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Discovering Calcutta Today


Photo: Christian Witkin

It happened that, conducted by friends or else carrying letters of introduction from the hotel, we were able to visit some of Kolkata’s private clubs, which was how we happened to find ourselves wandering the empty golf course at the Tollygunge one hazy afternoon, eyes peeled for the jackals that, I learned later, are a routine hazard on the fairways.

We had afternoon tea on the lawn of the Saturday Club, watched a cutthroat game of indoor badminton, and, on another day at another club, were served fish croquettes by a doddering ancient wearing frayed cotton gloves and a lopsided turban.

On one of these outings I asked an acquaintance for help making sense of the distortions of a city where, from the window of the car ferrying us from the airport, I spotted a man asleep on a median, naked and barely recognizable as a member of human society. She gave me an indulgent look Indians tend to reserve for foreigners who come to Kolkata seeking easy explanations or cheap profundity.

“There are missions for that,” another acquaintance remarked when I posed the same question to her. Kolkata is full of them, she added, and of missionaries happy to distribute one’s largesse. “That’s what Mother Teresa is for,” she added, and it was admittedly a relief to acknowledge that better and worthier people than I stand ready to take on tasks that, given a thousand lifetimes, I could not.

Why falsify things?Or why do so in Kolkata, where realism can be voiced in a tongue as lashing as that of Kali, the ghoulish deity locally venerated for her bloodlust and rapacious appetites?It probably says a certain amount about a place that its presiding goddess is usually pictured enwreathed in flames and wearing a garland of skulls. Kali, the destroyer, the insatiable, devours her enemies in a cavernous maw; in her tantric form, she is commonly depicted squatting atop the corpse of Shiva in an act of unseemly posthumous carnality.

An old friend I had unexpectedly run into at the hotel’s breakfast buffet consented to join me for an outing to the famed Kali Temple on an imposingly muggy afternoon. “In God’s name, why?’’ another friend, a devout Hindu, asked when informed of our plans. “That temple is the most godless place on earth.” At least, she added, avoid the place on sacrifice day, when the paths can be slick with freshly spilled blood.

We went anyway and found a scene that, far from tumultuous or gory, was oddly domestic. Shedding our shoes at the gateway, we fell in behind a few pilgrims shuffling toward a shrine where devotees chanted or else slumped in any available patch of shade. Like everyone else, we paused at the door of the sanctum, peering intently at an idol that looks much smaller in real life than in her photographs, the way movie stars do.

Trailing the crowd through to what looked like an exit we found ourselves instead in an adjacent temple dedicated to Shiva, Kali’s erstwhile lover. Not unusually for such places, we were soon accosted by a Brahman priest. Knotting an auspicious thread around my friend’s wrist, the priest whispered that 1,000 rupees was the customary temple donation. The figure, he went on, was barely enough for a bag of rice with which to feed the starving local populace. Being relatively new to temple scams my friend gamely forked over the cash.

Then it was my turn. The priest rewound his spiel, first favoring me with a smile of oily insincerity rarely seen outside a Jerry Lewis telethon. Ignoring his scandalized look when I did so, I handed him a more customary 100 rupee note (about $2) and remarked that, if rice was going for $20 a bag in these parts, he should get out of the god business and onto the commodities floor.

From the Kali Temple we took ourselves to South Kolkata and the Weavers Studio, easily the most sophisticated textile gallery I know of in India, and wandered around in a daze induced by the wealth of crafts traditions (among other things, India invented block printing, calico, chintz, crewel, and tie-and-dye), and also somewhat sticker-shocked by the price tags on saris of embroidered kantha cloth or shawls of naturally golden silk from Assam.


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