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Discovering Calcutta Today


Photo: Christian Witkin

“What a weird dog,” said a stalwart traveling buddy of mine as our taxi curved around the driveway of the Tollygunge Club in Calcutta.

Something piebald and mangy stood at the edge of a putting green.

“I don’t think that’s a dog at all,” I replied, peering past the driver. “I think it’s a fox.”

Whatever it was cocked its snout and swiveled its pointy ears, nostrils quivering to scout our scent.

In the backseat, our novelist friend Susanna craned her neck as the taxi approached the clubhouse’s porte cochère. She nonchalantly leaned forward and said, in a way that this particular pal has of making uncanny things sound matter-of-fact: “Oh, that’s not a fox. It’s a jackal.”

Of course it was. Aren’t there jackals in the suburbs of every major metropolis, loping around the golf course and skittering onto the runways at the international airport to shut down flights?(This has actually occurred.) We were in Calcutta (or Kolkata, to use the official name) and it was getting toward the hot season and the curious occurrences were only bound to get curiouser.

We had come into town, my traveling friend and I, a few days before from the Indian back-of-beyond. Upon our arrival we learned from the Telegraph, Kolkata’s daily newspaper, that we were in for a day unlike any “ever before seen in our lives.” An astronomical confluence would result in Good Friday, the natal day of the Prophet Mohammed, and the big Hindu festival of Holi occurring simultaneously.

“It is extremely rare that three events of different religions fall on the same day,” a spokesman for the All India Federation of Astrologer’s Societies said on the radio. His unctuous tone put me in mind of Constella of the Daily News, an astrologer on the radio when I was a kid. “The stars guide,” an announcer used to say when introducing Constella, his voice reverberating as if he were talking through the wrong end of a megaphone. “They do not govern. Your life is largely in your own hands.”

That notion is loopy, of course, and never more so than in India, where anyone deluded enough to imagine that fate is theirs to decide will soon be persuaded otherwise. An old Hindi adage points out that in India, there are seven days in a week—but eight religious festivals (“Saat vaar aur aath tyohaar”). This is one piece of local wisdom that, it strikes me, is worth keeping in mind.

It’s not that I had outsize ambitions for this visit. Kolkata is not renowned for throwing travelers a welcome mat. More than any Indian place of my acquaintance, this alternately tony, intellectual, and legendarily squalid Bengali city expects to be taken at its own pace and on its own terms, and that was fine with me.

Still, had the hotel been any other, it might have felt like misfortune to land in a city when everything was half shuttered in anticipation of a big holiday. But my friend and I put up at the Oberoi Grand, and few lodgings are more accurately named. Like Claridge’s in London or (at one time) the Plaza in New York or the Taj Mahal in Mumbai, the Grand has been a source of civic pride and a landmark of social arrival for more than a century. A vast block-long pile at the heart of the city’s main thoroughfare, Jawaharlal Nehru Road (formerly Chowringhee Road), the Grand is equal parts fortress, mansion, and society bastion, the kind of place where anyone who has ever been anyone in the city has been proud to let you know they are lodged.

Period photos show Chowringhee Road as a broad European boulevard, but a snapshot taken now would tell a different tale. In place of the sahibs in natty straw hats and ladies in starched linen are teeming crowds sheltering beneath the hotel’s covered colonnade. That street-facing façade is now a market where refugees from the poor Indian state of Bihar set up shop daily on militarily contested patches of ground. Each morning they unroll bundles of T-shirts, cheap wallets, batteries, plaster birds, paperbacks, and handmade gizmos and set about advertising the superiority of their wares at pain-level volume until well after dark.


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