We landed in Calcutta at Howrah station after a couple of days of travelling by train, and the first thing we did was drop of all our stuff at the cloakroom at Sealdah. The distance between the two stations is mere kilometres, but the taxi charged us Rs. 120 anyway. In any case, after we’d done all the formalities (you have to sign forms and stuff) and locked our luggage down tight with Suraj’s chain, we proceeded to explore the city. The area around Sealdah is full of buildings, old buildings. And they’re all either homeopathy ‘clinics’ or jewellery shops. The last time I’d visited Calcutta I was really small, so this trip sort of defined my image of Calcutta – Big white British buildings, lovely old crumbly buildings selling homeopathy medicines and jewellery, CITU students asking for donations to the party in exchange for putting a red flag on you, a beautiful subway rail with Soviet style paintings on the walls of the tunnels showing sportsmen, trams, and Bengali.
We’d arrived on the first of May, which is May Day or International Worker’s Day, so the Student’s wing of some Communist Party derivative or the other was at the station. Suraj gave them Rs. 20 and as a result, we were all given one little red CITU flag and a pin to pin it on our shirts. No wait, Suraj was forced to give them Rs. 20 after they pinned the flag on each of us. So anyway then we went on to look at the city in the four or so hours left to us before our next train left. We walked around a bit until we got to Kali Ghat, a temple which annoyed Bikram and Suraj to no end. Those peaceful hill dwellers were used to the spiritual temples you find in Sikkim, for example, and the whole commercial bit pissed Bikram off. We bought the goddess some flowers and went inside the temple with one hand on our wallets and the other trying to hold the stuff respectfully in front of us. After some crazy flower throwing business we got out all grumpy (except me, I’m sad to say I’ve already seen this bullshit at the Jaganath Puri temple and so I thought it was standard) and found, to our surprise, that our sandals were still where we’d left them. After some more handing over of money we were finally free. Word of advice: Don’t go there. Useless place. They don’t even let you see the temple, you have to go throw flowers. In any case, I’ve lost the photo roll that we took there, so no luck.
After that we went to Elliott’s park which is a pretty nice place, big lawn, birds flying down to that pond like place in the background. On the other side of Elliott’s there’s Maidan, which is this big field with people doing all sorts of stuff and with horses, lots of horses!
It was a rather nice place and we walked around a bit till we decided we’d go see St. Paul’s and the Victoria Memorial. At St. Paul’s we were ten minutes before visitor’s timings so we had to wait a bit. It took us that long to fit the new roll into the camera, but soon we were in. It’s a lovely building, simply beautiful and it’s very tall. Inside there was this big set of pews and every few rows there was a flag with one of the Indian provinces and their coat of arms (I saw Madras :) ). There were also lots of plaques for poor people who’d died one way or the other many decades ago. At the entrance, they’d turned Bishop Heber to stone and slightly down the way there was a board asking for donations to renovate the building (why? It looked poifect! Something about earthquakes). After that it was off to another big white building, the Victoria Memorial.
The Victoria Memorial was under renovation, sort of, when we got there (you can see that framework sort of thing on top). There was this funny guy at the gate. We asked him to take a photo of us and he said he didn’t want to cross the road just to take a photo, so we told him he didn’t need to, and then he was all happy. Inside, just at the entrance, the guard stopped me because I had my bag with me. He also asked me where I’d come from and was very disappointed when I said, “Madras, er Chennai.” Inside the Victoria Memorial, there were these lovely paintings by some guy called George «something», his paintings were really really nice, especially the ones depicting sailing boats in a storm on the Hooghly (I think.). Really good stuff. There were the usual rifles and artifacts, and one nice model of a ship. The Queen’s proclamations were on the walls in stone worked to look like scrolls. It had a dramatic effect, about the only good those British were good for. Right about now it was time to leave, so we took the subway to the station nearest Sealdah (I think it Central) and walked from there. Halfway to Sealdah, we tried hailing a taxi and he stopped, blocking a whole swathe of traffic and before we could ask for the price a cop chased him off. We walked the rest of the way and then waited for a long long while before we got our train.
This deserves its own section. It was wonderful, really fancy and modern, with escalators and central air-conditioning and those ticket checking machines you have to put your ticket through before it lets you pass. You aren’t allowed to take a photograph inside the metro stations, probably because their tubelights are of some exotic design. The trains are on time, which is to say they are right on time. Every train we took was there at the station just as the clock turned to that minute. That’s superbly efficient! If this government ever turns totalitarian, I can just imagine future historians saying, “But Buddhadeb made the trains run on time.” The paintings on the walls of the tunnels are the funniest. They seem to call on every person in Calcutta to feel pride in its skill at table tennis, football, wrestling, just about any sport, and all of that’s done in the style that you see on the walls of abandoned buildings in Chernobyl. Gives you a feeling, you know. A feeling.