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Calcutta Daze
FRANK ROGERS | 04 Apr 2008

The old song says, “Never go back to your old home town …”; if you do, you face disappointment because everything will have changed. I can’t call Calcutta my old home town, but, as I’ve indicated in “Calcutta Magic” (India Currents, February 2008), I spent some time there in the mid-1940s and found a great deal to admire. 46 years later, in 1992, my wife Mary Ann and I toured northern India for two months, beginning in Bombay and culminating with a week in Calcutta. I wanted to show my wife some of my old stamping grounds, if I could find them. What I did find left me in a daze.

We flew in from Delhi to Calcutta’s Dum Dum Airport, the airport I’d previously known as the U.S. and British military airbase, that is, an airstrip graced with three Quonset-type hangers, one repair facility for each air force and one which served as “passenger” facility. Imagine my surprise when we stepped off the plane into a completely modern airport terminal.

The surprise grew even greater as the friends who greeted us led us outside to a waiting taxi. First I noticed that the taxi was an Ambassador sedan (is there any other model?), not the stately touring car of the ’40s. And the driver! A turbanless Bengali, not my elegant Sikh! And no dhoti-clad boy to squeeze the bulb of an old-fashioned trumpet-horn. This driver had nothing but a miserable, miserly, unimaginative button at the center of his steering wheel, something he never touched during the entire trip into town. Instead of the horn, he had brakes, and he used them over and over and over again.

Even more surprising, after taking in that Ambassador taxi, I glanced around and saw, not the malarial swamps that surrounded Dum Dum when in 1946, but terra firma, a fine asphalted road, and a parking lot jammed with hordes of other cars of many makes, Ambassadors, of course, but also Japanese and European makes and some American. Later, on Chowringhee Road, I even spotted a Lincoln Continental Town Car. But not a single tonga in sight and—this a most welcome improvement—no skin and bone rickshaw-wallahs, not even a bicycle-rickshaw.

And, oh, how painfully sedate was that Bengali taxi driver! Watching him, I asked myself, what had happened to the joie de mourir, the death wish, the kamikaze darts and dashes and dives of those Sikh drivers of old? Glumly, I resigned myself to a disappointing week in Calcutta.

I soon discovered I need not despair. The spirit lived on, housed now in the breasts of modern rickshaw-wallahs who, instead of laboring between the shafts of those two-wheeled rickshaws, drove the auto-rickshaws, those devilish three-wheelers with the noxious fumes.

Auto-rickshaws we saw and rode a plenty. And what rides! Even the drivers of old would have turned green with envy, for these modern tyros daily face a daunting array of other vehicles—trucks and cars and trams and buses—and vied with them for space on the traffic-choked streets of Calcutta. But give the auto-rickshaw jockey a 6-inch opening among the other contenders, and he’ll shoot his vehicle through it, come what may. He works apparently on a simple rule: if he can fit his single front wheel into the gap, the rest of his vehicle, including passengers and the two rear wheels, must by the law of willy-nilly follow. My wife and I contributed a generous quantity of body-English to defeat the nilly and insure the success of willy.

When our hostess took us out to Barrackpore (I hoped to find traces of the old American radio intelligence installation), I encountered another great surprise. First of all, what used to be “Barrackpore” has transformed itself into “Barakpur,” another instance of the revolutionary’s zeal for revolution even in spelling (I refer to that same zeal that gave us Americans the infinitely superior “color” to replace that degenerate British “colour”).

But on with the story: I tried to rediscover the Hooghly river at Barrackpore, a broad stream about a mile wide at this point and in the 1940s alive with traffic. I don’t remember any powered craft in that bygone day, but I did see dhows aplenty. From the veranda of the former British clubhouse transformed into an army PX, I used to watch those dhows working their way up or down stream, their lateen sails cupped to the wind, the dhoti-clad helmsman squatting on his heels, the shaft of the steering oar under one elbow, a biri cupped in the other palm, the dhows with empty hulls high in the water, the laden ones almost to the gunwales. A stately river, the holy Ganga, with stately traffic: by watching those dhows and their painfully slow progress I got my first intimations of eternity.

But in 1992 during our visit to Barrackpore I saw no dhows; I didn’t even see the river. In the 1940s, our installation sat on the very edge of the flood plain atop a small bluff some four or five feet above the edge of the river at high water. At low water about 100 feet of mud separated the bluff from the river’s edge. Now you can’t even see the river; it has gone west—literally. I don’t know how far, but where it used to be I saw nothing but a thick tangle of trees and brush. The whole area, I know, is the Ganga Delta, and on deltas things do shift around from time to time, but the extent of the shift here in the 46-year interval left me dazed and bewildered.

Back in town, I talked Mary Ann into a short stroll, I in my wheelchair, from our hotel, the Park at the corner of Park and Chowringhee, to the Great Eastern Hotel, just one block to the right along Chowringhee. My aim: to treat my wife to a sumptuous lunch at Firpo’s, in the 1940s one of the most famous restaurants in southeast Asia, and a fine cuisine it had even measured on the world-wide scale. You reached it by entering the Great Eastern, mounting to the second floor and walking through the hotel and across into the restaurant where you could command a table on the balcony next to the wrought-iron railing. From this vantage point you could watch the trams in the terminal across Chowringhee, the traffic (pedestrians, cars, bullock-carts, tongas, rickshaws, and, of course, those marvelous taxis) and see the upper end of Calcutta’s magnificent maidan.

Unfortunately, the short stroll became for my wife an arduous ordeal because with my wheelchair we had to negotiate three curbs and a length of badly deteriorated sidewalk, and Calcutta, indeed India in general, is not wheelchair-friendly. However, we did make it, but we found no lunch at Firpo’s. In fact we didn’t even find Firpo’s. Where it used to be, we found a ruin, a complete and total ruin, and behind that, we found a rebuilt Great Eastern, still as elegant as ever, perhaps even more so, but set back farther than it used to be so that a large gap now separates it from the tumble-down wreck that used to be Firpo’s. We ate our lunch in the Great Eastern’s lunch room, where a most friendly and sympathetic assistant manger listened to my tales of yore. To show he took no offense at my garrulity, when we left he escorted us to the entrance and secured a taxi for us despite an ongoing taxi strike.

I must hasten to urge you not to misunderstand me. Calcutta had much changed in the nearly half-century of my absence: a different course for the Hooghly, a new kind of taxi, a new spirit in the taxi drivers, the auto-rickshaw, and on and on, but I can sum it all up by saying Calcutta had entered the modern age. When I saw it in the 1940s, Calcutta was a city that lingered somewhere between 1890 and 1910; it was then a city of British castoffs. In fact, all of the India I saw at that time, from Calcutta to Peshwar, seemed the repository of cars, trains, buses, technology of all sorts worn out and cast out from England and dumped in India. But the Calcutta of 1992 had come fully into and far along in the 20th century. It had its lapses here and there, to be sure, but by and large it had overcome the deficits inherited from the Raj. Except …

I had a bit of research to do for a projected novel, so the next day we went out along Jawaharlal Nehru Blvd. to the National Library housed in the former British governor-general’s mansion at the other end of the maidan. The mansion is still as impressive as ever, but inside we found such disaster as to leave us both stunned. First of all, let me say that our welcome at the library was all a visiting scholar could dream of thanks to the efforts of A. Prabhakara Rao, Assistant Library and Information Officer, and Kalpana Dasgupta, a most pleasant young lady who dashed about in the bowels of the library and brought us book after book relevant to my search. No disaster here.

The disaster lurked within the covers of every book I examined: bookworms, voracious bookworms. A substantial portion of the Indian cultural heritage even then was disappearing rapidly down the gullets of the most rapacious bookworms I’ve ever seen. I have been in a number of ancient collections, worked with a number of ancient texts, and never elsewhere have I encountered such destruction.

Of course the main problem at the Indian National Library is the climate, the all-pervading damp of life on the Ganga Delta, a climate a bookworm loves, and I’ve often wished I had a million dollars or so of free cash with which to buy a climate-control and fumigation system to halt or at least slow the rampant destruction taking place in that library. Poor Ms. Dasgupta’s face all too clearly showed her despair each time she handed me a book, and each time she did so with a soft word of apology, my heart wrenched. Surely India’s cultural heritage deserves a better fate. It seems to me that there lies a most worthy cause, perhaps the most worthy cause, for Indian entrepreneurs: they should band together and raise a fund to rescue the Indian National Library.

After the shock of that library, both my wife and I needed some respite, and we found it in the garden, that same garden, of that small Jain temple, that same small Jain temple where I used to find peace in the midst of a war-torn world. I found even the bench, my bench, and once more seated myself, my wife by my side, amidst the flowers, the blossoms, the perfumes. The tree that used to shade the bench has gone, victim of old age or some minor catastrophe, but the rest is there, and a new tree, still too small in 1992, probably now provides ample shade to anyone seeking repose in that beautiful little universe.

And the rediscovery of that little treasure was enough to convince me it is sometimes quite worthwhile to go back to the old home town, for when I did in this instance, though often dazed, I also found delight.