I just spent a day and a half in Calcutta, a city that always makes Bombay look good. The deficiencies of the capital of what was once India’s most industrialised state became apparent days before I got there, when I found all three-, four-, and five-star hotels booked out. Obviously, synchronising my visit with the start of the deciding test of the India-England cricket series didn’t help, but what kind of metropolis has so few upscale lodgings that the barmy army and maybe some suits attending conferences can take over every single room in town?
Plan B was to look at the B&B ratings on Tripadvisor. I found a room available at Relax Inn, which turned out to be perfectly satisfactory.
Ten minutes into my ride from Calcutta airport, I asked the driver for his mobile phone number. He told me he possessed no cellphone.
Me: No phone? But what if there’s no parking where I alight? How will I know where you are?
Driver: I’ll be around.
There was no parking outside Relax Inn. Having checked in, I came out to give the driver instructions, but he had already gone off to find a parking spot. When I was ready to leave for my first appointment after freshening up, I asked the doorman if the driver had returned to tell him where he was parked. He had not.
I called the car rental agency’s number on the receipt.
Me: I think the driver has left.
Him: No, he must be there.
Me: But how can I find him?
Him: Look around, I’m sure he’s there somewhere.
Luckily, autorickshaws are plentiful in Cal.
On my way back from the first meeting, I stopped at a chemist to buy a razor, toothpaste and stuff I’d forgotten in my hurried packing. It was an impressive looking branch of the chemists’ chain Frank Ross. Eight men were at the counters when I entered, each wearing a green jacket embroidered with the Frank Ross name, each sitting at a computer looking like he was doing work of national importance. I saw two customers, neither of whom was being served. When I asked if they could sell me a razor, one of the men gave me a can’t-you-see-I’m-busy look. Eventually, a ninth man appeared from the stock room, and I asked him for a disposable razor.
He said, “We only have packs of four. It’s a Buy 3, Get 1 Free promotion.”
He took a strip of Gillette Prestos off a hook and held them out.
Him: See, four for 54 rupees.
Me: I’m sure you can sell them individually as well. They must have individual prices.
Scrutinising the packaging, he found each razor was priced at 18 rupees. But then he shook his head.
Him: If I sell you one, then who will buy the remaining three?
Me: The same people who buy them when there is no special offer.
He looked at me with a pitying expression. Obviously, I was the only idiot in the world who would buy a single razor when four could be had for the price of three, but the man was generous enough not to say so. He told me, only, that he could not offer me the razor I desired.
A corner shop sold me a Gillette Presto without hassle. Back at Relax Inn, I found my driver had reparked next to the lodge, and was ready to ferry me around. He couldn’t understand why I hadn’t scoured the neighbouring streets looking for him.
The next day, I decided to begin at the Birla Academy, which was hosting an interesting show curated by Shaheen Merali. Getting there, I found the place opens only between 3 and 8 pm. I had consulted the website in advance, but the people who built the elaborate site obviously felt that stuff like opening timings, or even the address of the place, didn’t merit mention.
Next stop was the Kali temple at Kalighat. I’d never actually been inside, since I avoid functioning temples as far as possible, but with time on my hand, I braved the gauntlet of flower sellers, guides and touts. I lost count of the number of people who tried taking money off me between the gate and the sanctum. Every few steps somebody would insist shoes had to be removed at that spot. One man screeched as I passed him despite his warning, as if I’d broken a dreadful taboo. The temple has no official footwear storage, so one is forced to leave slippers and shoes in the care of shopkeepers. They refuse money for looking after the shoes, but ask you to buy a garland or some other item of worship, which I refused to do. Finally, I found a man willing to watch my shoes for five rupees. As I looked for the entry queue, a man asked if I wouldn’t rather pay 100 rupees and gain instant access to the sanctum. I said I’d wait in line.
“It will take three hours”, he said.
“Obviously your goddess has nothing against lying”, I wanted to reply, but ignored him. In the end, it took about forty minutes for me to get my five seconds in front of the startling icon with black face, red eyes and a massive golden tongue hanging out of its mouth. The Kali temple is relatively modern, having been built in the 19th century, and features a domed sanctum, which means it is a little larger and better ventilated than most garbhagrihas. The sanctum’s walls are painted yellow, stained with soot, clad with white tiles at the lower reaches, all of which gives it the feel of an old-style Irani restaurant kitchen. The idol is held in a cage in the centre, above which is a canopy shaped like the hood of a kitchen’s exhaust. As our line slowly wound around the room, pressing against the wall, priests went round thrusting flowers into hands, daubing and smearing stuff on vacant foreheads, and generally ensuring that every individual in line contributed to the temple kitty. Periodically, our line would stop as VIP guests, which meant anybody forking out extra dough, were thrust in from the exit point for an expedited darshan. In the brief time I was given to examine the idol, no fewer than five entreaties / demands for contributions rang in my ears.
“Give me fifty rupees. Ten rupees”
“Don’t give me anything, give it to the temple. Put it in the donation box”
“Put money in this box, in the box”
“You haven’t made a contribution. Give me something.”
It’s a pity that workers in businesses such as Frank Ross Pharmacy have a statist perspective. Rather than government employees, they ought to model themselves on the Kali temple’s priests, who are perfectly mercenary, single-minded in their determination to get some cash from each person who enters their domain. OK, I’d prefer it if businesses left out the cheating, the harangues, the stealing, but no business does that without proper regulation, and temples are among the least regulated commercial operations in the country.
I suppose the money-grabbing at the Kali temple was no worse than I’ve encountered at Puri Jagannath or the shrines that dot Pushkar lake. On the other hand, Kalighat offers neither the architectural delights of the former, nor the marvelous atmosphere of the latter.
As for the city as a whole, I'm amazed I’ve never disliked it. In fact, I’d even concede I am a little fond of Calcutta. It has character, a certain laid-back gentleness, and retains the core of a great city in its monuments, parks, and museums. It doesn't hurt that the place is cheap (everything in Bombay costs about 50% more), and the inhabitants fond of fish, red meat and liquor (though alcohol is reasonably priced, Calcuttans don't drink themselves under the table in the manner of Goans and Keralites). Also, there are plenty of smart, good-looking women around (so what if backcombing never went out of fashion here?). Right now, citizens are feeling pretty depressed, having hopped out of the frying pan of Communist rule and landed in the fire of Mamata Bannerjee’s lunacy. It’s always wrong to believe things can only get better. Like Iranians discovered when Khomeini took over from the Shah, things can always get worse. And yet, Calcutta does seem to be developing fast, particularly in areas close to the airport like Salt Lake and New Town. The development is very much in the Gurgaon mode, all tower blocks and malls, with none of the sense of community that still defines neighbourhoods in Calcutta proper; but that’s preferable to the dilapidation and decay whose depiction has provided lucrative careers for so many painters.