Revisiting Calcutta (now Kolkata) after 65 years

I was born in Calcutta in 1946 and lived there until I was eight years old, when my father decided that we must leave. India was no longer a comfortable place for the British – at least, in hindsight, I think that was what he thought. I was too young at the time to appreciate the problem. Leaving India was no easy decision. My mother cried for months after returning to the UK. My father who had been financial director of a well-known Calcutta firm, Shaw Wallace,  had to start again in the UK as a junior accountant, making tea for his seniors.

I do not remember a lot about my early childhood in India. I put this down to the trauma that the whole family suffered on our return to the UK. We were all grieving for India, and I, at the age of eight, was packed off to boarding school. I don’t think my mother could have coped any other way.

At the beginning of this week, 65 years later, I was in Calcutta again, only this time I was calling it Kolkata. (Many of India’s city names that I grew up with have been changed). I was only there three days, and on this occasion that was just the right amount of time – time enough to see many of the key tourist sites (see my Flickr album),  time enough to get a feel for the city of my birth, and time enough to listen for the ‘voices in the ground’. I learned this wonderful and so apt expression, which describes the sense of ‘deja vu’ experienced, or that history is speaking to you, from a blog post recently written by Lisa Lane.

It would be fair to say that I was fascinated, excited, stunned and appalled by Kolkata all at the same time and in equal measure. The first thing that hit me was the seeming chaos everywhere (although we didn’t visit new Kolkata, which we were told is calmer, cleaner and quite different to the old Kolkata that we were seeing). The difference from the tranquil Kerala backwaters we had just left, could not have been more stark.

When we asked our travel guide how he copes daily with the chaos, his reply was that since he was born and brought up in Kolkata he is ‘habituated’. The noise is incessant, with constant blaring of vehicle horns, despite the sign ‘No horns’ on taxis. The traffic is nose to tail all the time, with apparently no driving rules. It’s every man for himself. You cannot move for people, not only on the streets, but in all public places. I cannot see how Kolkata will ever surmount the problems which are obviously associated with being over-populated. But most troubling was the dirt. A clean place felt like a sanctum. The shame is that in old Kolkata all the original buildings with their wonderful balconies and shutters still exist, and could look amazing if they were cleaned up. We were told by our excellent guide, Manab, that this won’t happen because the owners have to pay higher taxes if the housing they are living in looks ‘smart’. Evidently these homes which look so grimy on the outside, are quite different on the inside, well maintained and cared for.

Manab also told us that the Kolkata we see today is not the same Kolkata that was home to my parents, my brother and myself in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. In those days the population was much smaller and the streets and buildings were cleaner, he said. The problem started with partition and a massive increase in population for which Kolkata was not prepared and is still not prepared; immigrants are still arriving from Bangladesh, to sleep under tarpaulins and use standpipes for washing, along all the streets of old Kolkata. For me, this was a sight that could not be ignored. I wondered if I would become ‘habituated’ to this if I lived in Kolkata.

Despite all this, Kolkata is not a miserable place. Incredibly it seems to work, with people going about their daily business seemingly impervious to the chaotic hurly-burly around them. For Manab, an educated, well-read, knowledgeable and travelled man (a retired electrical engineer), Kolkata is truly a ‘City of Joy’. He had read Dominique Lapierre’s book of the same name, which he said he enjoyed, but thought it over-emphasised the problem of poverty in Kolkata. I found it hard to understand this perspective. Poverty on the streets of Kolkata seemed to me to be overwhelmingly in your face everywhere. But Manab also said, when we visited the Kalighat Temple to the goddess Kali, ‘All life is here’. With this I could and did agree, and it was this that made Kolkata such a rich and colourful experience. It was so alive – teeming with life.

My parents are no longer alive. I wish I had talked to them more about their 15 years in Kolkata. I wonder if they ever visited the Kalighat Temple. I somehow doubt it. I once asked my mother why she didn’t know more about Indian cookery. The answer of course was that she didn’t have to cook. I suspect that my parents, for the most part, lived in a British community bubble. I got an inkling of what that must have been like when we visited the Tollygunge Club, where my parents were members – an oasis of calm compared to the streets we had driven through to reach it. I can remember having weekly riding lessons there at 6.00 am before school, and also spending Christmas Days there.

In those days the Club was exclusively British, but Anil Mukerji, the current President of the Club, who kindly gave up an hour of his time to show us round, made it plain that there is no longer a place for anything exclusively British in India.

For the most part the impression I got is that the people of Kolkata are immensely proud of their city with its incredible buildings such as the Cathedral and Victoria Memorial, which they fully acknowledge are their inheritance from the time of British rule. As Anil Mukerji said, good and bad has been done on both sides and now the UK and India are friends. Whether or not this is true, it is the people of India that stand out for me. They are so wonderfully generous of spirit, so wonderfully tolerant, patient and kind.

So did I hear ‘the voices in the ground’ in Kolkata? I certainly walked a small way in the footsteps of my parents, even finding the address on my birth certificate, 10 Palace Court, Kyd Street, where I must have lived on first entering this world. I felt excited and happy to be in Kolkata again after so many years. Despite not recognising a single thing, it felt familiar.