The Weekenders: Adventures in Calcutta
Following their adventures in Africa, the Weekenders, a diverse group of our most exciting writers travel to India to uncover the beating heart of a city like no other – Calcutta. Colm Toibin, Irvine Welsh, Monica Ali, Mike Atherton, Bella Bathurst, WF Deedes, Jenny Colgan, Simon Garfield, Sam Miller, Victoria Glendinnning and Tony Hawks all search the streets, rivers and railways of one of the world’s most intriguing and contradictory cities in pursuit of Calcutta’s many faces. The result is an incredible collection of short stories and evocative travel writing reflecting the best and the worst of Kipling’s great City of Dreadful Night. (Edited by Andrew O’Hagan and published by Ebury Press)
Before arriving in Calcutta, all I knew about the place – aside from black holes and missionary positions – was a memorable section I’d once read in James Cameron’s book An Indian Summer, in which he describes the place as, ‘the most irredeemably horrible, vile and despairing city in the world.’ In his opinion, ‘anyone who has lived in Calcutta can never again find serious fault with anywhere else.’ He points out that Calcutta’s namesake and ‘patron saint’ is not the domesticated Durga or the learned Saraswati, but scarlet-tongued Kali, the Black Mother. At the Kalighat temple, a goat is sacrificed most days of the week and a buffalo twice a year. The place drips with vermilion dye and a huge black lingam stands in a corner like a threat. Kali herself, unsatisfied and atrocious, stares out between the bars of her shrine at the passing pilgrims. In human form, Kali-Ma is usually depicted with four arms, one holding a sword, another the head of a slain giant, and the last two encouraging her worshippers. Her earings are fashioned from cadavers, her necklace is of human skulls and her girdle is a belt of dead mens’ hands. Her face and breasts are smeared with the blood of her victims, and she stands on the prone form of her husband Siva. Kali’s legend takes several different forms, but in essence, she is the mother-goddess Durga reincarnated in warrior form to fight darkness on earth. When she saw that the world was overwhelmed by darkness, Durga transfigured herself into Kali and took on the forces of evil. When the battle was over and the ground littered with the corpses of her victims, Kali was so overjoyed at her victory that she began dancing. She danced and danced; she danced so hard that the ground shook and Siva begged her to stop. Lost in her frenzy, Kali did not notice him. Unable to attract her attention, Siva lay down among the bodies in protest. Kali danced on until she looked down to see that she was trampling on her own husband. Realising what she had done,she stopped dancing and thrust out her tongue in shame and self-disgust.
To anyone accustomed to a British God of sandals and moderation, Kali’s bloody visage seems extreme; a black-and-scarlet goddess for a black-and-scarlet city. Kali is undoubtedly ferocious, but she is also both wifely and maternal. She is also Calcutta’s protectress, keeping the city against the worst the world can throw at it, making bad blood into good. The city she guards is extreme, but then so is London, so is Monrovia, so is everywhere except perhaps Livingston or Belgium. And certainly you can expect to travel directly from a dinner during which you are served a dessert covered in gold-leaf to the local state hospital, in which 400 people share a single drip, a single bed and a single bandage. All the wealth and all the poverty coexists in a way that Englishmen accustomed to dissembling find altogether too naked for comfort.
But Calcutta doesn’t have the time or the inclination to mind. When it wants to – when, for instance, one of the important annual festivals comes round – it brushes down the streets, puts the dust aside, takes out its cleanest clothes and parties like every night was the last one. And when there are too many people and too much to absorb, it creates spaces in the filth, zones of silence amid the grumble of the car horns and the eviscerating smog. It has to. For half of Calcutta, there is no choice but to sleep or wash or take a wank right there by the side of a shopfront or under a tree. But at night, when the rickshaws are slid neatly into each other’s arms by the side of the street, the shutters of the pavement shacks are closed, and the street sleepers are concealed under a small square of traffic cones and scaffold-netting, it looks more orderly. There is still plenty of activity – down at the vegetable market, people are sorting aubergines into beautiful, icy baskets, and a crocodile of men sway like landsick sailors across the road with a ton or so of potatoes resting on their heads. The dogs who creep and loiter during the day come out to chase off any stray cars, and the police take their long sticks to the backs of the sleepers in the station. The roads become roads again instead of vehicular free-for-alls, the stations become stationary, and the river flows on, only interrupted by the faint splash of a death or a sale.
Besides, Calcutta used to people examining its dirt. That’s what Calcutta does, that’s what it’s famous for. You go to Paris for spring, you go to Rome for the Pope, you go to Calcutta for dirt. You go there, you expect filth, squalor, despair. That’s what you come to see. Except, of course, that nobody does go there, and nobody does see, because Calcutta has had everyone from Kipling onwards come to diagnose it, to tell the city that it’s got every known and unknown tropical disease from cholera to falling sickness, that it’s got no more than minutes to live, and – as one final parting insult – that it’s unquestionably the worst case they’ve ever come across. It’s had people from Rumer Godden to Geoffrey Moorhouse write whole books picking over its symptoms. And, of course, it’s had Mother Theresa, who might have been considered saintlike (and is currently well on the way to beatification) but whose effect was to confirm the city’s reputation as a place of iniquity, a hell-hole in which the all the world’s poverty, dirt and violence were somehow gathered together in one vast urban nightmare. Even now, Calcutta’s citizens speak of the city in the tones of a parent with a beloved but intransigent child, complaining that if only Calcutta could get over its filthy habits, its wastrel lifestyle and its penchant for gambling with all it should hold precious, it just might salvage something of its greatness.