Crumbling, Haunting Calcutta


Rickshaws are still used in some Calcutta neighborhoods

Six weeks of yoga and a gentle Rishikesh introduction to the chaos of India was exactly what I needed to prepare me for the cacophony of Calcutta. In the far eastern part of India, near the Bangladeshi border, Calcutta (now Kolkata) steams and seethes with an energy all its own. Wikipedia says it has a population of around 15 million, compared to the New York area's 20 million-plus. But its population density is a staggering 17,600 people per square kilometer, versus New York's 1,800. The city seems ready to collapse under its own weight. My husband Michael met me in Calcutta, and we stayed there for about a week, at the home of friends at the American Consulate. I thank the whole pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses for that blessing: without our friends' extensive knowledge of the city, their comfortable hospitality, and their beautiful, cool, spacious apartment, I think our Calcutta experience would have been frankly miserable.



Michael picked me up at the airport and we hired a cab to take us back to our friends' flat. The cabs are all Ambassadors: an Indian car made by Hindustan motors, which has changed its style very little since its first year of manufacture, 1948. The cab we hired may have been one of those to come off the 1948 assembly line. The city streets are full of sputtering, rounded Ambassadors, a large percentage of them cabs or hired vehicles. Indeed, the streets are so clogged, the roads in such bad shape and so disorderly, that I cannot imagine anyone but a professional driver being able to get through them. Our friends had a driver, and it quickly became apparent that without one, we would not have been able to find any addresses (in many cases, building numbers simply don't exist) or, if we did find our destination, we would not have been able to park the car. Calcutta drivers know the city in ways that those who have not made it their vocation could not.

We crossed the city in the rising morning heat, the windows open and the damp and particular smell of Calcutta soaking into us. The streets are so crowded and hot that drivers turn off their engines when stopped--as they generally are--in traffic. I slouched down on the vinyl seat, trying to find a spot where the springs weren't poking into me, and took in the spectacle.

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Crumbling architecture

Calcutta was the original British capital of India, and the grand British architecture, the wide boulevards and elaborate, large-scale building facades, are in evidence everywhere. In 1912, the Brits moved their seat of operations to Delhi, and it looks as though many buildings have not seen any maintenance since that time. That's not me bemoaning the end of the British occupancy. It's simply a statement about the condition of big parts of the city. Some formerly grand apartment buildings have trees growing out of upper story windows. Others look like their ornately plastered facades have flaked and worn almost completely away. 

Paul Theroux's recent novel A Dead Hand paints a vivid picture of the city. (I recommend it! Please buy it from your local independent bookseller.) He writes, "Calcutta, I came to understand, was a city that anyone could see had been made by human hands. Other cities are well cemented and engineered, all seamless surfaces. Calcutta was roughly plastered and painted; the Corinthian columns, the Ionic capitals, the rounded balusters and porticos, and much else that seemed like marble was really whitewashed wood. It was not beautiful but its handmade look gave it a human face, which is also a look of impermanence, if not frailty. The handiwork was evident in its patches, its irregular bricks, the botched painting, the clumsy flourishes in the carpentry, like the sad lacy panels on some house fronts, the lopsided designs, the mismatched joints, the tottering staircases. Nothing was square, nothing was plumb. Peering closely at this bulging and buckling city, I saw the hasty joinery, the hardened putty, the rusty nails, and I thought: A barefoot man did that with an old hammer in his skinny hand."

During our stay, I didn't keep any notes in my journal. We came home in the afternoons and collapsed in the cool flat with the marble floors and heavy drapes, and drank chilled white wine. Took our second showers of the day. Rebuilt our will to leave the walled compound and have dinner in the city. I regret that I don't have a snapshot of my thoughts during that week. As I have said before, though, travel is experiential, and with Calcutta that is especially so. I can try to tell you, but you won't really understand unless you have the memory of the smell, the damp feel of the city on your skin.

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The Flower Market

The shantytown that houses the city's riotously bright flower market looked like a scene right out of a Charles Dickens novel. Lean-to's and makeshift roofs shaded some of the day's offerings. Hills of marigold garlands glowed in the morning sun.

The Kali temple hummed with frightening urgency: goats are sacrificed here to appease the violent goddess of change, energy, death. Here, we made an outrageously large "offering" and were given a tour of the whole temple, ignoring what our bare feet were treading on. We shuffled through the small vestibule where we glimpsed the glittering statue of the goddess, tongue extended threateningly. We passed the large hall where the devoted come to pray daily, and on through the area where the animals are slaughtered, the wooden block where the goat's soft neck is held down in its last moments. We toured the kitchen where the hungry are fed every day (often on goat meat.) 

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Kali Temple from the outside (no photos were allowed inside)

I bought a lipstick at a fancy shopping mall for Calcutta's rich (there are plenty), picked out some exquisite, unusual wraps and scarves from the tiny Bailou showroom in a residential neighborhood (, and made my way through the ancient and labyrinthine Hogg Market, or New Market. Part of this sprawling indoor bazaar burned down in the 1980s, but other parts have clearly been withstanding throngs of shoppers since the turn of the 20th century.

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Hogg (or New) Market

We had drinks at the absurdly opulent Oberoi Grand Hotel, and toured the imposing and self-congratulatory Victoria Memorial.


Victoria Memorial

We took a crowded but surprisingly orderly ride on the subway, and visited the Kumartuli neighborhood. Here, artisans construct plaster statues year-round, to be elaborately painted and decorated, and then plunged into the Hoogly River in religious festivals (most notably Durga Puja, a celebration of Durga, the goddess of fierce, creative feminine force). We also spent a couple of hours in the fabulous Oxford Bookstore. I visited the one in Delhi, too, but this one is bigger and stuffed fuller. Could this be Britain's most important remaining Indian outpost?


Kumartuli effigies

In order to maintain some sanity, I learned to dissociate myself from my level of physical and emotional comfort. Nothing else can be done. Kali Temple must be visited barefoot. Every person and object is going to become impregnated with the smell of Calcutta: damp, hot, earthy, slightly rotten. I had to accept the exhaustion that comes from the wet heat and the sensory overload of too many people wanting me to look this way, buy this, try this fine quality item, give an offering, spare some rupees, help them help them help them. I had to upholster my self against the full impact of this input in order to make my way through the city. It was extreme and uncomfortable. And it was also haunting and heartbreaking and dignified in its vast, crumbling elegance. I can't imagine I'll go back, but Calcutta made an impression on me that I will always carry.

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One of the many children begging on the street

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Mother and child