Having worked in Parliament for several years, Roy didn’t expect to bump into Big Ben in Kolkata: but sure enough, on the drive from the airport, there he was, standing proudly in the middle of a dual carriage way. This exact replica, albeit not full size, is part of the Chief Minister’s vision of turning Kolkata into London. At a cost of 10 million rupees (£125,000), it’s obviously controversial and having seen India’s poverty, I can see why.
Colonial British built buildings are now the commercial and administrative hub known as Benoy-Badal-Dinesh Bagh or BBD Bagh although it’s still referred to as Dalhousie Square. Once again, I can see why.
We passed the very grand post office, writers building (because it originally housed the clerks or ‘writers’ of the East India Company), tax office, Government House (with 136 rooms and formerly the residence of Governor Wellesley who, on asked why he needed such a grand place, retorted that all the royals had palaces), Eden Gardens (India’s largest cricket stadium), and the gothic High Court which I thought looked like St Pancras.
We drove along Red Road with bamboo scaffolding being erected in preparation for the Republic Day celebrations on 26 January. It was painted red during World War 2 and used as an airstrip which is how it arrived at its name.
St John’s Church
In the grounds of the Anglican St. John’s Church, was Job Charnock’s mausoleum: the founding father of Kolkata who achieved notoriety by marrying a Hindu girl he saved from becoming suttee. There were several other tombs of men and women who had died young: men, below 40, from malaria and women in their 20s, from childbirth. Some of the inscriptions were more elaborate than others: as soon as someone caught malaria they started the engraving as no one ever recovered. But if they had a lingering death, the engraver had more time.
Nearby in a white ornate cupola was the tomb of Mrs Frances Johnson and an amusing inscription about her four husbands and a monument erected by Lord Curzon in 1902 to the 123 men who died in the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta.
Inside the church, seats looked like pews but contained individual chairs with rattan bottoms and backs designed to prevent people ‘sticking to each other’ in the hot weather. A painting of The Last Supper by Johann Zoffany in 1787, unveiled after restoration in 2010, depicted prominent people from Calcutta as the apostles: one he didn’t like was shown as Judas and to add insult to injury, he painted a cow hide water carrier at his feet. John the Baptist looked rather feminine and resembled a woman he’d taken a shine to as he was a ladies’ man. Many windows had plain glass as the stained glass had been damaged in the war, although three arch-shaped windows remained intact. Many of the memorials to prominent Brits were in marble which had been carved in London and bore the stonemason’s name and address.
Mullick Ghat wholesale flower market, is said to be one of the biggest in Asia. It was very colourful, and sneeze inducing, with men sat on their haunches painstakingly making garlands from single flower heads and individual rose petals which they curled. Flowers for weddings were red and for funerals white, although most of the garlands were destined for religious offerings: we both thought, what a waste of money in view of the poverty. Huge blocks of ice were being carved into butter pack size pieces to be put among the flowers which were to be transported long distances.
Chotelal Ki Ghat
At the ghat people, mainly men, were washing both themselves and clothes in the River Hooghly. There was a bust of a prominent champion wrestler, Guru Nathmal Ji Pareek, as dawn wrestling matches take place nearby. The tidal river results in the water level rising twice a day by 5 to 6 feet which we hoped would cover the vast amounts of shore-line litter. The cantilever bridge (similar to the Forth Bridge) and the 6th longest in the world, divides Howrah from Kolkata with commuters flocking into Howrah railway station and flooding across the bridge at peak times.
There are three synagogues in Kolkata but as the two largest were under renovation, we visited Neveh Shalome Synagogue, incongruously located at the end of a small alley full of stalls selling pots and pans. Roy donned the obligatory skull cap and on entering found a small, simple building but as there are only 18 Jews in the city, size is not an issue. Also 10 men are required to hold a service, but as there aren’t 10 Jewish men able to make it to the synagogue, services are never held. The balcony, where the woman sit, had display boards with interesting facts about the Indian Jewish community. For example, the first Miss India was Jewish.
St Paul’s Cathedral,
We saw photographs of the cathedral before the earthquakes in 1897 and 1934 which damaged the top spire and which transformed it from resembling Norwich cathedral to Canterbury’s. As there are so few Anglicans, the vast grounds behind the church are rented out for Hindu weddings. Huge dahlia flowers were staked in the grounds with our guide telling us the best manure for them was human!
Queen Victoria’s Memorial
This was not as we’d anticipated, just a statue, but a large gallery and museum. A long drive, with a central Victoria statue, was flanked by ornamental pools (or tanks as they’re known). Inside, were galleries about the designing and building of the memorial, a temporary exhibition on Krishna before the main room with its extensive displays of the city’s history which could have taken all day to look round.
The next morning, we ventured to the covered Hogg Market neatly divided into sections. There were beautifully bright coloured sarees, spice stalls with vats of various types of masala, dead and alive chickens and other fowl, and butchery and fish areas. We found the Jewish bakery we’d heard about in the synagogue the previous day and bought cheese and chicken puffs and a spiced bun. We wandered outside and sat in the sun to munch until a young man next to us wanted selfies with both of us.