Thursday, 26 January 2012


13th - 24th Jan 2012

The Victoria Memorial. Calcutta.
Another day and night spent in dirty Delhi doing dhobi and a bit of shopping in the relatively smart and modern 'shopping mall' area in Saket on the southern side of the city. Having said that they didn't have much of what I wanted and the security procedures you have to put up with in these shops are a little irritating, but at least this is a tout and hawker free area.

Then onto the 1640hrs Rajdhani Express from New Delhi Central to Sealdah station in Calcutta. An eighteen hour overnight journey in another 2 AC carriage. My compartment co-habitees included this couple ( left ). His name was, as far as I could make out, Mr Basha, or something similar. They were actually a charming couple who generously gave me the window seat and a sticky sweet or two. They turned down my return offer of a glass of Indian wine. What a delightful orange beard he sports. I have noticed that quite a few Indian people dye their hair this alarming colour using, I am told, henna. Mr Basha spent several periods kneeling on one of the bunks, facing the wall ( east I suppose ) while mumbling and aggressively pointing his arse towards the rest of us. Mrs Basha did not seem to notice; well she sees it all the time I suppose. The guy reading the newspaper is an Indian living in America and was back here visiting relatives. I must say, all the people I have met on these trains have been most pleasant and helpful company. They have been kind to me by translating what is on offer for meals and giving advice on what to do at destinations. I think they rather enjoy having an ignorant foreigner to look after. We were served complimentary tea and sandwiches, cooked dinner ( chicken and rice, bread rolls plus a sort of pasty, fruit and ice cream ) and breakfast on this service. All quite civilised. The meal packages had the witty logo 'Meals on Wheels' stamped on them. They actually had a buffet/dining car, I think, but I couldn't be bothered to visit it. On the northern outskirts of Calcutta we rolled through the station of Dum Dum. In olden Raj days this town was the site of an important ordnance factory which produced the original, and now banned, 'Dum-Dum' bullets. I bet you didn't know that. We arrived, more or less on time, at the 'bustling' ( BR 8 ) Sealdah station in north-central Calcutta at 1045hrs on Friday the 13th.
On the advice of the Indian/American I took a taxi to the Tollygunge Club in the south of the city. I was initially impressed by three things 1). The taxi , one of the ubiquitous ancient yellow 'Amby' wrecks, I picked up from an orderly cab rank outside the station ( very few touts ). It was surprisingly cheap and was safely driven, despite a frighteningly loose steering rack and pinion with resulting wild arm movements by the driver to keep the thing going in a straightish line, for what was about a 45 minute journey. I gave him  R150 ( $3 ) and he promptly, without me asking, gave me R30 change! Impressive. 2). I was expecting the city to be a foul mass of stinking garbage, open sewers and heaving filthy masses. It wasn't. It was a bit crowded, fumey and ramshackle in some of the places we went through but on the whole comparatively clean ( compared with all of north Bombay for instance ) and with decent enough roads. 3). The Tollygunge Club, a 'Country and Golf Club', is situated down a tree lined road in a private park in the south of the city and, if a little faded and in need of a touch of paint, would not have appeared out of place in the British Home Counties. Not quite Hurlingham or Wentworth perhaps but not to far off!
I was told, as the American/Indian might have known, that it is a strictly 'members only' establishment so I could not stay there, and anyway they were full up with wedding parties and golfers. I noticed several English and Americans booking in. The helpful guest-house manager told me that I should try a small hotel almost opposite the Club entrance called 'Executive Suites'. He phoned to make sure they had a room available and even arranged for a car to take me there. Free! What service. I was doubly impressed.
This small but clean and pleasant establishment proved, again by sheer chance, to be great value. It had free  wifi and the frightfully 'upmarket' couple who owned it proved to be remarkably good news. They gave me lots of useful advice and, towards the end of my rather protracted stay here, gave me the use of their chauffeur driven car and much assistance with 'financial' admin concerning my next port of call. I was to be here for two weeks due to the time necessary to secure a visa and then waiting for, dare I say this, a FLIGHT to Burma. There is no permitted way in to Burma, for tourists, by road, rail or sea.
Calcutta, West Bengal, was originally called Kalikata, one of three tiny nondescript villages close together near the mouth of the Hooghly river. It was 'discovered' by a British merchant, Job Charnock, in 1686 and he considered the site appropriate for a new, defendable colonial settlement. Thus it started to grow and prosper and ultimately became the British Raj's capital city before that was moved to New Delhi. Hence there is a lot of 'old empire' architecture about the place, much of which being in a photogenic state of semi-collapse ( but certainly not all ). Technically ( politically ) the place is renamed Kolkata but, as with most Indian cities, most locals still call it Calcutta. Where's the 'romance and history' in 'Kolkata'.

I spent the first weekend visiting a few of the city sights such as the white marble confection of the Victoria Memorial ( see photo at the top ). This is a truly magnificent building and was designed to commemorate Queen Victoria's 1901 diamond jubilee, although it wasn't completed until 1921. Think US Capitol meets Taj Mahal. It is, actually, much bigger and more elaborate than the Taj Mahal. As someone pointed out, if this had been built to honour a beautiful Indian princess rather than a dead colonial Queen, this would surely be considered one of India's greatest buildings.
Right: Herself on the throne

The statues both inside and out were impressive. Left: One of two grand bronze panels on the plinth where VR sits. Inside the memorial there are life size statues of her in her youth, King George V, Queen Mary and Robert Clive ( Clive of India ) amongst others. The building was well packed with mainly Indian visitors shuffling past many pictures of scenes of the day, portraits and descriptions of it's construction, all mounted on rather tacky looking hoardings around the walls, plus display cases containing weapons and general impedimenta from those days. Photography inside was prohibited. The park andgardens area outside was a popular venue for sitting around and 'taking in the air'. It was all clean and tidy and generally well maintained. Nice flowers too.
I went on to the nearby racecourse. Having been somewhat disappointed by the Delhi track, I was not expecting much. How pleasantly surprised I was. This is the not Kolkata Racecourse, it is 'The Royal Calcutta Turf Club'! It is a 'big' course with impressive old stands which give an excellent view even from the cheap seats, a good galloping right-handed grass track and excellent eating and drinking facilities. It is, in short, well up to the standards of a decent British or Irish or, dare I say, French, racecourse and was well attended, packed indeed, by a most enthusiastic crowd. What a mega-change from the slummy dump at Delhi!

Left: There were four main stands all, presumably, built at the turn of the 19th/20th century. The members stand and enclosure had private boxes which were inhabited by some very 'pukka' old fashioned looking Indian gents and also corporate boxes containing well-to-do parties including several foreigners. The dress was typical of a British racecourse with plenty of 'Jack-the-Lad' wide boys in shiny suits and shades and the more traditional tweed and trilby brigade.

Right: The members stand and 'boxes'. I somehow inveigled my way up here and bumped into a charming Brit, from Leeds, and his wife who were guests in the box of the American Consul. He, the Brit that is, is on attachment to the US Consulate. Drinks and food were delivered by white jacketed waiters. It was all very civilised. There were also outside dining areas and a large seated bar behind the stands. I was fascinated by the race commentator. He had a remarkably plummy English accent!

The main race of the day was the EverReady Calcutta Derby over 2400 metres ( is that about 1 mile 5 furlongs? ). The second favourite, In the Spotlight, was ridden by the English jockey Martin Dwyer ( he won the 2006 English Derby on Sir Henry ), and he duly won this by a double distance too. Left: In the parade ring; white with green diamond. M Dwyer up.

I suspect a lot of good planning had gone into this victory. Right: In the Spotlight passing the winning post with only the nose of the second horse in sight. A most convincing win. ( Victoria Memorial in the background ).

Left: An elaborate prize-giving ceremony followed on the track by the winning post after the big race.

Indian racing colours often feature the swastika design ( right ). This, of course, would be outlawed in Europe. The swastika is, originally, a Sanscrit word and an old Indian design which symbolises 'auspiciousness' and 'good fortune'. It still implies that meaning here. It was hijacked by Mr Hitler & Co and thence demonised in the West.

Left: The large drinking and eating area. As always in India staffed by very attentive waiters. Lots of G&T and whiskey and sodas were being consumed along with the ever-present Kingfisher beer and curry.

It was a very jolly and amusing afternoon at the races.

Right: To the north of the Victoria Memorial is the enormous grass park known as the Maidan. It must be a mile long and is used for any amount of leisure activities amongst which feature cricket, of course, riding horses, flying kites, football and just having picnics. A sort of bigger version of Clapham Common.

Left: A Sunday hack around the Maidan for Pa and the children on a hired pony. No arseing about with crash-hats here.

Left: These tastefully decorated horse-drawn carriages were all the rage. They too are hired from around the Maidan and seemed very popular. There were lots of them and they were kept busy with families enjoying a trot around some of the park. Not sure exactly where they went, but the passengers looked as if they were enjoying themselves. Some of the nags looked as if they could do with a good feed.

The throngs of old 'amby' taxis and auto-rickshaws in the city, painted in yellow and green livery, work to a different system than in other Indian cities. They all operate from set taxi ranks and auto-rickshaws all operate set routes. So you turn up at a rickshaw rank and find a vehicle that is going your way. It then waits until its full up ( and you get five passengers on/in a rickshaw; three in the back and one either side of the driver ). Then off you go, hanging on tight if you are sitting, one buttock on the seat, next to the driver. As a result you seldom pay more than R6 ( 10 cents ) for a journey. The taxis use meters which actually work and the end result is , or was in my case, remarkably cheap journeys.

As well as auto-rickshaws and the pedalled tri-shaw versions, Calcutta must be the very last refuge of the  ancient man-pulled basic rickshaws ( left ). There are plenty of them around and they are not primarily for the tourists. Indeed these things with their large wheels, overhead shelters ( folded down here ) and almost complete lack of mechanics are the most effective mode of conveyance when the streets become seriously flooded. They are cheap to run and highly efficient and, as I have mentioned at length somewhere before, provide the 'puller' with free and healthy exercise. This old chap must have been 70 if he was a day............

......but, over a comparatively short distance, he went like the clappers! He rang a little silver bell to warn the slow movers to get out of his way! I refrained from making 'giddyup' noises and clicking my tongue. I was only going down the street to a small hostelry, and I think he wanted to charge me 2 rupees. I gave him R100 and, after recovering from the shock, I suspect he has retired on the proceeds.

In fact I was going to visit the Fairlawn Hotel which is a relic of a bygone age and an iconic watering hole in the Sudder Street area ( popular with backpackers and tourists ).  It is of the 1780s Raj era and became a hotel in 1936. The owner/manager is a 92 year old Armenian lady called Violette Smith. She escaped with her parents from persecution by the Turks in Armenia to India and subsequently married an English army officer, a Major Smith. She, and the hotel, has been visited by many well known people over the years and she keeps hundreds of photos of these personages, and her family, on the walls. The furniture and fittings cannot have been changed since the 1930s and there is a jungly garden to sit out and eat and drink in. An interesting place. I believe Mrs Smith limits her appearances nowadays to chatting up the guests at breakfast time.

Right: A statue, near the Maidan, of Indira Ghandi. There was also a statue of Ho Chi Minh nearby and a street named after him too. I wasn't aware that he was well respected in West Bengal, but I am now. I'm not sure what the connection was.

I noticed one major difference between Calcutta and the other places I have visited in India. There is an almost total lack of pestilential touts and hawkers. As a tourist you are left to wander unmolested. Nobody was grabbing at me and trying to tell me their life story, or asking mine, and then trying to get money from me or 'show' me something or somewhere. It was a pleasant and refreshing change, especially from Delhi. In general, the people I met, and there is undoubtedly severe poverty, impossible filth in places, a creaking infrastructure and anarchy on the streets to test their patience, were remarkably polite and pleasant and didn't give any hassle. Neither was I ripped off by taxi drivers or auto-rickshaws or, indeed, by anyone. If you can say such a thing in a generally overcrowded and polluted place like this, it was like a breath of fresh air.

I did notice signs that the authorities are trying to bring some order and cleanliness to the place.
There are lots of notices saying "Keep Kolkata Clean", and "Obey the Rules of the Road", and "Don't drop Litter" etc. etc. It is, one feels, pissing in the wind. It will take a complete change of culture and mind-set to stop most Indians dropping litter and flinging garbage into the street ( they keep their own immediate premises immaculate but garbage, once outside their door, goes unnoticed and uncollected ). There is evidence, however, that valiant efforts are being made by rubbish carts and lorries to redress the problem. Some streets are actually surprisingly clean. They have at least got rid of the dreadful cows. Calcutta is a cow-free zone.

There are also hundreds of thousands who have no home and who live under primitive shelters on the street ( right ), and this was a relatively up-market location in Sudder Street.

That, as you can imagine, means that they perform all their 'ablutions' on the street. I learnt early on ( because I saw it ) that some pavements ( not in the more prestigious and policed areas I hasten to add ) which back onto a wall are used as lavatories, night and day. One does not walk on the pavements in outlying areas.

Right: Games of street cricket are popular. This highly competitive match was between Royal Sporting Club and Rangers Sporting Club.  Royal won. I watched along with several vociferous supporters. They probably expend their energy on things like this rather than in the present day British tradition of drunken pub and street brawls.

Left: The normal washing and bathing arrangements for a lot of the population. They do keep themselves remarkably clean despite lack of domestic facilities.

Many have no money, no job and few prospects. They do, however, breed and so perpetuate, or even increase, this cycle of hopeless and squalid existence and this is exacerbated by incomers from the countryside.  Some city areas resemble over-run rabbit warrens.   One feels that any national or urban government has little chance of containing let alone improving the situation. I may be wrong.

Another rather off-putting habit to which the 'lower end' of the population is prone is the chewing of betel nut in it's various forms. I discussed this with my landlady at the hotel. She says it is frowned upon by most respectable people, and certainly any health authority, but it is a national addiction. The crushed betel nut is chewed and has a mild narcotic effect. It produces in the chewer's mouth a large quantity of bubbling red saliva which is then spat out in great gouts. Many taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers lean out of their vehicles and 'gob' great jets of this red gunge onto the road every two or three minutes. There are lots of large red stains on pavements and walls as a result. The juice also rots and stains teeth and gums and is, apparently, carcinogenic. It is fairly disgusting to watch this in action, is, like the littering, set into the national psyche. I suppose our chewing gum spitters-out in UK who leave their dreadful mark on the pavements are pretty revolting too, but I think the betel nut juice spitters are, on balance, worse.

There are, as you can imagine, lots of crippled beggars on the streets. Unlike some of the shiftless creatures who hang around our British sub-ways and shopping areas waiting, with poor starving dog in tow, for hand-outs to fuel their drug habit, the Indian beggar is really in need. This poor chap ( right ) lying on the ground was shivering and shaking and, as you can see, has no arms. The money left on the groundsheet was never touched, only added to. I hope he has a friend to gather it up for him!

Rather by-the-by I noticed several of these street vendors selling large giraffes ( left ). OK, if there was just one I could understand it, but there were many of them in different parts of the city. Maybe a ship carrying a large cargo of these ornaments was wrecked and they all washed up ashore somewhere. Is there something special about stuffed giraffes that I am unaware of?

On the other side of the tracks there is, as I mentioned earlier, the Tollygunge Club; or the 'Tolly' as its affectionally known. It is a Golf and Country Club founded in 1895 and, apart from the odd lick of paint, hasn't changed much since, I suspect. It has, primarily, a good golf course, but also a swimming pool and several tennis courts. There are two restaurants, a guest house ( known as Tolly Towers ) and a large clubhouse. I wandered back there the day after I settled into the 'Executive Suite' ( not very executive really but good value ).

Right: The 'Shamiana' dining room and bar at the Tolly. I had not been there long when I 'bumped into' a rather smart and somewhat 'pukka' military-looking oldish Indian gent who was sitting by himself with a gin & tonic. I introduced myself and we got talking. Its amazing how far you can get with a somewhat embellished version of your own military background i.e. utter bullshit, together with mentioning that my father was a Sqn Ldr ( Major ) in the 19th KGVO Lancers, an Indian Regiment ( now in Pakistan but we'll let that pass ) in the war, which happens to be true. To cut the story short, he agreed to 'sponsor' me for a temporary membership of the Club. Very decent of him indeed, and the Tolly became a bit of a haven for me while I was hanging around waiting for my visa to be processed.

Left: The Clubhouse which, I feel, has seen better days and is in need of a spot of paint and more grass on the lawn. I think they had just removed a large marquee from the front lawn which possibly explains the bits and pieces lying about.
It is a very popular and well attended Club with lots of social activities as well as all the sporting facilities.
I spent some time getting gently sozzled watching England being hammered by Pakistan in the Test match in Dubai.
I also saw India being annihilated by Australia. The Indian viewers at the Club seemed rather resigned to it.

Left: A view down the first ( I think ) fairway on the golf course, just abeam the dining room. I know little about golf. What a strange noise those 'drivers' make when they whack the ball down the range; a sort of loud 'clink'. Also, I noticed that the golfists seem to take far too many shots trying to sink their ball down the hole from remarkably short 'putting' distances. Possibly the result of a good lunch.

There is a Metro underground in the city which operates a single line North/South. It proved, for me, remarkably useful and efficient. The nearest station was five minutes walk from the Tolly and my hotel. It shifted people from one end of town to the other quickly and the trains were very frequent. It did become incredibly 'bustling' ( BR 10 ) at rush hours. Only Indians, in my experience so far, can do claustrophobic and dangerously packed crowds with such remarkable patience and sang-froid as occur on occasions like these. I saw one of these rush hour melees and chose not to enter. No way Jose!

I spent two evenings out at city restaurants. The first being at the Oberoi Hotel, tucked away off the main street, Chowringhee Road, near the Esplanade ( west centre ). What a smart place! A bit expensive, but these jewels do exist in what seem otherwise to be noisy crowded bazaars. It had all that could be expected of a grand 5 star establishment but in a pleasant rather old-fashioned style. Immaculate service, as always.
Another evening I spent on the Floatel ( left ), a converted ship of some sort which is moored to the east bank of the Hooghly river near Fort William north of the Maidan. A pleasant enough area and pleasant enough to watch the sun set over the Hooghly.

I felt I had to go to see the place where the wizened little Albanian nun, Mother Teresa, once operated from with her blue and white dishcloth wearing sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, and is now entombed. It is a rather nondescript building on Bose Street and is known as 'The Mother House'. Lots of foreigners visit this place to pay their respects and even offer their services. Apparently you can, other than on Thursdays when I was there, visit her old bedroom and see her.....bed, and food bowl. The tomb, right, was enormous for one so small............

......but she is kept in a glass case outside anyway. Here she is ( left ) terrifying the life out of a naked baby.
The Mother Teresa 'brand' has generated a lot of industries in the local area selling tons of Mother Teresa tat. There are a raft of shops nearby selling this junk.There are also some highly professional and persistent touts and hawkers who make quite a good living on the back of generous and 'giving for a good cause' tourists.

I must say, despite a lot of squalor and chaos, I rather liked Calcutta. I liked the people I met. There are many remarkably pleasant parts of the city with good facilities and even some of the poorer areas are making a big effort to keep the streets clean with rubbish noticeably absent in some surprising areas. Perhaps they have a more effective City council, or whatever, here. I used a brilliant shopping centre only about 10 minutes auto-rickshaw ride away for my needs, and it was equal to most British shopping centres.

Visa for Burma is now obtained, and was done so with no fuss and little form filling from an efficient and polite staff at the Myanmar Consulate. I just had to wait through a couple of weekends and two public holidays which lengthened the process. The only major hiccup I encountered was when I discovered, late in the day, that in Burma there are no ATM cash machines, they don't accept any credit cards or travellers' cheques and all tour bookings and hotel costs have to be paid for in pristine ( unmarked and uncreased ) US dollar bills!
This is because the all powerful and beneficent Uncle Sam, backed up by the kowtowing EU, have placed financial and trade embargoes on Burma because they object to the present Burmese government and, probably for their own commercial ( oil ) and political motives, wish to punish and get rid of it. Sadly, of course, this affects the normal Burmese public much more seriously than it does the wealthy military members of the government. The major problem for me occurred because I then discovered that Indian banks and travel agencies are not permitted to sell or otherwise issue US$ to foreigners. Bloody hell, I thought, how do I get out of this hole. I seriously thought I would have to cancel the trip. Luckily, and this is where my most helpful hotel owners came to the fore, because they knew a bank manager well and he, in turn, knew a man who could 'unofficially' change enough rupees ( if I could get enough ) into US$ that afternoon. It worked and they saved the day. I was incredibly grateful.
On the road to rickshaw.

There may be a bit of a hiatus in Burma because I have been advised that the internet facilities there are not so widespread. For those who are remotely interested in reading this stuff, you may have to wait a couple of weeks before more of these gripping adventures are 'posted'.

1 comment:

  1. Pah, condescending bilge. If you dont like the places you go to, dont travel. We've got enough of you twopenny halfpenny Englishmen making a living out here.