I recently spent a month in the Indian city of Kolkata, or Calcutta as it was once known, where I co-ran a training course. I didn’t know what to expect when I boarded the Kolkata-bound plane. I’d previously worked in Delhi and Hyderabad, while all the images of booming hi-tech modern-day India that I had in my head – skyscrapers, call-centres, Slumdog Millionaire, etc. – seemed to originate in Mumbai or Bangalore. On the other hand, Kolkata / Calcutta was an unknown quantity to me.
Well, not quite unknown. For British people – my age, at least – there are a few things that the old name ‘Calcutta’ conjures up. Firstly, there’s the dark and tragic (and possibly exaggerated) tale of the Black Hole of Calcutta. Supposedly in 1756 the Nawab of Bengal captured the British fort in Calcutta, Fort William, which protected the interests of the East India Company; and he promptly flung 146 British and Anglo-Indian prisoners into a miniscule 14 x 18-foot dungeon. Of these, all but 23 died of suffocation, heat, crushing and shock. The veracity of the story, which was related by a survivor called John Zephaniah Holwell, has since been questioned and disputed, but at the time it was enough to make Robert Clive retaliate later in the year and defeat the Nawab at the Battle of Plassey.
Also, of course, Calcutta was known to me because it was the long-term base for the Macedonian religious sister and missionary Mother Teresa of Calcutta, founder of the Missionaries of Charity organisation. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and beatified by the Catholic Church six years after her death in 1997, Mother Teresa remains a controversial figure – accused by her detractors of unthinkingly perpetuating the destitution, illness and misery that her hostels had been set up to deal with. One sure thing is that Mother Teresa’s constant presence in the news during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s made Calcutta synonymous in many people’s minds with severe poverty.
I suppose I should mention one other Calcutta-connotation I was aware of in my youth – especially as it’s inspired the title for this blog-entry. Oh Calcutta was a theatrical revue, notorious in its day for its rampant nudity and sexual themes, masterminded by legendary British theatre critic Kenneth Tynan and featuring sketches written by, among others, John Lennon, Jules Pfeiffer, Edna O’Brien and briefly (before he had his sketch withdrawn) Samuel Beckett. Despite, or probably because of, the controversy it notched up nearly 4000 performances in London after it debuted there in 1970. But why did Calcutta feature in the title of this saucy revue? Well, apparently, Oh Calcutta is a pun on the French expression oh quel cul t’as, which means, “Oh, what a bum you have!” Though I’ve never heard anyone use that expression when I’ve been hanging out with French friends and acquaintances. (That may be, however, a reflection on the unremarkable state of my bum.)
Anyway, when I arrived in Kolkata, I found the place immensely appealing. Interspersed among the fancy new apartment buildings, banks, chain stores, boutiques, shopping malls and modern cultural centres that you’d associate with 21st-century India were a surprising number of old colonial-era buildings. These were often crumbling, grimy and dilapidated and were possibly not much fun to live inside, but their continuing presence gave Kolkata a lot of character. It was particularly atmospheric to walk amid this architecture after dark. No doubt most of the old stuff will be gone in another decade or two as Kolkata continues to renew itself and no doubt most local people will applaud that – and good luck to them – but I was glad to have had a chance to see the city like this when I did.
One of these venerable buildings contained the hotel – and a good many other premises besides – in which I stayed for the month. I’m glad I was warned by my employers beforehand not to be put off by the place’s external appearance, because I would have been slightly alarmed otherwise when, at 6.15 in the morning (after a night flight), a car dropped me off outside a huge, hulking and decrepit-looking structure. Much of its façade was covered by a brace of rickety wooden scaffolding and festooned with dusty, ragged sheets of canvas. Elsewhere, I spotted a few thin, twisty trees growing from the masonry around the drainpipes a couple of storeys up.
On the right of the lobby as you came through the entrance door was an incredible, chaotic mass of exposed electrical cables and wires, coiling and tangling around a dozen or more fuse-boxes and electricity-meters. A wooden staircase with a chipped and scratched banister and a scuffed and holed strip of matting went climbing up a stairwell; while access to higher floors was also provided by a cramped and creaky lift with two sets of metal accordion doors – the inner one on the lift itself, the outer one on the landing of each floor – that looked like something you’d see in a 1940s film noir starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
And yet, the hotel – on the building’s second floor – proved to be, the moment I crossed its threshold from the landing, utterly charming. Actually, the whole building, which was in the middle of undergoing restoration work, was charming too, though in a dusty, down-at-heels way. Tourists just shouldn’t book accommodation there expecting the place to be like the Hilton.
One strong impression I got from my month in Kolkata was that it was a very cultural and artistic city. This impression may have been due to where I ended up staying and working. The hotel I was in, you see, was called the Harrington Street Gallery and, yes, it doubled as an art gallery. In fact, there were only a couple of guest-rooms, which were so big and airy that I suspect they’d served as exhibition spaces in a previous incarnation. The rest of the premises still functioned as a gallery and it wasn’t unusual to return there at the end of a workday and find it overrun with wandering art-lovers, art-experts and art-buyers. On one occasion, a person blundered into my room while I was in it (in a partial state of undress), expecting to find more works of art to look at – and was understandably shocked to discover that the only artwork on display was myself.
Another building that served as an art gallery – in addition to being a number of other things – was the Rabindranath Tagore Centre next door. This was where the training course I was working on took place. The remarkable Tagore was a Bengali poet, novelist, essayist and playwright and became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. He was also a prolific composer and a painter, although he didn’t take up painting until he was 60. And he was a famous Indian nationalist and anti-imperialist who turned down the offer of a knighthood and, on one occasion, came close to being assassinated.
A bust of this almost-superhuman polymath stood in the middle of the building’s lobby. Meanwhile, looming up on either side of it were statues of two Hindu deities that seemed to have been entirely fashioned out of scrap metal, so that instead of having hydras of arms sprouting from their sides they radiated a dozen rusty-brown metal pipes.
With surroundings like these, then, I knew immediately that this work assignment was going to be a little out of the ordinary. Stand by for more Kolkata-related blog entries in the days to come.