most celebrated leaders have their tributes in their own countries; Lincoln for example, but for the British to build an enormous marble edifice thousands of miles away just stinks of grandiosity. Stalin’s Palace of Culture in the middle of Warsaw previously took my prize as the biggest imperial penis extension, but the Victoria memorial now pips it. Today it’s host to a very informative museum about Kolkata’s history, but even though in some ways I think it’s awful to have this huge reminder of Colonial domination, it also must be acknowledged as a valid aspect of not just the history but the present of India.
More tastefully, we also went across to St Paul’s Cathedral, which had been rebuilt in the twentieth century after a fire but closely resembles the Palace of Westminster. There were many churches in Kolkata, and it was very strange to occasionally hear bells ringing out across the city, rather than just the Azan (muslim call to prayer).
We visited Jain temples, which were small in area but vast in terms of intricate decorations and passionate devotion. We went to Mother Theresa’s mission, which was humbling in its simplicity. We visited markets which were essentially the same as any other Bengali markets, although again, we could walk around without being harassed which almost made me feel unsettled, as if our star quality had eroded. And we poked around a marble palace, a huge stately home situated in the middle of town, enclosed by modern poverty outside its walls, yet sheltered by an English country garden on the inside.
The palace exterior was a little decaying and dilapidated, but it effused wealth and history and power and the Raj, essentially. We weren’t allowed to take photos but were given a tour by an old guard, and each room, once he’d cranked up big switches and got the electricity going, through a layer of dust sat so much money I was absolutely astonished. The family who owned it had invested in treasures from around the world, a huge rosewood statue of Victoria here, a set of Ming vases there, a Rubens on the wall over there, just above the French renaissance cabinet…All the rooms bar the ballroom were wall to wall Italian marble, hence the name of the mansion, and there was a large inner courtyard to the house which was simply exquisite. There’s no other word for it.
Through my events work in England, I’ve seen some pretty rich homes, but nothing compared to that. To achieve that level of wealth today would require billions, not millions, and the palace just sits there now in the middle of the city, crumbling away yet still full not just of magnificent objects, but also memories. Gauche as it is today to have such foreign splendour, I also think that it’s no longer a symbol of ostentatious wealth, but also a fabulous reminder of the world’s riches. And the fact that it’s still allowed to stand and hasn’t been bought off, renovated or demolished makes it a credit to the city.
Best of all for me, we went over to the Botanical Garden and saw the Great Banyan Tree. Over 240 years old, it had grown up and out and up and out and eventually roots from the branches had sprouted, dropped down and took hold in the soil beneath. Over time these ‘aerial roots’ had allowed the tree to continue to grow. And so after 240 years, the tree now covered an area bigger than a cricket pitch. The original trunk was removed in 1925, but the tree is in full health, and resembles now a large dense wood, with nearly 3000 aerial roots locking together in to a vast canopy. When you realise it’s actually just one tree, the effect is breath-taking. The Banyan tree is just one of those masterpieces of nature that a million microchips could never reproduce, and we spent a good twenty minutes just walking around it’s circumference and gazing in wonder and admiration.
We did all these activities powered by beer. And pork, although there’s still a large Muslim population. And Chinese food cooked by Chinese people. Even the Bengali food tasted better, more succulent. There was a McDonalds in the centre of town, which had a large queue constantly outside it, but it was also opposite a fantastic little pastry shop called ‘Flurries’, that boasted of being around for five generations, had an interior straight out of the 1920s, and served delicious Darjeeling tea along with your full English.
On the down-side, Kolkata has a lot more beggars than you get in Bangladesh, and they all live on the pavements which in Bangladesh is very rare. But Kolkata had a lot more wealth also, and an air of sophistication which eludes me here across the border.
Basically it felt to me as if this is what a proper South Asian city should be like; hot, busy, crowded and distinctly South Asian in the sights and smells and tastes. But a functioning city none-the-less, a city that has history and traditions and a public transport system and parks and social spaces, different cultures interacting with each other. And there was definitely a sense of civic pride in Kolkata, and a certain arrogance and self-importance, which would be a hangover from the British, I guess.
Whereas in Dhaka, part of the same Empire and same region, nothing special happened there until Partition and it suddenly became the capital of East Pakistan, and later Bangladesh. There’s almost no sense of colonial legacy at all other than the main court-house, and whilst Dhaka has exploded in population since 1971, to match Kolkata, it’s never had a similar level of planning, investment, or sense of pride I think, and it shows. Dhaka is what happens when 15 million people all move to the same small town with no-one in charge. Kolkata is what happens when you mix the world’s wealth of cultures and passions together. It’s not always pretty, but it feels good.