Miscellaneous Kolkata

 

 

Kolkata is now indelibly linked in my mind with chess.

 

One reason for this is because of the tomb of Sir William Jones – pictured above – which stands in the city’s crumbling but atmospheric South Park Street Cemetery and which I mentioned in a blog-post a few months ago.  I described Jones then as “an 18th-century Anglo-Welsh polymath who was a scholar of all things Indian, a co-founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and a political radical who championed the American Revolution.  In addition, he was both a philogist – i.e. someone who studied languages in their historical and written forms – and a hyperglot who, before he died at the age of 47, was reputed to speak 13 languages fluently and communicate reasonably well in 28 more.”

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=5135

 

What’s more, Jones was – at least in his youth – something of a poet and at the age of 17 he wrote a poem, in Latin, called Caissa.  This was about the mythological Thracian dryad of the same name and it helped to popularise her as being the patron goddess of the game of chess.  (Come to think of it, Jones’s tomb looks like an eccentrically-shaped chess-piece itself.)  So I’d like to imagine that, after winning a particularly arduous game at the chequered board, Garry Kasparov slumps back in his chair, wipes the sweat from his brow and whispers gratefully, “Thank you, Caissa!”

 

There’s even an online chess-game server at www.cassia.com.  The site’s name is Caissa’s Web.

 

 

By a coincidence, during the last few days that I worked in the city, at its Rabindranath Tagore Centre, the floor below the one where I was based played host to the Kolkata International Grandmasters Chess Tournament.  The training course I was involved in co-existed peacefully with the tournament downstairs until the course’s final day.  Then a training activity that required all the course participants  to get up, move around the room and talk volubly to other participants generated so much noise that someone soon came running up from the tournament to beg us to sit down and be quiet.  The noise was putting the chess-players off their game.  Evidently, on this occasion, divine help from Caissa was not forthcoming.

 

Anyway, just before I finish my series of Kolkata blog-posts, here are a few other snippets about the city.

 

One day I was wandering along an inauspicious street, full of inauspicious shops, a little way from New Market when I spotted this plinth and bust at the street’s side.  An indication that Indira Gandhi might be long gone in India but she isn’t forgotten.

 

 

Meanwhile, on a road behind the restaurant-and-bar-populated Park Street, I happened across a building that’s home to the city’s branch of the Iran Society.  Oddly, its presence in Kolkata seems to be a legacy of the British Empire, because the Iran Society was set up in 1935 “to spread knowledge and understanding of Persian culture in the UK and thus to contribute to Anglo-Iranian understanding and friendship.”  The photo I took doesn’t do justice to the handsomeness of the society’s building, especially not to the fetching row of arched, multi-paned windows along the first floor of its façade, which are rimmed with green, blue, red and white glass.

 

 

Meanwhile, at an entrance leading off Park Street itself, I discovered a gatepost with the following sign attached to it: “Bengal Freemasons’ Trust Association, Freemasons’ Hall, 19 Park Street, District Grand Lodge of Bengal.”  Yes!  It’s the Masons!  The bowler-hatted, apron-wearing, compass-wielding, funny-handshaking members of this fairly-secretive society get everywhere.  And no doubt their presence in Kolkata is another legacy of the British Empire.

 

 

And finally, here’s a picture of a tree growing on top of a house.  Not a treehouse, but a house-tree.  Just one of many reasons why, by the end of my time in Kolkata, I think I had fallen in love with the place.

 

 

Kolkata’s Kalighat Temple

 

 

I might not have gone near Kolkata’s Kalighat Temple at all if I’d read some of the comments about it on www.tripadvisor.com beforehand.  “Horrible,” laments one past visitor.  “Priests harass you and fleece you…  Inside, cleanliness is not a priority and money decides how fast you are in and out!”  Another thunders that a “(v)isit to Kalighat Temple is a shame in the name of religion.  Home to one of the most revered gods of Hindus, Goddess Kali, this place is one of the most corrupt and mismanaged…  The pandits are more like touts than priests.  They are a shame to the temple and should be slaughtered right in front of the goddess herself.”   A third writes despairingly, “Infested with thugs… who will start harassing you as soon as you are 200 metres near the temple…  Please stay away.”  And there are horror stories about people being pickpocketed, being threatened, being overcharged and – when they refused to pay up – being insulted and sworn at, even in the supposed sanctity of the temple’s main shrine-hall.

 

I’ve noticed that most of these comments have been posted by Indians, well-to-do Indians from the look of the pictures accompanying them.  When I was at the temple, I had a few people sniffing about me in the hope of making a little cash, but it was nowhere near the scale of the scary tales on www.tripadvisor.com.  I’ve certainly experienced worse hassle elsewhere.  Maybe for once my foreignness offered protection.  I saw a few Westerners wandering the temple grounds who bore the full, unashamed ‘backpacker’ look – i.e. their clothes appeared not to have seen a washing machine for a long time and they themselves appeared not to have seen a bath for a long time either; and they generally gave the impression that they didn’t have two rupees to rub together.  Maybe the priests and pandits – a pandit is a Brahmin scholar, although around this temple the only thing the pandits seem scholarly in is how to fleece people – have reasoned that if all foreigners are as poor as these ones obviously are, then they aren’t worth hassling.  Better to target those comfortably well-off Indians instead.

 

Predictably, around the temple compound and along the street heading towards the local Metro station, there are a vast number of souvenir stalls laden with mementoes of Kali, the goddess whose image dominates the temple’s shrine-hall and who’s surely the most formidable figure in the pantheon of Hindu deities.  Mind you, in one stall, I noticed dangling amid the Kali-esque wares a plastic bag containing a plastic cricketing set – proof that even in the holiest of Indian places, thoughts are never far away from the national sport.

 

 

I also saw a row of carriages, tilted forward and propped on their front poles.  These were ‘pulled’ rickshaws.  Their operators don’t even have the luxury of a bicycle to sit on and pedal – they just struggle along on foot, towing carriages and passengers behind them.  According to Wikipedia, “(t)he pullers live a life of poverty and many sleep under the rickshaws.  Rudrangshu Mukerjee, an academic, stated many people’s ambivalent feelings about riding a rickshaw; he does not like being carried around in a rickshaw but does not like the idea of ‘taking away their livelihood’.”  That was the attitude of several Indians I talked to – they didn’t like what the pullers do, but at the same time they didn’t want to deprive them of business by not using them.

 

 

At the temple-compound, a long queue of people waiting to enter the main temple-building extended back through a gateway in the wall and out among the souvenir stalls.  I managed to blag my way into the compound and spent the next half-an-hour mooching around, looking at stuff, without trying to enter the temple-building itself.  It was difficult to escape from the sun, which by then, midday, was directly overhead.  Every scrap of shade cast by a piece of roofing or a parasol had people crowded onto it.  Occasionally a PA system would cough into life and a shrill voice would spend a minute or two yelling about something-or-other.  So frantic was the voice that I wondered if its intention was to get the queuing multitude suitably psyched up before they had their appointment with Kali.

 

Along one terrace men sat making chains of red paper hibiscuses – Kali’s symbolic flower – and were flogging them off to passing worshippers.  Darker in purpose was a tiled area occupying an opposite corner, where men who were either stripped to the waist or wearing vests polka-dotted with blood were at work.  Here, sacrificial offerings at the temple were slaughtered.  Looking in there, I saw a dais with a pile of severed goats’ legs arranged neatly on top of it, while an oozing heap of goats’ entrails lay beside the dais’s base.  No wonder half-a-dozen dogs were circling, eager to scavenge.

 

The compound was chaotic and messy.  Beggars crouched in various nooks and crannies and pedlars harried the queuing worshippers, trying to sell them flowers.  And the offerings that people made to Kali didn’t seem to last long before they ended up in the garbage.  I saw a wheelbarrow crammed full of pulverised flowers parked in a corner.  A ledge running along an outside wall of the temple bore, for a time, a stubble of smouldering incense sticks left by the visitors.  Then a temple workman ambled along with a broom and disdainfully swept them all off the ledge.

 

 

Rising above the confusion, the temple-building was a two-tiered structure, each tier curved – almost breast-like – and bordered with bright, arcing lines of green, yellow and red.  Its vertical surfaces were tiled.  The queue snaked up some stairs on one side of it, while folk who’d attended the shrine inside were constantly being disgorged down some stairs on the other side.  I finally decided I would like to look inside it but without spending an eternity in the queue.  So I resolved to take advantage of one of the touts who’d been occasionally been pestering me with offers to, for a fee, ‘fast-track’ me through the temple and give me an abbreviated version of the ‘Kali experience’.  When the next tout, a shifty-looking wee guy, approached me, I found he was willing to take me through the building for 200 rupees.

 

First, I had to remove my shoes and socks.  However, I didn’t fancy taking my chaperon’s advice and leaving them on a ledge outside.  I had a feeling that when I returned to that ledge later, shoes and socks would be gone, kidnapped, and there’d be a ransom to pay.  Luckily, I was carrying a shoulder bag and I stuffed my footwear into that.

 

And then…  I was bundled along the side of the queue, up the stairs and through the temple entrance into a narrow passageway adjacent to the shrine-hall.  I have to say that the Indian worshippers seemed so focused on seeing Kali that nobody complained as the little tout, and the considerably bigger me, came burrowing and barging through them.  It was bedlam.  Like a rugby scrum.  Somehow, a dog had managed to get into the passageway and it looked battered and scared as it tried to negotiate the countless pairs of oncoming feet.  (That was the only harassed-looking dog I saw in Kolkata.  Usually, they seemed totally unfazed by the humans around them while they wandered about and dozed on the pavements and roads.)

 

There was a window-like gap in the wall between the passageway and the shrine-hall and my escort urged me up onto its ledge – this was as close to Kali, who was on the other side of the gap, as I got.  Beyond and below me, worshippers streamed around the shrine in the same chaotic way that they streamed through the passageway behind.  Immediately in front of it, some stripped-to-the-waist priests, who looked more like bouncers than clergy, kept things moving and made sure that nobody loitered for too long.  All was confused, noisy and emotional – just a little way short of hysterical.  On the ledge beside me was another priest, who (1) gave me some hibiscus flowers to throw onto the deity; (2) dabbed some colour onto the centre of my forehead; (3) said a prayer on my behalf; and (4) demanded money.  Seeing as I was in Kali’s presence, I thought I’d better oblige.  Though he looked a little put-out when he realised that I’d only contributed another 50 rupees to the Kalighat Priest / Tout Retirement Fund.

 

Of Kali I’ll say more in a minute.

 

Then my chaperon bundled me down from the ledge, along the rest of the passageway and out of the temple’s other side.  Just before the exit I felt small hands grab at my ankles – two beggar-kids crouched on either side of the door, trying to get people’s attention before they departed the building.  Thereafter, I was whisked through some ante-rooms attached to the temple where more priests dabbed more colour on my head, said more prayers for me and demanded more money.  By this time I felt I’d already parted with enough.  So I would point at my chaperon and say brightly, “Oh, I gave all the money to him.”

 

And that was it – done in less in ten minutes.  Outside, the wee tout tried to interest me in buying some souvenirs, but I said, “No thanks,” and hurriedly walked away.  I walked away a little too hurriedly, in fact.  The moment I stepped out of the shade, the soles of my shoeless feet were scalded by the compound’s paving stones, baking-hot in the sun.

 

To quote Wikipedia again: “The image of Kali in this temple is unique.  It doesn’t follow the pattern of other Kali images in Bengal.”  Indeed not.  Though some of the more familiar Kali features are present – the three eyes, with the central one arranged perpendicularly to the other two; the great flowing tongue (but golden, not red); and the four arms, one brandishing a sickle-like scimitar and another gripping the severed head of the demon-king Shumbha – the goddess here is a humped, truncated-looking thing, her arms stumpy and only just discernible.  I have to say that she resembles a cross between one of H.P. Lovecraft’s elder gods and Eric Cartman in South Park.  Photography isn’t allowed inside the temple, but here’s a picture of a mural of her that I saw painted on a wall whilst walking back to the Metro.

 

 

Across that wall-image, I noticed, someone had fastened a semi-circle of red paper hibiscuses.  Even when she exists as graffiti, Kali commands respect.

 

The Queen Vic

 

 

I’m about to make a statement that’s based on my personal observations of India.  It may actually be a wildly inaccurate generalisation.  And I apologise to any Indian who thinks otherwise.  But it surprises me how relaxed Indians seem to be about the period of their history when they were incorporated into the British Empire and treated as imperial subjects of the British Crown.

 

As evidence for this statement, I’ll cite the day I visited the Queen Victoria Memorial Museum, which stands in an area of parkland at Maidan in central Kolkata.  This is a huge white building with a central chamber dedicated to the memory of the longest-serving monarch in British history.  (For the time being, at least.  If the current Queen Elizabeth can hang in there till September 9th this year, she’ll break old Victoria’s record of 63 years and seven months – or to be more precise, 23,226 days, 16 hours and 23 minutes.  Yes, it’s amazing what facts you can find in the Daily Telegraph.)

 

As you go into this chamber, you pass a foundation stone with an inscription saying that the building was “erected in memory of Victoria, first Queen Empress of India 1837-1901, by the contribution of the princes and peoples of India” and the stone was “lain by her grandson HRH George Prince of Wales on January 4th, 1906.”

 

The day of my visit, the museum was thronged – and thronged almost entirely by Indians, who seemed to be absorbing everything in a spirit of calm historical curiosity.  I come from Ireland and I can safely say that if this building – commemorating the regal emblem of British imperialism during its most powerful and global era – stood in, say, Dublin, it wouldn’t be as popular with the local public.  In fact, the IRA would probably have blown it up 50 years ago.

 

Anyway, what’s on offer at Kolkata’s Queen Vic?

 

 

In the centre of the main chamber stands a statue of Victoria bearing an orb and sceptre.  Display-tables, cases and cabinets holding a variety of bric-a-brac are arranged around the statue, their contents including antique swords, a hefty model of an East India Company merchant ship called The Alumgeer and a model of the museum-building itself.  Also parked here, for some reason, is a grand piano.

 

Halfway up the sides of the chamber is a circular gallery; and above that, occupying the space between the gallery and the base of a cupola at the chamber’s top, are a dozen alfresco paintings.  The paintings show important scenes in Victoria’s life, including her coronation in 1838, her marriage in 1840, her Golden and Diamond Jubilees in 1887 and 1897 and, following her death in 1901, her body lying in state.  Meanwhile, alcoves in the wall around the gallery house busts of important (British) personages of the time, including one of Victoria’s son and successor Edward VII.  The famously fun-loving king’s eyes seem a little too fixed on the middle-distance, as if he’s determinedly trying to conceal the fact that he’s just quaffed a few brandies.  Meanwhile, at the summit of the cupola, a round hole opens into a small belfry-shaped dome, where pigeons flap around oblivious to the crowds below.

 

An entrance lobby before the main chamber contains a statue of the building’s foundation-stone layer, George Prince of Wales, in his future monarchical incarnation as King George V.  There’s also a statue of his wife, Queen Mary; and the two statues face one another mutely, as if both are in the bitter, smouldering aftermath of a fierce matrimonial row.  Off to the left of this lobby is a gallery.  At the time of my visit it was hosting an exhibition by Abanindranath Tagore, founder of the Bengal School of Art and a nephew of the famous Nobel Prize-winning polymath (poet, novelist, dramatist, composer, song-writer, painter and political activist) Rabindranath Tagore.  One of the younger Tagore’s most famous paintings is Bharat Mata, which personifies India as a saffron-wearing mother goddess.  And I suppose that, by rights, it should be her who occupies the plinth in the next room, not Queen Victoria.

 

From wikipedia.org 

 

On the far side of the main chamber is another lobby, which has more statues – including one of Major-General Robert Clive, looking a bit pompous – and three antique field guns.  Two of those guns are French ones that Clive captured at the Battle of Plassey in 1757.  The third gun is a brass Bengali one, with an ornately patterned barrel and a curious, pointy-nosed, fox-eared face moulded onto the barrel’s end.

 

Two more galleries are located at either end of this second lobby.  The one to the left was, at the time, hosting an exhibition called The Artist’s Eye of India 1770-1835, which was a collection of paintings of early colonial-era buildings, townscapes and landscapes by Western artists.  I liked Thomas Daniell’s Dead Tiger in a Forested Landscape, but overall I found the exhibition rather dull.  To the right of the lobby is the Kolkata Gallery, which displays copious paintings, photos, sketches, maps, weavings, woodcuts and artefacts relating to the local city and which I found much more interesting.

 

There are some charming grounds around the building, although – appropriately – they’re subject to a horde of rules and regulations that show a Victorian-mentality strictness and stuffiness: No food, no smoking, no exercise, no plastic bags and use the bins.  The building was undergoing extensive maintenance when I visited, so that both its wings were encased in a dense mesh of scaffolding; but nonetheless, in the hazy early-evening light, it looked very appealing as it stood overlooking an artificial lake that’d been installed in front of it – with its reflection shimmering in the lake-water and with the retreating sun making a golden splash beside it.  A little way behind the building, you’ll encounter Edward VII again, this time on the back of a horse perched atop a stone archway; while some majestic stone lions lounge on pedestals beside the grounds’ entrance.

 

 

Finally, in the middle of a lawn just outside the building’s back doors, surrounded by pink and purple flowers, is a statue of Lord George Curzon of Kedleston, who was Viceroy of India when the building was constructed and who also served as British Foreign Secretary under David Lloyd George, Andrew Bonar Law and Stanley Baldwin.  Curzon hardly distinguished himself during his time in India.  He was much criticised for the Indian Famine of 1899-1900 and for an attempt to partition Bengal in 1905.  And yet a century after Curzon’s failures, I saw countless Indian sightseers happily pose for photographs with his statue in the background.  No doubt this had less to do with any historical awareness of the Viceroy and his record, and had more to do with the fact that you aren’t allowed to use cameras inside the building and this is the handiest spot to take a picture as soon as you come out of it.

 

 

And that seems to sum up local attitudes to the Queen Victoria Memorial Museum.  Don’t vex yourself by thinking too much about the historical realities underlying the building.  Just relax and enjoy the majesty of its architecture and the pleasantness of its backdrop.

 

 

A table of cats

 

 

Yes, it’s a table of cats – pictured at the edge of the butchery area in Kolkata’s New Market.

 

These adorable little fluffy creatures were enjoying a snooze, presumably after they’d gorged themselves stupid on raw, glistening goats’ entrails and chickens’ viscera – dumped on the floor, amid viscous pools of hot, stinking blood, after being scooped out of the carcasses of animals that’d recently perished, in agony and terror, on the butchery area’s killing slabs.

 

And when these purring balls of fun and loveliness revived from their slumbers, what would they do?  Why, they’d no doubt descend onto that floor and, amid the blood-pools, stuff their furry whiskered faces again with more goats’ entrails and more chicken’s viscera.

 

Aw!  Aren’t cats cute?

 

World’s scariest mannequin

 

 

If I were a lout, I would crack a joke along the lines of: “Wow, that Kim Cattrall’s had some work done!”  But I’m a gentleman.  So I won’t.

 

Not as scary, but still creepy, was the zombie-Ally-Sheedy mannequin pictured below.  If I remember correctly, both mannequins stood in the same shop.  That place really was the Clothes Boutique of Horror.

 

 

These were spotted at New Market in Kolkata.

 

New Market in Kolkata

 

 

According to its Wikipedia entry, the origins of New Market in Kolkata were both grandiose and grubby.  The market, which stands on Lindsay Street, was built as an opulent arcade to meet the shopping needs of the city’s British-colonist population.  Opening at the start of 1874, it was soon attracting “(a)ffluent colonials from all over India”, who spent money in “its exclusive retailers like Ranken and Company (dressmakers), Cuthbertson and Harper (shoe-merchants) and R.W. Newman or Thacker Spink, the famous stationers and bookdealers.”  But, notes Wikipedia, the motives behind the founding of New Market were also unpleasant.  Its wealthy, white, expatriate clientele had petitioned for the building of the arcade so that they’d no longer have to associate with the Indian locals in Kolkata’s bazaars.  For the British Victorian mind-set, the problem with India was that it had Indians in it.

 

Of course, the British have long-since departed and New Market has long-since been Indian-ised.  But the ornate, red-brick exterior remains resolutely British-looking and in a somehow parochial way.  It resembles a showcase edifice that’d be the main point of civic pride in a medium-sized, moderately prosperous English country town.  Accordingly, when I saw the compact clock tower that rises from its eastern wall – a late addition to the market in the British Empire era, for it was only brought over (from Huddersfield) and erected in the 1930s – I found myself thinking of the beloved old BBC children’s show Trumpton.

 

 

Inside, New Market feels labyrinthine, although it shouldn’t do – it contains a grid of narrow alleys, with the alleys bisecting one another at neat right angles and with the shops and stalls arranged in neat blocks.  But it’s so busy and has so much to see that you believe you’re in a more architecturally chaotic place that you really are.  And the boundaries of the market are hard to define since it also has a basement, similarly crammed with retailers, whose far end seems to emerge in another building that contains several more floors of shops.  Plus, of course, the vendors spill outside the main building and sell their wares on the surrounding streets too.

 

 

It goes without saying that you get the impression you can buy absolutely anything here.  I saw groceries, meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, confectionary, shoes, sandals,  wigs, cosmetics, toiletries, toys, suitcases, wallets, saris, shawls, scarves, trousers, shirts, T-shirts, bed-linen, jewellery, figurines, tourist nick-nacks, silverware, crystal, crockery, kitchen utensils, electrical appliances and flowers.  There are stalls selling multi-coloured spices out of giant glass jars (like the ones you used to see in old British sweetshops).  There are barber shops, and money-changers, and at least one astrologer.  I even saw a retailer who sold designer burqas, as this photo testifies:

 

 

Meanwhile, if you’re on the hunt for a handbag, you’ll be spoilt for choice if you venture out of the market’s western side – for there seems to be a million handbags on sale there, not so much hanging from as heaped up against its external wall.

 

 

However, animal-lovers and folk of a nervous disposition may want to avoid the market’s butchery area, where livestock – mainly goats and poultry, from the look of things – are slaughtered on the premises so that the meat’s as fresh as can be when it’s sold to the shoppers.  A stroll along an adjoining alley, where the poultry dealers seem to hang out, is an uncomfortable experience thanks to the smell, a pungent combination of dusty chicken feathers and acrid chicken-shit; and to the sight of countless baskets, sealed at the top with rope netting, within which are packed still-living chickens.  I saw one such basket that had a big white cat sprawled asleep across its net top – to the understandable disquiet of the nervously-clucking birds a few inches below.

 

The only other issues you might have with New Market are the latrines – inevitably smelly and, in at least one place, positioned so that their users have to do their business in full view of passing shoppers – and the occasional never-do-wells who latch onto visiting foreigners and pursue them offering to take them to the best shops.  I had a few exchanges with such types that went: “I’m not here to shop.  I don’t have any rupees on me.”  “Oh, I’ll take you to a shop that accepts credit cards.”  “I don’t have any credit cards on me either.”  “Oh, I’ll take you to a money-changer.”  Etc., etc.  I found that walking briskly and making a couple of sudden body-swerves down the alleys to my left or right was enough to shake them off after a minute or two.

 

 

New Market isn’t as slick and tourist-friendly as, say, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.  And I have no doubt that the modern shopping malls that are springing up around Kolkata have taken a chunk out of its profits and diminished some of its lustre.  Nevertheless, I could spend – I did spend – hours in this bustling and venerable arcade.

 

Compare that with the five minutes I usually spend in the average shopping mall.  Five minutes is as long as it takes me to nip onto the premises, locate the toilets, have a pee and then flee the premises again.

 

The Indian Museum in Kolkata

 

 

If the Indian Museum in Kolkata has a problem, it’s perhaps a problem of having a dual personality – a duality implied by its name.  Is it a museum about India, and about Indian culture in particular, which exists to satisfy foreigners like myself?  Foreigners who arrive expecting it to be packed full of Indian antiquities?  Or is it a museum that caters for Indian people, the local public, and meets the public’s general expectations about museums, i.e. that they have lots of stuffed animals and skeletons and cool things from ancient Egypt?

 

The Indian Museum at least has the space and the exhibits to meet both sets of expectations.  Contained in a huge white building with a courtyard and lawn and with grand columns striding along the edges of a ground-floor terrace and first-floor balcony, it’s the biggest museum in India and at the last count a decade ago it was reckoned to house over 100,000 items.  Its collection is the result of two centuries of acquisition – the museum was founded in 1814 and has inhabited this particular building since the 1870s.

 

For the Indian-culture-hungry tourist, there are a multitude of attractions: ranging from the massive, such as a 23-foot-high gateway and some nine-foot-high railings made of carved red-sandstone ‘pillars, cross-bars and running coping stones’, which constitute the remains of a Buddhist stupa discovered in Madhya Pradesh; to the small, but exquisite, such as a model of a carriage with a driver, passenger and four horses that’s been carved from ivory and supposedly represents ‘the exposition of the Gita at Kurukshetra’, i.e. when Krishna counselled Prince Arjuna on how to fulfill his duty as a warrior and establish Dharma.

 

 

However, the artifact that impressed me most of all was this charming ‘jade tree’.

 

 

With regard to more conventionally museum-y things, there are galleries devoted to India’s flora and fauna.  The zoological galleries have so many skeletons and skulls on display that they’re veritable boneyards.  The creatures of the prehistoric past are also given attention.  At one point, for instance, I stumbled across the tank-like carcass of a glyptodon.  The glyptodon was a monstrous type of armadillo that trundled around North and South America until about 10,000 years ago, when homo-sapiens – who obviously haven’t learnt anything in the period since – hunted it into non-existence.  It’s definitely my favourite extinct giant mammal.

 

 

I was impressed to find that the Indian Museum also has a gallery dedicated to evolution.  With religious nutcase-ism on the rise on so many parts of the world, including in North America, I’ll bet many museums nowadays would think twice about having a room that loudly extolls the theories of Charles Darwin and such similar ‘controversialists’ (or as they’re sometimes known, ‘scientists’).  The Evolution Gallery is full of lovely diagrams and models charting the evermore-intricate progress of life on earth, with its centrepiece being a huge depiction of a strand of DNA that rather resembles an avant-garde corkscrew.

 

 

There’s even a little Egyptology section, its entrance guarded by an impressive-looking sphinx.  But apart from the sphinx, a replica head of Queen Nefertiti and a mummified hand, there wasn’t anything there that lodged in my memory.

 

 

Incidentally, standing at the top of the stairs on the first floor is a statue of Queen Victoria.  It bears a presumptive and imperious inscription: “This statue of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, Empress of India, was presented to the Indian people by Mahatab Chund Bahadur, Maharaja Dhiraj of Burdwan, in commemoration of Her Majesty’s gracious assumption of the imperial title on January 1st 1877.”  Yes, I imagine the Indian people felt enormous gratitude to Queen Victoria for doing them the favour of agreeing to be their empress.  It has to be said, though, that a lot of modern-day Indian museum-goers seemed happy enough to pose in front of the old girl’s statue for photos.

 

 

Premature death and graveyard billboards

 

 

“They all died so young!”

 

So exclaimed the most recent comment in the South Park Street Cemetery Visitors’ Book – just before I added my own comment to it at the end of an hour’s exploration of the place one Saturday afternoon in Kolkata.

 

The cemetery took its name from the Kolkata road it’s located on, which was known as South Park Street before it got rechristened Teresa Sarani in honour of the city’s most famous 20th-century inhabitant.  According to www.findagrave.com, it was “opened August 25th, 1767” and “closed around 1831, but burials of relatives of those already interred were permitted well into the 1840s…  In all, 1624 graves are numbered and registered in this cemetery, some of them commemorating more than one person.”

 

 

Actually ‘grave’ – in its simple definition of being a hole dug in the ground to receive a coffin and marked by a headstone – isn’t quite the word I’d use to describe the contents of South Park Street Cemetery.  ‘Monument’ seems more appropriate, as everywhere there are plinths with tapering obelisks or stone cones or cupolas on top.  Also, there are columns, stele, sarcophagi and square or circular sepulchres with mock-Grecian pillars.  This is definitely a cemetery with architecture.

 

Many of those monuments, unfortunately, are no longer in good nick.  Their stone surfaces are cracked and crumbling and their inscriptions have faded to illegibility.  I also saw a few disfigured by graffiti that’d been scratched out with a nail or sharp stone, mostly of the Moron loves Eejit variety.  Some, though, have been restored by the descendants of those interred beneath them or by interested societies and organisations.

 

 

And yes, when you find an inscription that’s readable, you do get the impression that many of the cemetery’s inhabitants, men and women who left the British Isles in the 18th and 19th centuries and ended up in India as part of Britain’s south-Asian empire-building operations, died young.  They succumbed, no doubt, to a barrage of foreign diseases, ailments and hazards that an upbringing in temperate Western Europe had singularly failed to prepare them for.

 

There was, for example, Elisa Forsyth of Elgin, Scotland, who survived only to the age of 19, and Captain Denis Bodkin, Lieutenant John Briscoe and Mrs Anne Jones, who expired at the ages of 26, 27 and 29 respectively.  Some inscriptions are particularly sad, for example, that of Dorothy Smith, who died aged 28, and of two of her offspring, David (died at seven months) and Amelia (died at three years and four months).  Probably the saddest one that I encountered, though, was that of Mrs M. Dennison, who died aged 26 and was buried at the same time as an unnamed infant daughter.  They were soon joined by Captain E.S. Dennison, who apparently “survived his wife and child but a few days, for on the 16th of October following their decease he was united to them in death and buried in the same grave.”

 

 

No wonder the messages on those tombs tend towards the fatalistic.  “ALL IS VANITY”, proclaims one.  “What tho’ we now lament and mourn / Her mortal frame shall ne’er return / That’s gone alas for evermore… / Let us, my son, in God put our trust / And know that in His sight all flesh is dust.”

 

 

Another premature death recorded in South Park Street Cemetery is that of the Anglo-Indian poet and teacher Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, who passed away at the age of 22.  He’s commemorated by a gleaming white monument and bust that were erected by the Kolkata branch of the Anglo-Indian Association.  Derozio achieved a great deal in his short life.  As well as being a poet, he was assistant headmaster at the city’s Hindu College and he was such a star there that his student-disciples became known as ‘Derozians’.  His accomplishments are eloquently summed up by an inscription: “Pioneer of the 18th century Indian Renaissance, greatest teacher of the era… and first of the patriot-poets who like ancient Socrates inspired a generation of students to be rational, international and great lovers of the muse.”  At the time I assumed that Derozio’s remains were buried beneath the monument, but I’ve read subsequently that because of his ethnicity he was denied burial in the cemetery and had to be interred outside it  So that’s all the monument is – a monument.

 

 

The cemetery has a few occupants who did reach a ripe (or comparatively ripe) old age.  For example, it contains Major General Charles Stuart, who made it to 70 and was known by the nickname of Hindoo Stuart.  He acquired the nickname after embracing Indian culture and converting to Hinduism.  He collected effigies of Indian deities, encouraged British womenfolk to wear the sari and supposedly bathed every day in the Ganges.  Appropriately, his tomb is in the form of a miniature Indian temple and his formidable collection of effigies is buried there with him.  Also enjoying a relatively decent innings was Captain W. Mackay, who reached the age of 64.  Mackay was evidently a captain of the seafaring kind because the tapering white obelisk that commemorates him has a ship’s anchor sculpted on its side.

 

 

Another white obelisk, a bigger one, makes for one of the most imposing monuments in the cemetery.  It’s that of Sir William Jones, an 18th-century Anglo-Welsh polymath who was a scholar of all things Indian, a co-founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and a political radical who championed the American Revolution.  In addition, he was both a philogist – i.e. someone who studied languages in their written and historical forms – and a hyperglot who, before he died at the age of 47, was reputed to speak 13 languages fluently and communicate reasonably well in 28 more.

 

 

South Park Street Cemetery is a place of contrasts.  Parts of it have been reasonably well looked after and have the air of a presentable – well, perhaps slightly scruffy – British park or country-house garden, especially along the central thoroughfare that runs from its gate and in the general area that borders on its southern wall.  But in other parts the undergrowth has taken over.  Bushes, branches and shrubs crowd around the monuments and the spaces between them are clogged with fallen leaves.  Indeed, there were moments when I felt I was exploring an only slightly less jungle-ridden version of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  This was despite the presence of several gardeners and workmen.  They were fighting a continual battle against the encroaching foliage and weren’t necessarily winning it.

 

 

And while the cemetery has places where you can wander amid the sombre monuments and rampant vegetation and feel isolated from the outside world – although you’re never quite alone, thanks to the crows and stripy-backed squirrels that hop and scurry about the plinths, obelisks and sepulchres like kids in a playground – there are other places where you’re conscious that modern-day Kolkata is just a few yards away.  The view of the cemetery’s western side is ruined by a long, cliff-like and monotonously-ugly surface of corrugated iron that rises above the wall there and forms the back of some building on the neighbouring street.  Similarly, just beyond the cemetery’s southern wall, you get the jarring sight of a weird and ultra-modern glass building whose sides slant both upwards and outwards.

 

 

But the oddest juxtaposition between the old cemetery and the surrounding modern city is found at the two corners beside Mother Teresa Sarani.  One cemetery-corner nestles in the junction where the street is bisected by Sarajini Naidu Sarani, and the other nestles in the intersection between it and AJC Bose Road.  Billboards have been erected there to take advantage of the corners’ visibility to passing motorists and they advertise things like cars, coffee and mobile-phone shops.  The pylon-like columns of iron that support the billboards rise out of the cemetery itself, from among its monuments and tombs.  Their scaffolding is planted in the same soil as South Park Street Cemetery’s 1624+ inhabitants.

 

Actually, the sight of a graveyard with advertising-hoardings reminded me of the old adage that no matter what material goods you acquire during your life, you can’t in the end take any of them with you.