Along the banks of a river, the India of old

December 23, 2008

A river cruise on the Hooghly, past Calcutta, reveals the country at its most rural, without a postcard or T-shirt in sight. From the New York Times:

cruiseHowrah Station in Calcutta was packed with travelers as I arrived to catch the 3:30 p.m. train to Jangipur. Passengers and porters charged in all directions, some carrying their suitcases or cloth bundles in their hands, some with their baggage on their heads. One man with a chair; another with a stepladder. At my feet, someone was charging his cellphone on the station’s electricity supply. Our train drew up, and the man next to me suddenly threw himself head first through an open window. With his feet waggling, he was stuck until a friend pushed him through. Luckily, I had reserved seats, so I was able to enter through the door and then settle in for the five-hour journey through eastern India.

A few weeks earlier, I had booked a river cruise on the Hooghly, a tributary of the Ganges that runs south through West Bengal, past Calcutta and out to the Bay of Bengal. I was one of 14 travelers – 13 Britons and one American – who had signed up with Assam Bengal Navigation with the hope of seeing India at its most rural. (I was there in late June, well before the recent attacks in Mumbai, a horrific event that should sadden anyone who loves India as I do.)

It was monsoon season, which promised drenching rains every afternoon, but none of us seemed to mind, and I had come prepared: a raincoat, an umbrella and waterproof shoes were all in my luggage. Plus, the Hooghly is navigable only when summer rains swell its banks.

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Mumbai: The city I love

November 29, 2008

The novelist Amit Chaudhuri finds it impossible to think about his childhood home without a quickening of excitement and pleasure. But this week’s terror attacks have highlighted the other side of Mumbai – a society riven by poverty and despair. From the Guardian:

David Levene

Children playing in the rubbish of a shanty town at Nariman Point, just down the beach from the city

My parents moved to Bombay from Calcutta in 1965, when I was an infant – they stayed at the Taj for two weeks while the company found them a flat. This was the beginning of Calcutta’s decline, companies and professionals fleeing labour trouble, and relocating at this optimistic seaside metropolis in western India. It was a charmed life – from at least two of the flats we lived in when my father was finance director and then chief executive of Britannia Biscuits, flats in Malabar Hill and Cuffe Parade, the city’s two richest localities, you could see a skyline that, with its lissom, tall buildings (Bombay is the only Indian city to have had an obsessive romance with the vertical, the skyscraper), approximated Manhattan in some ways; in its sunniness, its palm trees, its disguised but obvious carnality, it echoed what we knew of California from films; and the gothic buildings were remnants of the old history that had first brought together these seven fishing islands.

From different windows and balconies in those two flats, at different points of my life until 1982, when my father retired, the dome of the Taj (the “old” Taj, as it came to be known after the arrival of its neighbour, the Taj Intercontinental) was visible, grey, as seemingly and deceptively stationary as a low cloud. Like Calcutta, and unlike Delhi, with its Moghul and Sultanate lineage, Bombay had no really great historical or religious monuments; its landmarks, in keeping with the fact that it was the progeny of an almost innocent-seeming colonial modernity, were secular ones – hotels; cinema halls, such as the Eros, the Regal, the Metro; grand, untidy railway stations such as the Victoria Terminus. To call the Taj the “old” Taj was to deliberately indulge in a flagrant misnomer, and a reminder of Bombay’s willingness to rewrite history in terms of the urban, the kitschy, the comic: it was as if the “real” Taj Mahal in Agra had never existed except in those most incredible of objects – school textbooks.

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A pilgrimage to Calcutta recalls Armenian history

November 20, 2008

More than 250 Armenians with Calcutta roots went to the Indian city for the 300th anniversary of the oldest church there. Leonard M. Apcar in International Herald Tribune:

Restored graves at Holy Trinity Chapel, an Armenian church and cemetery built in 1867, in the Tangra district of Calcutta. (Leonard M. Apcar/IHT)

Restored graves at Holy Trinity Chapel, an Armenian church and cemetery built in 1867, in the Tangra district of Calcutta. (Leonard M. Apcar/IHT)

Before there were call centers and Indian conglomerates, before the East India Co. or the British Raj, there were Armenians who made their way to India to trade and to escape religious persecution from the Turks and, later, Persians.

Entrepreneurial and devout Christians, but familiar with the Islamic ways of Mughal emperors, Armenians arrived in northeast India in the early 1600s, some 60 years before British adventurers became established traders here. They acquired gems, spices and silks, and brought them back to Armenian enclaves in Persia such as Isfahan.

Eventually, some Persian Armenians – including my ancestors – left and set up their own businesses and communities here, landing first on India’s western flank in Surat and nearby Bombay, the present-day Mumbai, and then moving to the river banks in northeast India that led to Calcutta’s founding as a sprawling manufacturing and port city.

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The idea of cities

October 7, 2008

In a cover story on urban areas around Southasia, Himal looks “at the idea of cities as an active collective impulse that is ever evolving.” Below, a sample:

Lahore: By Raza Rumi

I spent my early years in a Model Town colonial bungalow, which was originally the creation of a Hindu doctor who had to leave the city at Partition. This was an age when birds were an integral feature of Lahori skies, and the seasons played out their glory. As the name suggests, Model Town was an ‘ideal’ suburb, created during the Raj by the advanced citizenry on the idea of ‘cooperative urban life’. Established in 1922, Model Town was the fruition of advocate Diwan Khem Chand’s unshakeable belief in the values of self help, self responsibility and democracy, loosely the principles of cooperative societies. This was the reason why Model Town was established as, and still is, a ‘cooperative society’. What fewer people know is that these values of cooperation were first popularised by George Jacob Holyoake, a 19th-century English social reformer responsible for the cooperative movement. Incidentally, Holyoake was also infamous for the distinction of having invented the phrase ‘secularism’, for which he was the last citizen to be convicted for blasphemy in England.

Kabul: By Anne Feenstra

Kabul is a city of dramatic contrasts. In the streets, shiny black-windowed limousines drive immediately alongside scruffy pushcarts with wobbly wheels. On the sidewalks, one-legged beggars hold out hands to well-dressed business men in sharp, knitted suits and gleaming shoes. Perhaps little of this is particularly exceptional in urban areas around the world, including in Southasia. Perhaps more to the point in the Afghan context would be the contrast in the inner city between Western female diplomats being driven around in armoured vehicles, and the local ladies who are fully covered in azure burqas.

Galle: By Richard Boyle

Galle’s location at the southwestern tip of Sri Lanka, with only the Antarctic across more than 5000 miles of ocean, ensured the prominence of the port during the early history of navigation. Not surprisingly, it became the natural focal point at the southernmost part of the Silk Routes that connected Asia with the Mediterranean. Galle also provided a relatively equidistant location for Arab and Chinese ships to converge and trade, thus avoiding much longer voyages. It had a fine natural harbour protected to the southeast by an elevated headland and to the northwest by a flat peninsula, although there were submerged rocks and the harbour was not protected from the southwest monsoon.

Dhaka: By Zafar Sobhan

Dhaka today is utterly unrecognisable as the sleepy, charming, tranquil town it was even half a century ago. There is something thoroughly startling about this transmutation from a genteel and sedate town of tree-lined avenues, ponds, canals and spacious bungalows set amidst overgrown gardens – to this present incarnation as a dizzying metropolis of 12 million people, blaring automobiles and block after block of unpainted concrete apartments, as far as the eye can see. But the difference is more than merely in the physical transformation; it is also one of tone and feel. Dhaka today is a high-octane megacity, where life is fast and furious (except for the traffic, which remains slow and torpid), where anger and violence simmer beneath the surface.

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In Calcutta, down memory lane

September 29, 2008

In The New York Times, Somini Sengupta goes to Calcutta’s famous restaurant Mocambo:

My mother went to Mocambo to listen to Doris Day covers. I went to Mocambo for Fish à la Diana.

Mocambo opened its doors in 1956, a European oasis of glamour and jazz on Park Street, Calcutta’s famous cabaret row. Its second-generation owner, Nitin Kothari, called it independent India’s first nightclub, which is plausible, even if impossible to verify. There was a German architect, an Italian manager and, soon after its opening, a 17-year-old chanteuse named Pam Crain, who wore a French evening gown and sang standards with Anton Menezes’ six-piece band. “She had a good voice, she was very good-looking,” Mr. Kothari, 61, recalled. “Very glamorous.”

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Talking of Mocambo and Pam Crain, here’s a story The Telegraph, Calcutta, ran last year on the singers and musicians who used to play in Calcutta in the 60s and 70s:

Carlton Kitto, one of the most popular jazz guitarists in the city, began his musical journey at Moulin Rouge in the early Seventies. “The restaurant was owned by a French lady called Delilah who would sing along with our band Carlton Kitto Jazz Ensemble. Cancan dancers would delight the guests later in the evening,” recollects Carlton.

After performing for two years at Moulin Rouge, Kitto moved a few blocks ahead to Mocambo, where Pam Crain, the queen of crooners, made her debut in the Sixties. The interiors of the place remain frozen in time with its red Rexine sofas and continental fare but the voices that drew an elite audience are gone. Even as Calcutta rock bands and Bangla bands take over Park Street, why is the blaring of a trumpet, or a blues note from a saxophone, still missing? Where are the Anglo-Indian and Goan musicians who made Park Street the capital of Indian nightclub music from the mid-Fifties to early Seventies?

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Selling their scrolls

June 4, 2008

For eight centuries the Patuas, a community of Bengali artists, have maintained a distinct storytelling tradition, painting scrolls and performing songs to illustrate history and myth. Then came television and the global art market. Samanth Subramanian in The National:

Every time it rains, the paths in the Indian village of Thekuachak turn slick and gray with loose mud. During the week of my last visit, the monsoon was particularly severe, and a haymaker of a rainstorm hit the state of West Bengal squarely on the nose. Kolkata was afloat, flights and trains were cancelled, and the highways were barely navigable. Walking in Thekuachak called for patience, vigilant eyes and nimble feet, and I looked up only occasionally, to see Mairun Chitrakar ahead of me, leading the way to his house.

Mairun, a short man with a wizened face, is a Patua, a member of a community of artists spread across the Medinipur and Birbhum districts in West Bengal. Since at least the 13th century, the Patuas have practiced a version of show-and-tell, wandering from village to village singing stories from the religious epics and unfurling painted scrolls to illustrate their tales – a form of static cinema long before cinema itself. Every Patua’s last name is Chitrakar – a word that means, quite literally, “artist.” Mairun, who is 57, is one of around 500 Patuas in Medinipur, and there have been artists in his family for more than 200 years.

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Death comes ashore

May 21, 2008

Amitav Ghosh on cyclones in the Bay of Bengal, in the New York Times

THE word “cyclone” was coined in Calcutta (now called Kolkata) in the 1840s by an eccentric Englishman named Henry Piddington. Inspired by the great British meteorologist William Reid, Piddington became one of the earliest storm-chasers, besotted with a phenomenon that he once likened to a “beautiful meteorite.” His elegant coinage was originally intended as a generic name for all revolving weather events, but is now applied mainly to the storms of the Indian Ocean region like Cyclone Nargis, which struck Burma with devastating effect last week.

Piddington was among the earliest to recognize that a cyclone wreaks most of its damage not through wind but through water, by means of the devastating wave that is known as a “storm surge.” In 1853, when the British colonial authorities were planning an elaborate new port on the outer edge of Bengal’s mangrove forests, he issued an unambiguous warning: “Everyone and everything must be prepared to see a day when, in the midst of the horrors of a hurricane, they will find a terrific mass of salt water rolling in …” His warning was neglected and Port Canning was built, only to be obliterated by a cyclonic surge in 1867.

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Last days of the rickshaw

April 5, 2008

Kolkata is bent on burnishing its modern image-and banning a potent symbol of India’s colonial past. From National Geographic:

The strategy of drivers in Kolkata-drivers of private cars and taxis and buses and the enclosed three-wheel scooters used as jitneys and even pedicabs-is simple: Forge ahead while honking. There are no stop signs to speak of. To a visitor, the signs that say, in large block letters, OBEY TRAFFIC RULES come across as a bit of black humor. During a recent stay in Kolkata, the method I devised for crossing major thoroughfares was to wait until I could attach myself to more pedestrians than I figured a taxi was willing to knock down. In the narrow side streets known as the lanes, loud honking is the signal that a taxi or even a small truck is about to round the corner and come barreling down a space not meant for anything wider than a bicycle. But occasionally, during a brief lull in the honking, I’d hear the tinkling of a bell behind me. An American who has watched too many Hallmark Christmas specials might turn around half expecting to see a pair of draft horses pulling a sleigh through snowy woods. But what came into view was a rickshaw. Instead of being pulled by a horse, it was being pulled by a man-usually a skinny, bedraggled, barefoot man who didn’t look quite up to the task. Hooked around his finger was a single bell that he shook continuously, producing what is surely the most benign sound to emanate from any vehicle in Kolkata.

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Oh! Kolkata!

April 1, 2008

Can Kolkata rise above its poverty to become the Bengali entrepot for the East asks Robert D. Kaplan in The Atlantic

When judging a new place, a traveler must first always reckon with his or her point of departure. Arriving in Calcutta by bus from Dhaka, the capital of next-door Bangladesh, is like arriving in West Berlin from East Berlin during the Cold War—a trip I made several times. Grayness is left behind. Instead of the rusted signs of Dhaka, giant, swanky billboards advertising global products glow in the night like back-lit computer screens. Traffic is dominated in Dhaka by creaky old bicycle rickshaws; in Calcutta, by late-model cars. There are, too, the sturdy yellow Ambassador taxis, zippy little Indian-produced Marutis loaded with families, and many luxury vehicles.

Yet the rickshaws that you also see in Calcutta provide a signature image of exploitation worse than almost anything you’ll see in Dhaka: one human being is transported by another, who is not merely furiously pedaling uphill, but actually running uphill on his bare feet, pulling the rickshaw like an animal.

Calcutta is, frankly, obscene.

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[Pic: Running out of time: New Laws are forcing rickshaws off Kolkata's streets. Atul Loke]


The reverse Raj: Indian businesses turn tables on imperial master

March 30, 2008

Britain took commercial and cultural advantage of India as its imperial master. Now a new generation of wealthy Indians is reversing the roles. Dean Nelson in The Sunday Times, UK:

The assembled businessmen wore black ties and listened politely to a string quartet under crystal chandeliers in a magnificent ballroom. The room buzzed with talk of the old country, but more importantly with commercial speculation about their new domain. What was to be their next takeover target in the local economy?

It could have been a sepia print of the British East India Company, which effectively ruled India as a private colony for 100 years, but a closer look revealed a different kind of burra sahib. More Chandigarh than Cheam, the men gathered at the Grosvenor House hotel in Mayfair, central London, last year were the representatives of a new Indian raj, powerful men intent on buying up chunks of the homeland of their old imperial masters.

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Is this the Indian century?

Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian, UK:

Shishir Bajoria is meant to be talking about India’s rise and the world economy, but first he wants to raise the really big stuff. “Have you seen the cricket?” he asks, and launches into an unkind description of the Australian player he saw whingeing on telly this morning about the bullying Indian cricket board. “A white man – a white man! – complaining about racism.” And he throws up his palms as if to say, how upside down can you get?

That’s not the only topsy-turvy thing around here. Take our location: the Bengal Club, the leading social club in Calcutta, former capital of British India. There was a time when it wouldn’t have let the likes of Bajoria through the door. “In the Bengal Club, they don’t allow dogs or Indians,” reported Somerset Maugham in 1938, “but in the Yacht Club in Bombay they don’t mind dogs; it’s only Indians they don’t allow.”

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That Bengali baggage

March 8, 2008

In Lounge Mint, Namita Bhandare reviews Neel Mukherjee’s Past Continuous, a promising debut about growing up in Kolkata in the early 1900s:

pastcontinuouslarge.jpg

At the age of 22, Ritwik Ghosh gets a chance that’s hard to come by: the chance to break with the past and start life anew. A scholarship to study literature in the UK is Ritwik’s ticket to escape the “possibility of never escaping” from the poverty of his life in Kolkata and the never-ending exploitation by relatives.

The chance to begin a fresh life is bolstered by the death of his parents, within a fortnight of each other. Their death brings for Ritwik a sense of freedom; a release from that “enormous burden of responsibility”. In any case, his own relationship with his mother has been tortured, even abusive (though it’s only in England that he becomes aware of the extent of the abuse).

But when the past is more than just a sequence of physical events and when the past is a series of experiences, it’s never quite that easy to escape it. And so, Ritwik’s sense of isolation and alienation as he hurtles ahead can only have disastrous consequences. To escape from his loneliness, Ritwik begins to write a book. Set at the turn of the 20th century in India, during Lord Curzon’s partition of Bengal, his book is about Maud Gilby, an Englishwoman who lives in India with the aim of “enlightening native women”. By this time, Ritwik has taken up lodgings with an incontinent, decrepit and seemingly senile Englishwoman named Anne Cameron.

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Night train

March 4, 2008

Thirty years ago, Ian Jack fell in love with riding the rails in India. When he returned this winter to board the famed Delhi to Kolkata Express, would he find the same romance? In The Guardian, UK:

kolkataporters.jpg

On the night train from Delhi to Kolkata, trying to persuade myself to sleep, I started to count the Indian railway journeys I’d made. I reached 100 or so and then gave up. So many journeys, so many early-morning cigarettes smoked over tea drunk from those disposable clay vessels called kulhads – the platform littered with their smashed fragments – as I got down at a junction and waited for a change of locomotive: dawn the best time of day in India, Gold Flake the best cigarette, steam the best smell, an engine whistle the best noise, tea the best drink. Also remembered: so many conversations with my fellow travellers, salesmen who would tender cards with telegraphic addresses (“CHEMCO, KANPUR”), amateur and professional astrologers, army officers going home on leave, conversations that happened bunk-to-bunk after the conversationalists had unpacked their bed-rolls and spread out their sheets – one-night friendships, often surprisingly intimate (“Tell me, do you love your wife?”), their only souvenir a business card found years later, tucked in a notebook.

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