Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Calcutta: The Great Unwashed

Cal Calling
India has a genius for complicating things, and I'm not exactly straightforward and clutter-free myself to begin with.

Your faithful correspondent came North to see the Kali Pujas (Oct 25-28), decided to stay a few days to volunteer at Mother Therese's homes, and, as though in reward for this altruistic decision, promptly got deathly ill - a very nasty 6-day bout with diarrhea, cramps, indigestion, nausea etc and had to resort to a short round of antibiotics.

To further complicate things, when I became well enough to stagger past the ever-present gauntlet of Calcutta's professional beggars down to the local net joint, I found there is a SNAFU with my usually trusty email account.

Mother Therese's home for mentally handicapped kids was pretty amazing and unexpectedly fun, if you can ignore the smell of antiseptic floor wash (barely masking that of urine and feces). You should see the way these kids, many of whom are autistic or worse, light up when you just strum a few chords on a beat up old guitar and sing "Old MacDonald."

Calcutta - (India's second largest city, which in terms of sheer numbers, is quite a statement) is simultaneously the most medieval and most modern place I've yet visited here. Where else in the world can you take a *foot* rickshaw (yes, with huge wooden spoke wheels and a snowy-bearded barefoot man trundling you along the street) - a foot rickshaw, past limbless beggars and snarling street dogs, to the gleaming, punctual, immaculate, safe, uncrowded, *air-conditioned*(!) Metro station?!

In the Indian tradition of religious assimilation, Mother Therese has been added to the local pantheon of street-corner saints and deities. The ferocious Kali Ma leers at you from nearly every streetcorner shrine, alternating with Durga, who smiles benignly while spearing a demon. Amidst what must have seemed pagan idolatry to her, Therese's walnut face has earned an enduring place of honour. The city has been awash with activity honoring her recent beatification; everything from a film festival (mostly documentaries and one docudrama starring Geraldine Chaplin), a ceremony for the first official veneration of her relics (including a few drops of blood - don't even want to know how they acquired that), and various cultural ceremonies, mostly featuring acoustic guitar renditions of "Amazing Grace" sung in Bengali.

Park Street - the hip, happening yuppie street with all the bars, trendy shops and nightclubs - has officially been dubbed Mother Therese Avenue. Calcutta municipal corporation seems to have a real sense of humour in this area; in the midst of a somewhat perverse PC renaming orgy, they also rechristened Calcutta's most commercial thoroughfare "Lenin Street." The US and British consulates both reside on what's now called "Ho Chi Minh Avenue." (I'm not sure what significance, if any, to read into the fact that these names appear only on maps and signs, but never in the local parlance.)

The post-colonial purport behind this nomme-nouveau frenzy (which seems to have primarily benefited the sign-painters and map printers) strangely didn't stop several streets from being renamed with, of all things, *British* names. Thus the former Theatre Road, rather than being named after a worthy Bengali playwright, of which there are many, became "Shakespeare Sarani." Another street, albeit a small one, swapped the decidedly British "Middleton Row" for the equally Limey "Sir William Jones Sarani." And one can only wonder what nationalist purpose was served by giving the name "James Hickey Sarani" to the former Dacres Lane.

I've found it surprisingly difficult to leave Calcutta, described by...well, some old writer whose name escapes me as being composed of "new mud, old mud and more mud." repetitive but accurate. Weather here, which was monsoon marsh and dripping humidity upon my arrival, has greatly improved, as has my health. Give Calcutta a chance to first entrap you with its bewildering network of former cowpaths impersonating as actual streets, or prevent your plane from departing due to poor visibility, amd you'll find it eventually ensnares you with its unique charm - a sort of "creme de la grime." It ranks with Rome as an eternal, infernal city.