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Discovering Calcutta Today

200905-a-calcutta-today

Photo: Christian Witkin

Toward the end of our stay, I went walking in Kumartuli, near the Hooghly River, where about 600 families of traditional idol makers work and live. It is at Kumartuli that countless effigies of Hindu gods and goddesses are constructed from mud dredged from the river bottom and then molded over frames of bamboo, lath, and straw. Passed from one generation to another, the idol-making craft reaches a pitch of activity in autumn, during the festival of Durga Puja, when gaudy images of the goddess Durga and her daughter Saraswati, tarted up with glitter, foil, and sequins, are carried to the Hooghly on palanquins and sunk. Or they were, until soggy idols polluted the river-banks to such an extent that officials insisted worshippers fish them back out after immersion.

Other than crossing it on a bridge, we had not seen much of the Hooghly, so we hired a boat to convey us to Belur Math, the campus of the Ramakrishna Vivekenanda wing of Hinduism. The vessel, about the size of a small ferry, carried just the two of us past the Nimtala Ghat, the crematory where a stoned Allen Ginsberg once sat through the night watching the flames consume the dead; by the imaginary demarcation between the old “white” and “black” cities; and beneath the Hooghly Bridge, where hordes from among the 2 million pedestrians who cross the river on foot each day staggered along, each carrying what looked like an armoire on his head.

We landed at Belur Math’s temple complex, which is kept unusually pristine by funds from international devotees. We walked around for a while but soon grew bored by the bandbox modernity of the place and spooked by the expressions on the faithful’s faces, a familiar smug look that seems to creep over the spiritually assured.

We reboarded the boat and headed south. Suddenly a squall came out of nowhere, the sky went dark, rain pelted, and a chop in the Hooghly caused the boat to list drunkenly to port. More alarming still, the wind pressed smoke toward us from the industrial east shore of the river like an infernal cloud bank, a shroud. Suddenly we were in a scene out of Blake.

At the approach of the storm most people had scattered for shelter. But my eye was caught by the sight of two children laughing and splashing at the water’s edge near the burning ghat. If their insouciance struck me as strangely wonderful it may be due to a passage I had read that morning by the 94-year-old Indian writer Khushwant Singh. The miracle of life, Singh wrote, quoting the Mahabharata, is that while we all know death is inevitable, no one truly believes it will come to him. Death is something that happens to other people. Each of us secretly expects to live eternally.

If the kids on the riverbank looked convinced of their own immortality, my own felt substantially less secure. Yet, as suddenly as the storm had begun, it subsided. The turbulent water went flat. I glanced at my watch and realized with surprise that the cosmic convergence had crept up on us. It was Good Friday. It was Holi. It was the Prophet’s birthday. It was time for a drink.

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