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Calcutta Magic
FRANK ROGERS | 04 Apr 2008

Not long ago, an Indian friend forwarded to me a short squib in which the writer bemoaned the general notion of Calcutta current here in the western world: an image of great misery and Mother Teresa, the good Mother with her saintly mercy fending off an overwhelming and unrelenting tide of pain, sickness, death. The message brought to mind my own impressions of Calcutta the first time I had a decent chance to form any.

I had first seen the city briefly in 1943 as a member of a U.S. Army radio intelligence unit on detached service on my way to join the British 14th Army in Assam as it braced to meet the threat of a Japanese invasion of India proper. My unit and I arrived in Calcutta at Howrah Station. There we were met by a convoy of British army trucks quaintly called “lorries”—when he heard his guide say “Michelangelo,” Mark Twain concluded, “The Italians spell better than they pronounce”; the English can’t even find the right words, let alone spell them properly. Anyway, as I was saying, a convoy of British army trucks took us from Howrah across the spanking new steel cantilever bridge through the heart of Calcutta to Sealdah Station to entrain there for Shillong, then the capital of Assam. On that transit, I saw much to fascinate me but little to justify the view I had brought with me, an image gleaned from Rudyard Kipling, who called the place “the city of the dreadful night.”

Kipling had not even offered the saving grace of a Mother Teresa to mitigate his view, but the only things I saw verging toward the dreadful were the rickshaw-wallahs, thin wraiths of skin and bone between the shafts of two-wheeled vehicles occupied by well-nourished beings too lazy to walk and too miserly to hire one of the many taxis, tongas, or garis that wove their way through the pedestrians, ox-carts, trams, and the occasional superannuated London double-decker bus. That and that alone on that first view struck me as outrageous, verging toward the dreadful. I learned later that if our route had taken us in a different direction, I would have seen much more misery, for in that year Bengal suffered the worst famine in its history, and many had fled to the city in the vain hope of finding some relief there. But as it was, I saw a city composed mainly of two or three story buildings, garish billboards, and occasionally a taller, more modern building—a city apparently some 50 years behind the times judging by the many horse-drawn vehicles I saw, something that had largely disappeared from the cities of the U.S.

However, I also glimpsed something that promised splendors to come. Before I entered the U.S. Army, I had studied oil painting, particularly the colorists’ techniques. On the streets of Calcutta we traveled that day, I saw two saris (two women emerging from a shop), very colorful saris that, by Joán Miró’s definition, I immediately recognized as beauty (he had said, “If I feel a tock on the stomach, I know it is beauty”), and, no, the “tock” I felt did not come from the fact that the saris enwrapped the female form. It was the drape and flow of the garment, the most graceful garment ever devised for the human form, and, above all, the colors. I caught a fleeting glimpse, then, of something I would learn more fully later on: that Indians love color as no other peoples do.

I did not see Calcutta again until the fall of 1944 when, after recovering at the U.S. Army 142nd General Hospital in Calcutta from wounds received in Burma, I walked out of the building for two weeks leave, in my pocket a large accumulation of back pay made even larger by the conversion from U.S. dollars to rupees, on my shoulder a brand new duffle bag filled with brand new clothing. I did not know it at that time, but my first day of freedom from medical supervision was also Saptami, the seventh day of Asvin, the first day of the famous Durga Puja of Calcutta. At the moment I walked out the door, I had no idea what awaited me. But first I had to defend myself.

To take my bearings, I paused at the curb and grounded my duffle bag; immediately, a horde ofthose pathetic rickshaw-wallahs besieged me, all clamoring together, “Rickshaw, sahib? Rickshaw, sahib?” Oh, god! The dreadful night to come!

I took no rickshaw. Instead I began a practice I would follow for the rest of my days in Calcutta. Without even haggling, I paid the nearest rickshaw-wallah the fare he demanded and took a taxi. And what a taxi! I have no idea of the make, some British make, I’m sure, a long-nosed somewhat antiquated touring car; light tan in color with, if memory serves me, black trim; the top down; at the wheel (on the wrong side, of course), a lavishly bearded Sikh in a neatly wrapped purple turban that gave him a most jaunty air; beside him a small boy in a dhoti, perhaps his son (though, like the majority of Bengalis, he wore no head covering), whose only raison d’être was to squeeze the rubber bulb of the old-fashioned, trumpet-shaped horn attached to the left side of the vehicle, something he did with enormous enthusiasm. It soon became apparent that he and his bulb squeezing were the driver’s substitute for brakes, for the driver, a man with an obvious death-wish, drove with a wild abandon through such traffic as I had never before witnessed in my own experiences as a driver in a small Upstate New York village and its surrounding country roads.

A steady and heavy flow of traffic filled the street not just from curb to curb but from wall to wall—tangas, bullock carts, cars, pedestrians, trams, rickshaws, one or two double-decker buses, and, of course, other taxis driven by other Sikhs, they, too, with death-wishes of their own—enough traffic to daunt the hardiest of souls. From the midst of the throng came a strange rattling sound and, above the din, the thin, reedy swirl of flutes of some sort.

After I had taken my seat and given my instructions—I wanted first to go to the American “Burra” club on Dalhousie Square (I would lodge there for my leave)—my driver launched us out into the mass aided only by the constant Wonk-Wonk! Wonk-Wonk! of the horn. I swear he didn’t even look for on-coming traffic. In fact, if I remember correctly, he launched the car into motion while looking over his shoulder at me to announce happily, “Durga Puja, sahib! Durga Puja!” Whether it was the constant horn (rather lost, it seemed to me, in the din of other horns, the rattle of drums, the clamor of voices) or the obvious kamikaze intentions of my driver, I have no idea, but just beyond the hood ornament, the mass magically parted, and we were off.

Miraculously I arrived at my destination in one piece. My driver pulled up to the curb before the marquee of the Burra Club with a squeal of brakes (yes, he finally did find them). I got out, paid him, and on his insistence agreed that he would pick me up later that evening. He wanted to show me the Durga Puja. I rather thought I had seen too much of it already, but nevertheless I agreed. Was I crazed by the exhilaration of another near-death experience?

That evening my driver took me pandal hopping, a must for any visitor to Calcutta during the Durga Puja. At least he started the process. At the first pandal, I saw a temporary three-story temple, Mughal style and finely decorated, erected in the middle of a street to house the image of Durga in the act of killing the asura Mahisha and with her the four smaller images of Kartik, Ganesh, Sarasvati, and Lakshmi, the whole—temple, images, decoration, color—such as to give me an enormous “tock” on the stomach. There a young man named Chakravarti, a writer for the Statesman, befriended me and appointed himself my guide and tutor for the remainder of the puja. I’m glad he did, for on that night and the subsequent two he showed me a magical world, Calcutta during the Durga Puja, a beautiful, though temporary, world, the end of which on Navami left me with a sense of longing never again fully satisfied perhaps because of its very transitory nature.

During those three days, I saw, of course, a religious festival, but more than that I saw a massive art festival, the world’s largest. The pandals, the images, the city present to the eye a feast of line and color unequalled, to my knowledge, anywhere else in the world. The Gion Matsuri, the Gion festival, of Kyoto, Japan, comes close, but it lasts only one night and one day, has none of the scope, and the nearest thing to the pandal, the towering carts, are constructed to last, some of them already a century or more in age when I saw them. The pandal and the images within are of straw, bamboo, and clay, made anew each year, the style and decoration of the pandals changing year to year to year, the images tending to be more standardized, although they, too, may change according to the whims of the unnamed, unsung artists who construct and paint them.

The last night of the puja, the throngs carry the various images to the ghats along the Hooghly river and submerge them in the water where they dissolve and eventually wash out to sea, all this in a ceremony of immense beauty. If you’ve never seen it, you must imagine a sea of flaring torches both on the shore and on the water, for boatloads of people, these, too, with torches, ride the water to watch the final ceremony, and others have released upon the surface a host of little floats, each bearing a lighted lamp or candle (all this despite the war-time blackout). You must hear the singing and the drums and the flutes; you must see the flaring flames, the reflections dancing on the water’s surface, and those magnificent images sliding slowly and silently into the water.

Later, after the third day of the puja, I saw little misery, but I’m sure it was there. What large city does not have its share? And I saw some of Calcutta’s on later excursions; after all, Bengal had not yet recovered from that disastrous famine. But on that first extended visit, I saw much else to admire: the Victoria Memorial, of course; St. Paul’s Cathedral; the governor-general’s palace—these of British origin; and magnificent mansions glimpsed through gates in blank walls, the flamboyant Pareshnath Jain temple, and much, much more, including another Jain temple, a small one, unremarkable, but with a lovely little garden with a bench under a shading tree. I formed the habit of going there simply to sit on that bench, to enjoy the peace I found among the colors and perfumes of the flowers—for me, the still center of a reeling world. But all of that pales almost to insignificance when compared to the pandals, the people, and the images of the Durga Puja. I shall never forget.