Friday, February 05, 2010

Calcutta: the Great Unwashed

Hi, everyone. I'm too freaked out by all the blank space and white bread to write much now that I'm back in the States. So I am resorting to re-runs.

This blog originally appeared as a Lonely Planet "Don't Forget to Write" entry in December, 2003.
It was one of several entries I wrote about Calcutta, so don't flip on me if I left something out.

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 Calcutta see the Kali Pujas (Oct 25-28, 2003), decided to stay a few days to volunteer at Mother Theresa'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 was a SNAFU with my usually trusty email account.

Mother Teresa's home for mentally handicapped kids (Shishu Bhavan) 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 Teresa has been added to the local pantheon of saints and deities. The ferocious Kali Ma stares you down from nearly every street-corner shrine, alternating with Durga, who smiles benignly while spearing a demon. Amidst what must have seemed pagan idolatry to her, Therese's wrinkled walnut of a face has earned an enduring place of honour.

The city has been awash with activity honoring her recent beatification; everything from a Mother Teresa 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, and not quite appropriately, 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 actual streets, or prevent your plane from departing due to poor visibility, and 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.

Recommended in Calcutta:
Kolkata Film Festival
Victoria Memorial including the Calcutta History Museum
Dakshineswar Kali Temple
Park Street British Cemetery
Howrah Bridge at dusk
Asiatic Society Museum
(no admission for foreigners without passport)
Indian Museum on Chowringhee (Nehru) Street

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