Tag Archives: Calcutta

Bollywood and politics – in one word…

The huge advert in Kolkata’s South City Mall screamed its message across the marbled forecourt. “At our school your child could become the next Bill Gates, the next David Beckham, the next Katrina!”

Katrina? For a nanosecond I wondered why anyone would want their child to become a natural disaster. But then I remembered the Indian tendency to reduce those they love to a one-word moniker. “Katrina” is the stunning Katrina Kaif, the 26-year-old rising star of Indian pop culture. Half Kashmiri, half English, born in Hong Kong, raised in Hawaii – Katrina has all the globish credentials of a 21st century superstar with hit films and songs under her belt. Continue reading

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Prices, palaces and politics

An encounter with a member of the Delhi parliament the other day produced a stunning prediction. Growth in India, he believed, would be significantly quicker than even the remarkable predictions made at the start of the year. 12-14% was his hunch, based on discussions with economic advisors in the capital. There were so many tiny variables, he said; if India can get on the right side of these, supersonic growth is, he asserted, a racing certainty.

But even an economic dunce like me can see that controlling inflation in a fast growth economy is a significant hurdle. And right now, India is in danger of falling on the wrong side of the fence. Continue reading

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Guilty pleasures in the backstreets of Calcutta

“Way to Sonagachhi?” I asked tentatively, catching the eye of a helpful looking Calcuttan on a street corner. He gave me a wary sideways look.

“You want prostitutes and thing?”

“No, no,” I responded hurriedly. “It’s research… honestly…”

The man looked unconvinced. He waved his hand vaguely down the street. “Go straight a few minutes. Then left.” As I slunk away down the maze of lanes I reflected that the directions were about as useful as a single rupee in a brothel. Which somehow seemed appropriate.

Exploring Calcutta properly on foot takes time – and patience. I scratched below the surface on my visit here last year, but this time my footsteps have a more purposeful edge. As guides I am carrying a map and a guidebook from the pre-war period, both donated to the cause by a friend in Scotland, along with a wonderful walking guide written by the Bengali journalist Soumitra Das. And of course the perennial Lonely Planet.

Using four sources has its benefits and its drawbacks. The main benefit: an ability to drill deep into a neighbourhood, get thoroughly confused and lost, and emerge much the wiser. The drawback: trying to juggle four books on a busy Calcutta street while dodging human, canine and motorised traffic not to mention assorted bodies performing their morning ablutions. Not a task for the faint-hearted.

Underneath the main streets, the Calcutta metro forms a concealed spine running south to north and is a lifeline. It’s hard not to breathe a sigh of relief as you head down below, escaping the constant pressures of this overcrowded city. (The 2001 census recorded a figure of 13 million for the “urban agglomeration” which feels woefully low. It will be updated this year.)

Once on the expansive platform the lengthy underground trains act like great subterranean lungs, inhaling hundreds of passengers at each station until full to bursting and holding their breath through long tunnels before forcefully exhaling a mass of humans with great relief on the next platform.

Emerging above ground again I found myself at the bottom of two-mile long Chitpur Road. I took a tram to the top in preparation or my day’s exploration. (A word of caution to the unitiated – as suspension on the trams remains at bone-shaking levels, taking a seat is ill-advised and runs the risk of early onset of osteoporosis.)

Once at the end of the road I alighted and meandered slowly back down this wonderful spur that contains more life than many can take in a single day.  In the lanes that snake between the main thoroughfares the jumbled architecture frequently gives way to ornate carvings on buildings or intricate metalwork. In some instances it is maintained to a remarkable standard; in others the decay is well past repair. Some of the houses of the Hindu bhadralok class led to this area quite appropriately being termed the City of Palaces. They happily coexisted side by side with dwellings of those at the other end of the social scale.

The fabled Sonagachhi is still home to ladies of the night, most of them today of Nepali origin. I quickly found myself lost in the back alleys, declining as politely as I could the preferred method of invitation – a gentle nod of the head towards the upper rooms of decrepit buildings. Like any big “urban agglomeration”, prostitution, drugs and gambling are available in this city without much delving under the surface.

There is much to be discovered here – it is a city that can only really be understood by extensive legwork. For three hours yesterday I benefitted from a sprightly 81-year-old man who adopted me for the afternoon dragging me along highways and byways at a pace far beyond that which I prefer, frequently halting the traffic with a bold step in to the road and a waft of his walking stick.

An extraordinary city with an extraordinary past that the residents appear to have neither the will nor the inclination to shake free from.

As for the shadow the past casts on the city’s future, that’s for another day.

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Obituary: P Lal

I met the Indian publisher Professor Puroshottama Lal in his home in 2009 and wrote about it at the time. He died on November 5 2010. An obituary that I wrote (below) was published by The Times on 16 December. It is also available for subscribers to The Times website here.

Professor P Lal

Indian poet and publisher who believed passionately that his country’s writers should embrace English

Photo: Rosalind Solomon


Purushottoma Lal was a teacher, poet, translator and publisher. From his home in Calcutta, he championed Indian writing in English with his publishing house, Writers Workshop, for more than 50 years. He was the first publisher of, among others, Vikram Seth. Continue reading

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Who wants to be a TEN-millionaire?

It’s been 18 months since I was last in India, but my taxi was barely out of Calcutta airport before the familiar began to re-emerge.

As the horn crescendo rose with the early morning traffic, I noticed a huge billboard looming over the dusty circular road from where the Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan smiled serenely down on the passing traffic. Continue reading

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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:


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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