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Kolkata (Calcutta)


This is out of the order in which we visited. I have put the places visited in anti-clockwise order around southern India. It leaves this most startling and confronting city until last.


Our night-time arrival into Kolkata was like a scene from Apocalypse Now. There was a festival on with illuminations; the road from the airport was in ruins; the traffic totally chaotic; some vehicles literally run off the road. 

Beggars suddenly loomed at the car window out of the dust and dusk. Festival lights glowed colourfully among the devastation; supported by lean-to bamboo structures; and festooned from buildings. Along the road gracious old buildings decayed; apparently trashed by their inhabitants. Roads everywhere are lined with lean-to tents; makeshift kitchens; and endless piles of rubbish.




India was once described as the finest jewel in the British Empire; and at the heart of this prize was Calcutta. It is laid out on a grand scale, along a river once packed with trading vessels, provided with vast parks and gracious gardens. Where the airport stands once stood the bamboo forests in which tigers roamed and Nawabs hunted. 

For 150 years Calcutta was first the administrative centre of the British East India Company then Capital of Imperial India. It remained capital until December 1911; when the newly planned and grandly laid-out capital at New Delhi assumed the mantle.


During the Imperial period Calcutta was the pride of the Empire; regarded as second only to London. 

This pride of Empire has become an extended garbage tip.




Evidence of the glorious past remains: the huge Victoria memorial; the museum; Colonial buildings still used by government like the GPO; the colossal Writer's Building – the administrative brain of the East India Company – and older than European Australia.




Calcutta was effectively destroyed by Partition in 1947.


Just before Partition the population of greater Calcutta was around one and a half million; a quarter of whom were Muslim.

As a result of Partition many Muslims were expelled to Pakistan and at the same time a huge number of Hindu peasants from the Ganges delta flooded in. Within weeks the population had more than tripled and rioting had caused the Police to issue the order to shoot to kill. A massive famine then ensued. 

Property prices collapsed and squatters took over much of the city. Many owners simply abandoned their property; others failed to maintain them. The illiterate peasants no longer able to fish or farm had no means, incentive, or ability to do so either. 

Then in the in the 60’s and 70’s millions of additional refugees arrived as a result of the war with Pakistan in 1965; culminating in Bangladesh war of Liberation and another war with Pakistan in 1971. 

The population of greater Kolkata has now risen to over 14 million; about one third of whom live in slums or on the street.


Mother Teresa of Calcutta

This was the environment in which Mother Teresa of Calcutta, named by the Pope (JPII): ‘Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’, set up her mission.

So we took a cab there. 

Before her death in 1997 Mother Teresa was an Albanian-born Roman Catholic nun (born in 1910). She trained with the Loreto Sisters in Ireland to become a missionary before travelling to India. 

In India she founded the Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic religious congregation, now active in 133 countries, providing services to ‘the poorest of the poor’. 

Mother Teresa was an ascetic who lived a Spartan life. 

We saw the small room from which she worked and were impressed by the beatific charm of an English born nun who engaged us in conversation.

In the small Mission, which must have had virtually no impact on the city's starving millions, there is a chapel, more Methodist than Catholic in its plainness; in which her sarcophagus rests at one end. At the other end of the chapel her life is documented in a small museum; mainly in English. 

A service was underway in the local language while we read about her deeds. It was interesting to hear that the familiar prayers, creeds and psalms were quite recognisable.  

The local people persist in taking their shoes off even though a sign clearly advises not to. Wendy obeyed the sign and had a brief contretemps with a local man who objected and clearly could not read the sign.


 Mother Teresa imageImage from the Web


Mother Teresa was a controversial figure. 

She was world renowned, a Nobel Prize winner, and named 18 times in the yearly Gallup's most admired man and woman poll as one of the ten women around the world that Americans admired most. 

Critics included some high profile figures in the West. Some accused her of refusing to relieve suffering, which she saw as noble and bringing the sufferers nearer to Christ. 

She was undoubtedly a Catholic conservative who used her resources and reputation, particularly in America, to oppose Government efforts to limit population growth. She condemned condom use; and singled out abortion as 'the greatest destroyer of peace in the world' -  a rule she applied in any circumstance - even rape.

Thus it could fairly be said that her efforts to relieve suffering were unlikely to have made much difference to Kolkata; while the number of unwanted children, condemned to a truly horrible life and early death, that she is responsible for, outweighs her bringing food and medicine to the starving and sick, many times over. 

Reading the material in their own museum I got the impression that some in the Church would have liked her to ‘just go away’. When you see the luxury the Bishops lived in in Portuguese India it’s easy to see why an ascetic is a bit of a thorn in everyone’s side; remember Martin Luther? 

She was certainly extremely opinionated; an empire builder; and probably more interested in gaining a convert than in the potential to save their life.

It might be summed up in the phrase 'more dedicated to saving souls than bodies'.  The faithful may well view her alleged diversion of resources donated for healing and feeding the 'poorest of the poor' to 'saving their souls' as admirable.

But it is worth noting that the same phrase or sentiment has been the justification used by priests for their most egregious crimes against humanity; throughout recorded history.  It was certainly in use by the priests of the ancient Egyptians, Inca, Khmer and Vikings; and probably of the very first religions.  

This is irrespective of the particular religion, method and rituals around the alleged 'soul saving' or the, to us, manifestly concocted, and apparently ludicrous, gods involved.  

It has justified everything from human sacrifice, ritual torture and beheading to bloody wars and mass murder.  It has also justified diverting resources from helping the disadvantaged to constructing the largest temples, mausoleums and cathedrals in history; as well as diverting food from their tables to offerings to the gods.

While some temples have survived, the overweening egos behind these crimes and misappropriations are largely forgotten. As Byron says: 'not a pinch of dust remains of Cheops'

Is Mother Teresa's star still in the ascendency within the Vatican? 

Although beatified just a year after she died, she is yet to be sanctified; pending another miracle.

It will be interesting to see if and when this happens.

Surely if the Vatican wants to create 'St Teresa of Kolkata' there is at least one miraculously cured leper out there who sought her intervention in their prayers.


The Enlightenment

Although the British Company or administration didn’t spend a lot of time trying to convert the locals to Christianity they did believe in educating them. As in Australia, enlightenment values pervaded British rule during the 18th century. The Writer’s Building is emblematic of that.


One of the 'mission statements' atop the Writer's Building; Agriculture and the Arts also figure.


It is worth noting that Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah; the architects of Independence and Partition; were all London educated lawyers; irrespective of their non-Christian religions.

Read more about Independence and Partition here.  These fascinating negotiations changed history.  They created the conditions leading to the birth of most people alive today.  Partition set the scene for much of post-war geo-politics; including the Taliban and their activities in Afghanistan to the present day; nuclear proliferation; and India's competition and conflicts with China.


Educational standards in Kolkata today seem to be very poor. Looking this up I found that the literacy rate of 87.14% apparently exceeds the all-India average of 74%. But this is not evident in the people in the street. As in other illiterate communities, cab drivers and shop keepers view a map as meaningless cubist scribbling.

Our hotel was walking distance from the Victoria Memorial a large multi-storey white building set in magnificent gardens with a large statue of Victoria in front, as a rather plump elderly Empress, seated atop a marble plinth decorated with bronze reliefs depicting scenes from the Raj.




To get back to the hotel we would ask a driver to go to the Memorial and then have them stop as they approached. This was a lot quicker than the drive, stop, and ask another driver method that they used.


Our hotel was an oasis in this chaos but we did a lot of walking.


The Black Hole of Calcutta

When I was a boy one of the few things I knew about Calcutta was the ‘black hole’; used in common parlance to refer to dark or potentially dangerous places; and occasionally our bedroom.

So we went in search. 

Hidden away; at the back of the overgrown yard of St Johns crumbling Anglican Church; stands a memorial. It once stood prominently at the side of the Writer’s Building but was moved to this very discrete position in 1940 at the height of the independence movement. It had become a focus for local protest against British rule. Out of sight; out of mind.

The incident the monument records goes back, before Australia was discovered, to the founding days, when Calcutta was just a trading post.

In 1700 in a treaty with the Mughal emperor and his Governor (Nawab ) in Bengal, the British East India Company was allowed to build a fortified trading post (Fort William) on the bank of river Hooghly, near the villages of Sutanuti, Kalikata and Gobindapur. 

In 1756, fearing attack by the French, already based in Pondicherry, the Company began enhancing Fort William’s defences. The new Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, who had an alliance with the French ordered an immediate stop to the construction but was ignored; so he laid siege to the Fort. Once they submitted, someone rounded up the British inhabitants and their wives and locked them all in the Fort’s small jail cell. There are differing accounts as to who ordered this and the numbers incarcerated are still in dispute. But no one doubts the incident took place. According to the memorial 146 were locked into the cell and by the next day only 23 remained alive. The names of the dead are listed on the monument. 






The imagined suffering, terror and trauma involved were dramatized by the English press. Needless to say this was not well received by the British public - it was much worse than the recent outcries in Australia over cattle or sheep being brutally killed.  Punitive action was demanded and the Company’s most successful commander Robert Clive, already renowned for successful actions against superior forces, was up to the task. 

The Nawab had an army some 80,000 strong and was supported by the French. 

After several successful but indecisive actions, on 23 June 1757, Clive’s forces found themselves facing 50,000 Mughal infantry, supported by 18,000 cavalry and 60 French guns at Plassey. 

Clive commanded just 800 European soldiers and 2,200 well trained Company Sepoys (Indian troops). It seemed obvious that it would be ill advised for such a small force to engage such a large one. 

But Clive had both a psychological advantage, in his reputation for success in such situations, and a secret weapon on his side. For some time the British had known that the Newab was not well loved by aristocrats in Bengal who were plotting to depose him. Through an intermediary Clive had made a secret gentleman’s agreement with Mughal aristocrats: Jagat Seth and Mir Jafar, one of the Newab’s generals. Mir Jafar wanted British support for a plot to overthrow Siraj ud-Daula and usurp him as Newab. 

The battle was engaged but Clive held back trusting in his ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with Mir Jafar. Because of the rain the French powder was damp and their guns proved ineffective. The British however had a nice big target and were able to inflict around 500 casualties with their guns. Meanwhile Mir Jafar led his troops away from the battle so that enemy morale collapsed; ensuring Clive’s victory. In the ensuing battle Clive lost 22 sepoys killed and 50 in total wounded. 


Robert Clive and Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, 1757Robert Clive and Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, 1757 -  Public Domain


Siraj ud-Daula fled but was killed Mir Jafar’s son in the subsequent coup and Mir Jafar became the new Nawab. Thus the French lost control of trade with Bengal and the British took their place as the allies and trading partners of the Nawab of Bengal. 

‘Clive of India’ cemented his reputation in our history books, and in Boy’s tales of daring-do, as a British hero; alongside Wellington and Nelson. This was a reputation he still held when I went to school; as did, in infamy, The Black Hole of Calcutta. 

It’s worth mentioning that there were large sums of money as well as trade goods involved. For example in return for British East India Company support in the coup; once he became Nawab Mir Jafar agreed to pay: a million sterling to the Company, for its losses in Calcutta and the cost of its troops; half a million to the British inhabitants of Calcutta; £200,000 to the native inhabitants; and £70,000 to its Armenian merchants. These were enormous sums in those days.

East India Company motivations seem to have been more to foil the French commercial and military interests and to get recompense for lost trade, than to exact vengeance for the ‘black hole’.


Modern Kolkata

After Plassey the present Fort William was built, to replace the one in which the victims died. The city of Calcutta then began to grow in importance; over the next century eclipsing Madras, Bombay, Agra and Delhi to become the most important and influential, and grandest, city in the sub-continent.


The General Post Office - just one of many grand buildings


Modern Kolkata is quite different. Although some economic progress has been made in recent years the economy was stagnant for decades; while the cities that once looked to it for leadership raced ahead. Around five million of the residents now live in the slums; or are homeless and live in the streets. Many are illiterate and prey to harmful beliefs and exploitation. 

Yet young men from the country continue to converge on the city as it offers better prospects than much of rural India. 

It rained heavily one afternoon and muddy puddles formed on the side of the road as trams, buses, trucks, cars and tuck tucks passed by. Young men living on the street immediately seized the opportunity to strip to the waist; soap-up; and with a bucket pour the muddy water over themselves.




At one point we were some distance from our hotel near the markets and needed a bathroom.  The streets were unbelievably packed, this being the first day of a festival. We were caught in a sea of humanity, fortunately mostly shoulder high. The last time I recall such a crush was at the Easter show in Sydney. 

Our map told us that the disreputable looking building near the centre of this mayhem was the five-star Oberoi Grand hotel. 

Around the building is an arcade of shops then a line of street stalls; engulfed within a sea of bodies. At last we reached some substantial gates defended by armed guards. Up we marched - salutes duly accepted - and suddenly we were in a different world; dating back to the days of the Raj. 

While our hotel, also with armed guards on the gate, was an Oasis, this was a paradise. Beautiful panelled public rooms, bar, restaurant, billiards room surround the glass enclosed swimming pool. Needless to say the restrooms were equally beautiful. Could this really be in Calcutta in 2012? 

Half an hour later we were back in the melee.

Yes this is indeed India in the 21st century - filthy rich and dirt poor - and just a black iron gate separating them.




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