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Calcutta Day 2


Another foray out into the big city, this time northwards, revealed a surprisingly dynamic mix of shopping options with the typical grungy hole in the wall vendors side by side with department stores and fashion houses. The pavement hawkers were particularly vehement here too and drugs were a common offering. First on the list up by the traffic snarl of the Esplanade area was suitably the Scottish inclined St. Andrews Kirk, a dark empty haven with circular pews. It acts as home to the memorial plaques of many passing Scotsmen. The 2nd battalion The Royal Scots Fusiliers had lost a surprising number of men 1919-1931 and the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders lost even more. With no explanation offered, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders managed to lose 26 men 1902-03, I could only deduce that it was testimony to the prevalence of disease in this nick of the woods. Perversely, another was to Donald McLeod of Invernesshire, Inspector General of HM Hospitals India. Certainly the mosquitos had enjoyed my presence thus far, maybe my name would be next! Across the busy Chowringhee Road I caught sight of one of the citys premier wonders, the 17th century Writers Building, built very stylishly in red with white trim. The cops stopped me walking past it, but from the other side I was better able to appreciate it anyhow, as well as the fact that it was absolutely crawling with security. I queried another gawping passerby who told me that the Chief Minister was expected, there were attendant traffic cops, regular khaki clad soldiers, riot police and guys in cammos sporting machine guns who looked ready to use them.

Just a block away was the very unusual GPO building which resembles St. Pauls Cathedral (the London one), you walked inside the open dome to find post office counters in a circle where pews and fonts would have looked more befitting. This is the reputed site of the notorious Black Hole of Calcutta, wherein colonials captured during the 1756 city siege, another earlier native insurrection, were interred in a cramped impromptu prison and were soon accidentally suffocated. Its infamy obviously meant that the incident was not allowed to pass without retribution. A memorial to it erected by Lord Curzon now stands in the nearby grounds of St. Johns Church, my next port of call. It was here also that I discovered the now sadly neglected memorials to Job Charnock of the East India Company, the founder of the city, and many unfortunate Brits who seemeded to have succumbed invariably at a very early age. There were numerous wives lost in their early 20s, besides infant deaths and cases of smallpox and "malignant flux". A large collonaded cenotaph woed those soldiers lost in the long forgotten 2nd Rohilla War of October 1794, whatever that was about. A similar sad tale was inscribed on a stone inside, a Capt. R.W. Anderson had lain it to record how his wife and 7 month old daughter succumbed "through sheer want of proper nourishment" during the Siege of Lucknow, 1857. Despite being Calcutta's most notable church, there was not another soul around.

Outside another anonymous carbuncle, a curious army of pavement typists fed India's insatiable bureaucracy, rattling away on old style hammer printers. I walked a further block West where I soon hit the river, the mighty Hooghly, and caught my first glimpse of one of Calcutta's defining symbols, the Howrah Bridge. The largest of its type in the world, it was built hurridly during WWII in order to faciltitate supply to the Burma front and was until recently the rivers only crossing. As commuters streamed off the many cross river ferries, poor people performed their ablutions on the neighbouring bank, just one more of the paradoxes of India. In waiting for a boat to take me across to Howrah Station, another squat but massive architectural marvel in red and white, a grisly procession chanced by. An archaic looking police launch towed a small fishing punt, which in turn dragged a body behind it, a rope looped around one ankle so that little but a protruding leg was visible. The locals tutted but I was left puzzled as to the details. I thought better than to ask, it was probably just another ordinary day in these parts. Surely they didnt still keelhaul people though!

Reckoning that crossing the Howrah Bridge to get back home would be an experience in its own right, a cop stopped me to predictably warn of not taking photos of it but I already had, in reality it was just a ruse for his mate to try blagging a fag off me, I was not the first I assumed. The bridge, which might be a candidate for the worlds busiest, bounced up and down as it took a constant hammering from 5 lanes of bus infested traffic, whilst the pedestrian walkway was a conveyor belt of coolies portering huge unwieldy loads of all descriptions on their heads. My hitherto exemplary navigation waned in the writhing labyrinth of West Calcutta and so the Armenian Church was nowhere to be found, though a lone high profile sentry strangley guarded a fenced off and seemingly disused edifice akin to a columned Roman temple. There were some fantastic photo ops as I encountered people living in squalor, men camped atop mounds of water melons and manual rickshaw wallahs awaiting their next bout of drudgery. All done, the metro was a welcome respite in getting me home just in time for my guts to explode, not so much Delhi Belly as the Calcutta Quickstep! I arrived to find that a friendly neighbourhood gecko had set up camp in my room for the 2nd night. Well, it was always nice to have company!

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in India

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