Category Archives: North India

Getting high in North India

I am heading for the hills of Sikkim for a couple of weeks, so this will be the last post until 18th April.

Darjeeling is currently wet. Very wet. There has been an interesting cast of characters to keep me amused though, the most entertaining of which has been Barbara, a 50-year-old Glaswegian member of the British Communist Party. Tales of being on the barricades with Tommy Sheridan have been relayed with a fine ferocity over a couple of breakfasts. She is here teaching the poorest of the poor. She claims that there is a warrant out for her arrest in the UK.

Since Kanchenjunga has peaked through the rain-clouds only once, I have decided that getting high is the only answer. Judging by the dazed looks on some faces, I am not alone. My particular method involves altitude. I am trekking into Goecha La at 4940m.

Au revoir.

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Clubbable Calcutta and Coal-fired comforts

East-west rivalries exist in many places – New York vs. LA; Sydney vs. Perth, and of course in Scotland, Edinburgh vs. Glasgow. In Scotland the differences were highlighted in the 80s when Glasgow adopted a burly double-entendre of a slogan designed to muscle it‘s way towards the top as Scotland‘s premier city (“Glasgow’s Miles Better”/”Glasgow Smiles Better“). Edinburgh’s pithy response was “Och yes, but Edinburgh’s slightly superior…””

There’s something of that going on between Calcutta and Delhi. The latter is a city on the make (see previous post) and definitely wants you to know it. There’s a sense of pushiness about the way the city portrays itself and acts.

Calcutta, on the other hand, doesn’t feel the need to push it’s case. It has a more languid feel to it with a rich Bengali cultural tradition, a coterie of important families still with some vestiges of power and influence, and some of the elitist Raj institutions having segwayed silkily into the hands of upper Bengali society.

I managed to sneak into one of those institutions, the Bengal Club, during my week there. No-one seemed the least bit fazed as I wandered through in cargo pants and a t-shirt asking for directions to the Reynolds Room on the first floor.
(I sat there for 30 minutes reading my book under the watchful eye of the fortune-teller in Reynolds‘ famous painting, completely undisturbed. Although the waiter was a little bemused).

As I left, I took a look at the notice board. Alongside an admonition form the President (apparently members have been giving tips staff, which is a strict no-no), there was a list of the latest additions to the reading material of the club. Blow the fiction list (Jack Higgins’ and John Grisham‘s latest, Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic & Baby, and Vikas Swarup’s Slumdog Millionaire) was the non-fiction list, which made quite interesting reading:

RED HAMMER OVER CALCUTTA UNIVERSITY – Santosh Bhattacharya
BARACK OBAMA – THE NEW FACE OF AMERICAN POLITICS – Martin Dupuis
GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ: A LIFE – Gerald Martin
DREAMS FROM MY FATHER – Barack Obama
THE RISE, DECLINE AND FUTURE OF THE BRITISH COMMONWEALTH – Krishnan Srivanasan

Each says something interesting about the concerns and interests of Club members. In particular, items 2 and 4 reminded me of the daily front-page drama in the newspapers here when I first arrived in November. The question of when Obama would call the Indian Prime Minister verged on a national obsession.

I enjoyed Calcutta immensely for many reasons, but the rising heat (and my consequent increasingly sweat-sodden state) made the siren-call of the “Queen of hill-stations” Darjeeling easy to cave in to.

My 16th Indian train journey brought me to the flats of West Bengal. From there, the famous Darjeeling toy-train creeps up 80km in distance and 6000 feet in height over 6 long hours, with some engineering contortions that are all the more spectacular for having been constructed in the 1921.

Slowly, everything morphs. Faces become more Nepalese/Tibetan in look; predominantly western clothing betrays both the shift towards a more Buddhist culture and the wealth that has come from tourism; and the weather, well, the weather becomes more… Scottish. The only thing that definitely didn’t change was the injudicious use of the horn. As the railway and the road vie with each other for space on precarious hill-side cuttings, our driver had no hesitation in honking for India.

As we reached the height of Ben Nevis, we were suddenly hit by a thick pea-souper that would put the Bengal Club’s Mulligatawny to shame. With visibility down to a matter of yards, I was suddenly glad of that horn-use. The disappointment of missing out on the normally magnificent views was offset by the beauty of the drops of condensation clinging to the rhododendrons and pine trees along the route.

As the train pulled into Darjeeling station, the rain started to fall heavily. I recalled something in one of the guidebooks about rooms with coal fires. It was too good to pass up.

I therefore now write this from a room on the Planter’s Club of Darjeeling (room rate plus 50 rupees temporary membership, plus 120 rupees per bucket of coal), on my handy (tiny) new net-book computer, with a roaring fire in front of me. “Aye. No bad, pal…” as we say in Scotland.

There’s more to write about Calcutta in due course, including a meeting with a remarkable 80-year-old professor in Calcutta. You can read about him here. I was lucky enough to be given a tip that he might be an interesting interviewee, and so it proved.

Sikkim next.

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Calcutta Chronicles Part 3: Marriage Advice and a journey into Jute

[continued from previous post]

No. 2 Lee Road

From the Kali Temple, I jumped in a taxi for Lee Road. The bloody sacrifice I had just witnessed had made me think that I might be running around like a headless… goat. (It’s quite a sight I can tell you. Not for the squeamish).

But persistence is the name of the game, and I was full of hope that I might find something at the house where my grandparents spent their last few years in Calcutta.

As we turned into Lee Road half an hour later, my heart sank. Looking up the street, all I could see were large office buildings and shopping complexes. It all felt a bit depressing.

Nevertheless, I wanted to explore. I asked the driver to pull over and walked up towards a busy junction at the top pf the road

I walked past Number 4, a three storey office block for the ITC, a large Indian conglomerate that has expanded beyond its tobacco origins. Then Number 2 crept into view. There it was – set back from the road behind some trees was a crumbling period building, the house where my grandparents lived, still standing.

I walked through the gates and in through the ornate wooden doors, climbing a wide staircase past dusty-looking office doors that showed little sign if life. I reached the top floor. It was marked “ITC Transit Flat”. I rang the bell.

The door was opened by a (justifiably puzzled) Indian man. It took a few minutes and a phone call to a mysterious “boss” before I crossed the threshold. I had been more than lucky – the man was the flat manager, on a short (15-minute) visit to the flat to prepare for visitors.

The smart 4-bedroom flat inside is used by the top brass at ITC as they pass through Calcutta. As the flat manager astutely observed that “… At that time there was a British King, now there are Indian Kings – Wipro, ITC, even CEO of Pepsico!”

It was easy though, to imagine my grandparents living here and watching the Raj ebb away into history.

After walking around, we sat down for tea. The normal sequence of introductory questions commenced. I gave the standard answers – you can work out the questions. (If you’ve been to India you’ve heard them a thousand times).

[Question 1]
“I’m from Scotland.”

[Clarifying Question 1A]
“It’s in the UK.”

[Clarifying Question 1B]
“Near England. OK, England.”

[Question 2]
“Thirty-fi… Thirty seven.”

[Question 3]
“No I’m not married. Maybe one day.”

(One gets used to the offers of marriage assistance here in India. On this particular occasion, there was a (perfectly innocent) supplementary enquiry – did I want a love-match or an arranged marriage? I patiently explained the nature of the western Romantic Ideal. He wasn’t convinced).

A journey into Jute – Gourepore Revisited

There was still one piece of the jigsaw that I needed to put in place relating to my grandfather’s time in Calcutta. In the late 1920s, he had moved from his initial work (Tea) into Jute. This had meant some hard yards traveling to and from the Mills. Here’s what he said in his notes:

“A few years had to pass before I could study jute, that is, how to buy the raw material, how to run a mill, and how to sell the goods. Never having been in Dundee [“Juteopolis” in the UK], I had to live at the Barry Mills and travel to and from Calcutta daily, and though a longer day could hardly be imagined, for one had to be up at dawn to see the parcels arriving from up-country, it was full of interest all the time. The Gourepore Mill was something to be proud of as the quality of the cloth made there enjoyed a high reputation. And of course orders were made for millions of yards.”

Finding Gourepore was my final mission.

Maps aren’t that easy to come by in India, so I had kept my eyes peeled for potential clues while I was walking around the commercial district earlier in the week. After a few dead ends, I spotted a sign saying “Jute Balers Association – celebrating 100 years of service”. I walked in.

The space inside had the whiff of a (sadly under-used) trading/auction room. A few men sat round tables drinking tea and chatting. I walked over and explained my mission. I was directed to a poorly-lit room in the corner, and told to wait.

After a while, a thin elderly man with translucent skin walked in and sat opposite me. I again explained my purpose and handed him my grandfather’s photos and the type-written notes. As he read them, a wan smile came over his face.

Sometimes I really do wonder whether someone is watching over me on this trip. It transpired that he had been the manager of the mill between 1964 and 1974. As we chatted about the past, he confirmed that the mills still existed (“though they have changed”) and wrote down detailed instructions for two rail journeys to get me there.

I set off the next morning. With an introduction from none other than Mr. Phanibhusan Bannerjee Esq., CEO of the Jute Balers Association), I felt not unduly confident.

The train journeys and the four hours I spent in Gourepore were a story in themselves. But that can wait. Suffice to say that, though the mills are now under Government protection (I could not therefore get inside the compounds) the buildings remain.

With four eager 18-year-old guides from the local village, I got what I came for. We dodged our way round some guards to see some of the buildings, climbed on walls to see others, and even managed to take an updated photo of the bridge over the River Hooghly that I had always been fascinated by. It was a hoot. In baking heat.

Since then (two days ago), I have been enjoying Calcutta at leisure, soaking up the deep Bengali cultural heritage while walking the streets, meeting with a former Indian MP now a Christian Missionary, visiting Mother Theresa’s resting place, and taking in the amazing film “Firaaq”. (It’s an intensely human take on the 2002 Gujarat riots, and I would highly recommend it). I have got so used to following Indian language films through the facial expressions alone that I don’t know what I’ll do when I see an English one again.

[Click here to read about tracing my grandfather’s footsteps through Sikkim]

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