We have precisely seven hours in Kolkata before the taxi leaves for the airport. We’re spending the day traveling on a whim, what I have decided to term ‘to kerouac’ after the author of the Beatnik classic, On the Road.
We kerouac on to the metro, it’s easy to use, the tickets are small round plastic pieces, like casino chips, that you touch-in to enter and drop in a slot to exit. It’s shallow and fast and, with a single line and announcements in Bengali and English, almost impossible to get lost in.
Each compartment has a women-only section and amongst the adverts is a helpline for harassment against women – progress in a country all too often hitting the headline for the wrong reasons in women’s rights.
We get off at a stop called Maidan and enjoy a stroll in the sun, down boulevard lined with high trees and skyscrapers and pass a large field edged with flower beds, where horses graze. There’s a hint of Hyde Park.
Between the trees, a grandiose, white dome, appears, becoming more intricate with columns and arches, the closer we get. The Victoria Memorial and the museum behind is grand and imposing, its dome an east-west fusion, shades of the Raj and shades of the Taj Mahal but falling short in beauty and romance.
After the Great Mutiny of 1857 (called the First War of Independence in India) the British needed to make a statement that they were in India to stay, and the buildings and monuments were built to convey a sense of permanence, of granite, stone and brass, to last like the empire, for eternity.
Despite the pomp, the Empress looks to be in her own little bubble seated up there, there’s something quixotic in her look, an aberration in today’s confident and forward-looking India. Her dress is unflattering, and like Shelly’s Ozymandias, once great and mighty, but today humbled. Pigeon droppings stream down her face like tears lamenting the demise of the Raj.
The museum was closed so we walked round the lake and across manicured gardens of perfect lawns and on paths through the sculpted trees, the careful colonial planning of 150 years ago today affording secluded shade for lazy gardeners and clandestine teenage lovers.
Taxis are plentiful and we hop on one and I ask for Park Street because it’s the only street I know in the city, the large central thoroughfare, like Fifth Avenue, Oxford street or the Champs Elysee.
I ask the driver to switch on his meter – he says that it’s a a 50 rupee surcharge. I enquire why and he pretends to not hear me. In Park Street, the buildings, signboards and overhanging wires jostle for ascendancy but it’s the trees that strike the eye. Bottle palms, banana plants, bougainvilleas line the roads, the city is green, but not in a conservation sense. Left to their own devices, the city would be overgrown in days.
Most rampant of all the trees is the banyan, a clever tree, and selfish too, for, not content with one set of roots, its branches send down more roots that reconnoiter the soil and here they pry, attempt to entwine brickwork, locked in a perpetual wrestling match with the buildings, fencing, lampposts and anything else made by the hand of man.
The trees give the pavements a soothing, leafy shade, and, unusual for an Indian mega-city, we’re not hassled by hawkers on the pavements. Not buying anything is met with casual indifference.
At the end of Park Street is a flyover, with a street market selling anything from knock-off Nike, to skirts, shirts and selfie sticks at fixed prices. Down a side street we eye some shawls draped over the front of a shop, its Kashmiri owner, beckons is in, his eyes flit between us and his TV.
The second test is on and the Australians have mastered the Indian spinners. There’s a laid back air in the haggling, he’s more interested in discussing the recent rule change from the MCC on grounding the bat in a run-out. We discuss the emergence of British Indian cricketers from Nasser Hussein to Hamid Hafeez while he wraps Sarah two scarves.
There is something of Angkor Watt meets New York City in places, with its trees that push their roots in to cracks in buildings and burst their walls, and a self-absorbed metropolis its veins coursing with lines of yellow taxis driven by Indian drivers.
The kings have changed since my previous visits here as a child in the 70s. Today it’s Capitalist India, not Licence Raj, with its new princes, not officials and babus, but Apple, Microsoft, Adidas and Bose with their conspicuous shop fronts, a far cry from the Calcutta of religious riots during my father’s student days here in 1947.
Hints of old England remain in nooks of Kolkata, more than any other city in India. Whereas Delhi was already a city when the British arrived and was the capital for previous Indian rulers, Kolkata was just a small fishing village called Kali Ghat, giving the East India Company traders a carte blanche to fashion it in their terms.
We step out of a taxi (an Ambassador, originally the Morris Oxford) and enter the Oxford Bookshop on Park Street to browse big coffee table books on subjects like saris and maharajahs for those able to find the luggage space. We brunch in Flury’s, opened in 1927, a corner cafe with large windows on the world, two impressive brass chandeliers and wooden ceiling fans. The menu includes finger sandwiches, eggs benedict and some of the finest omelettes west of Kaziranga.
It’s just gone lunchtime. Street food stalls are serving steaming dishes of fried puri, chick peas in tomato to office workers who eat out of plastic dishes with one hand and speak in to their phones with another.
We continue to kerouac and pass a blue mosque, fail to chase down a yellow tram but get to a large sign across the LC Road. It’s an old British Christian Cemetery which dates from the 1840s. The footpaths lead through lines of graves, tombs and vaults edged in greenery.
In those days, a passage to England was over two months away sailing around the Cape of Africa so here they rest with their home places like Guildford, Bristol and Marylebone, engraved on their epitaphs. The graves have a certain poignancy about them, one corner of a foreign field that is forever England.
There is only time to hop on a metro back to the hotel in Ravindra Saroyan. We take the wrong exit and get lost and wake a snoozing rickshawallah to get us back to the hotel and the airport taxi just in time after a day of kerouacing Kolkata.
Next stop, Guwahati