The day we left Varanasi for Calcutta was, for me, the worst day of the trip so far. Stomach ache and nausea had sent me to the freezing cold bathroom a couple of times during the small hours, although I wasn’t actually sick, and by morning it was clear that I was going to have to take an Immodium to manage the hour long taxi ride to the airport.
I was feeling even colder than than usual, and all I wanted to do was crawl back under the blankets and sleep – instead I had to pack, endure the bumpy airport journey, wait an extra 2 hours for the delayed flight, then 3 hours of flight plus taxi to our hotel. It was 10:30pm by the time we got into our room and I just fell straight into bed.
I felt a bit better the next morning – unfortunately Mr V felt as I had the previous day. At least he got to spend the day in bed. Neither of us was badly ill but the effects lingered long enough that neither of us really wanted much of a Christmas lunch, so on Christmas Eve we went in search of ingredients for a room picnic (mainly bread, cheese and Indian red wine), then spent the following day in our room watching movies on the cable TV.
After that we only had three days in which to see something of Calcutta, so we swung by the gracious white edifice of the Victoria Memorial, strolled along the edge of the enormous open space that is Calcutta’s maidan, braved the warren of stalls in the New Market (until driven out by a quite unreasonable intesity of seller hassle) and walked towards the river from Esplanade, passing spacious open squares and the Eden cricket ground. On the muddy banks of the Hooghly River a few people had gathered to bathe or wash their clothes in the café au lait water, and a young boy wriggled under the ministrations of a barber – a bad idea, since a cut-throat razor was being employed for the final neatening of his hairline.
On our final day we strolled down elegant Park Street. Being Sunday, the shops were mostly shut, but people were queuing to get into the popular restaurants at Flury’s bakery and Peter Cat. We settled for a houmous and salad wrap at a bright, clean bakery.
Finally, yo the Park Street Cemetery, an atmospheric oasis of mausoleums belonging to 18th and early 19th century British residents in an overgrown garden of trees, watched over by a caretaker. He carefully recorded our names were recorded in the visitors’ register and graciously accepted our small contrbution to the maintenance fund (ie his salary).
From the little I saw of Calcutta, I liked it – wide avenues and colonial era buildings gave it an air of elegance. No doubt there are slums, (in fact, we saw some on the way back to the airport), but probably no worse than in Mumbai or Delhi, so it seems a little unfair that the fame of Mother Theresa’s activities have ensured that many people assume that the place is all about poverty. But as in every city in India, wealth and poverty in Calcutta exist in the same space, seeming to ignore each other most of the time, as though in two separate worlds.