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  • India, April 2000

    [archive post]

    I thought I would write while I had some time, here at A's in Calcutta.

    This is an altogether remarkable house. It was built by four great uncles who belonged to the Brahmo reformist sect. The family has lived here ever since. A Nobel prize winning economist is a distant relation. A cream 3-storey 'L' shaped building put up in the 1920s where the brothers and their families could live and worship together. A's parents live on the ground floor and from his room I can look out across the verandah to a small garden lush with tropical plants. Two giant palms stand at the back of the garden. They were planted by the brothers and a cheese plant has climbed to the very top of one of them. Inside the rooms are cool and shaded, with breezes from the overhead fan and through open windows on two sides. Outside the heat has been fierce and steamy, quite different from the dryness of Delhi during my 10 day tour of the capital, Jaipur and Agra.

    The rooms are furnished with solid dark furniture that has been here since the house was built. This has long been a literary family and most rooms are furnished with high glassed-in bookcases filled with English and Bengali texts. The electrical wiring is authentically primitive, encased in dark timber trunking which runs all around the rooms and terminates in a switchboard with a battery of circular Bakelite switches.

    In one dark, cool high-ceilinged room there is a harmonium. This is the sitting room and during the day-time it is used only to receive occasional unfamiliar or unwelcome visitors. At night, Shondha the cook sleeps on the floor under a mosquito net strung from the walls and when we come in the evenings we have had to tip-toe past her curled up under the net as it gently ripples under the breeze from the overhead fan. Twice a day she has prepared Bengali specialities for us. She smiles shyly, as she spoons out spiced okra and aubergines and curd with jaggery. As dusk falls she puts up a huge tent-like mosquito net over A's parent's bed. They are away in Delhi for a family funeral and because of the Holi festival the house is unusually quiet: several other servants have returned to their villages. Upstairs live maiden aunts, cousins and uncles.

    During the festival crowds jostled and shouted in the street, covering each other with purple, blue and green powder while I spent the afternoon resting. All Indian cities seem to be constantly noisy, the streets a shifting mass of people and vehicles. Horns hoot madly and heavy lorries and ancient buses vent the fume which settles in a choking cloud wherever there is traffic.

    But Ballygunj Place is a haven from all that. Even so I'm woken at dawn by the sound of neighbours nosily clearing their throats. I can hear the gull-like call of young kites and the sharp cries of the fierce looking crows which seem to be innumerable in the city. Tradesmen visit early and from their cries I can follow the path of street hawkers as they approach and then move away from the house. During the day bells are rung and conch shells sound as people do their puja. Morning is the coolest time of the day, but more than once I've lingered too long as the sun grew hotter and hotter until it was in the 80s when I set out by taxi and metro to visit the sights.

    Ballygunj is a middle class area but even so the streets are home to the innumerable poor. I see men in dhotis washing themselves all over from hand pumps at the roadside. In a shack next to a modern apartment block live the two men to whom Shonda takes the ironing. In little cubicles at knee height people crouch by charcoal stoves cooking up sweets like rasgool and the savouries which are sold for a few rupees in a an open box made out of thick leaves stitched together. Once I saw a limbless man roll with astonishing grace on the baking, filthy tarmac, his hand reaching out for alms and a strangely beatific look on his face.

    The taxis are ancient Ambassadors, rounded and high like a Morris Oxford. For about 25p they take us on the 15 minute ride to the metro which is the city's pride. The single line is the only one in all India and it runs due north from here to the centre of town. The metro was Russian designed: the dully lit pillared platforms are almost free of crowds, the only sound the roar of overhead fans which cool me. For A, back in India for less than six months after ten years in England, it's a womb-like shelter from the chaos above.

    Today I went to the 'marble palace'. For a few Rupees a guide in a cream uniform showed me around a huge decaying mansion in a grotesquely encrusted neo-classical style. I was led in bare feet cool on Carrera marble through room after gloomy room around a large rectangular courtyard, its white painted walls decorated with swags of green Della Robbia style ornamentation. A young member of the family of Jewish Indian goldsmiths which built the house 200 years ago reclined elegantly in a blue green sari on a shaded bench in the centre of the courtyard. Statues in glass cases lined the vast ballroom. Two huge dusty Belgian mirrors at either end reflected back the room's immensity, the ceiling jostling with unused chandeliers. This was a Michelangelo and that a Rubens and they all looked like poor copies.

    In the garden boys bathed in a green pool across from a circular gazebo set against scarlet red blooms. The palace entranced me. It must be quite the greatest monument to a rich man's ghastly good taste I've ever seen. Afterwards I struggled to Rabindranath Tagore's house, where yellowing captions and dozens of fading family photos told me next to nothing about the leader of the Bengali cultural renaissance.


    The tour to Rajasthan was utterly gorgeous - I was one male among 12 women, Including the most fragile-looking Japanese girl who travelled with me to Calcutta to work a week at Mother Theresa's. The Taj at dawn has to be seen to be believed - it floats above a marble platform, the minarets stroked first by orange then gold light till the whole facade glows.

    We took elephants to the Amber Fort, where an Indian family invited me to join them at lunch and two chatty (young) boys asked me to take their photo. We visited a bird sanctuary with the most incredible wildlife - kingfishers almost the size of hens of the most intense blue. In Jaipur I had a virtual suite of rooms high in a tower, with steps to a turret with a private view of the city. Late one night I chatted for hours with the manager about Hinduism, the caste system and Gandhi's legacy.

    We saw the abandoned palace at Fatephur Sikri where the decoration combines Hindu, Moslem and Christian symbolism - including the swastik, symbol of luck. I took a photo of our guide, who had been there 48 years.

    At Agra we went to the 'Palace of the Winds' - a sheer facade of obscured windows from which the Maharajah's harem could see without being seen. We saw the giant silver vessels the Maharajah made to take sacred Ganga water to England - so afraid was of English impurities.

    And so many other things!

    Back home, the vicar asked with a kind of well-meaning vicarish concern "how was India?" - no doubt thinking of how I'd coped with the deprivation, the heat, the pollution.

    I was gripped with an awful temptation to tell him - that A had arranged an evening for a quartet of what I suppose they'd call roast beef queens (mirroring our curry queens) where I was treated like a fascinating exotic. One stroked my hand feverishly muttering "you're so white" the other urgently requested I join him at a cruising place and offered nameless orgies. The third contented himself with mild interference with my person and serenaded me with Rags about being gay in Calcutta. Needless to say the vicar would be pleased to hear I resisted these temptations (more or less!)