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Oh? Calcutta?

The No. 2 city, unjustly overlooked by travelers, is surprisingly enjoyable as a chapter in an epic human story

November 19, 2000|MARSHALL S. BERDAN | Marshall S. Berdan is a freelance writer in Alexandria, Va

CALCUTTA, India — Our expressions of amusement clearly disturbed the dozen or so other spectators at the low-budget sound and light show patently overbilled as "Pride and Glory," a feel-good promotional slide presentation about the beauty and charm of Calcutta, complete with lilting jingle. This was, after all, the city that Westerners associated with the Black Hole and whose reputation, as dim as it was, had actually darkened in recent years through the publicity about Mother Teresa's noble work.

Maybe you had to be an outsider to appreciate the irony of an Indian "Pride and Glory" exercise happening in the shadow of the oh-so-British Victoria Memorial. My wife, Stacie, and I were sitting in the Maidan, the city's huge central park. In front of us was the enormous, domed white marble museum dedicated to Queen Victoria and that part of Calcutta's history that the Chamber of Commerce production conveniently overlooked: the 139 years--1772 to 1911--when this was the capital of the British Raj and the second-largest city in the British Empire.

How soon they forget. But in our five days in what is now the capital of the state of West Bengal and home to 11 million to 15 million souls--an accurate count is impossible--we couldn't overlook Calcutta's past, even if we wanted to. Despite all the English-to-Bengali name changes, including the official change to "Kolkuta" last year, Calcutta is essentially the same city physically that the British vacated upon India's independence in 1947.

Calcutta's ubiquitous aura of dilapidation is no one's definition of charming. The Maidan, the British military encampment that is now the city's vast (9 1/2 square miles) central park, is one big public latrine, and the diesel-belching trucks, buses and taxis make Calcutta an asthmatic's nightmare.

But for all its flaws, Calcutta is the most fascinating of India's major cities. At least that was our assessment after mostly self-guided exploration during a monthlong ramble around the country last year. Yes, we saw heartbreaking squalor (and we can only imagine the heartache of thousands left homeless in floods in September). But we also saw much to intrigue and enjoy: Calcutta's extensive, if neglected, colonial charm; its rich Bengali heritage; its ongoing struggle to make the most of what nature and human endeavor have bequeathed it.

The best place to begin appreciating Calcutta is at the beginning: the Kali Temple, reachable by India's lone--and surprisingly adequate--subway line. "Calcutta," you see, is the mangled English pronunciation of "Kalikata," "city of Kali." In the Hindu pantheon, Kali is revered as a mother figure, the giver of life, and also as the destroyer of evil. She usually is depicted as having many arms and weapons, and wearing human skulls and bones. Blood sacrifices--traditionally black goats--figure in her worship, the blood representing the life force that Kali can bestow or take.

Her temple is a cramped, grubby and, yes, bloody affair, teeming with devotees. Foreigners can't avoid being latched onto by self-appointed "guides" who lead them through the standard obeisance: red hibiscus flowers thrown over a statue of Kali in a recessed inner sanctum, and a donation, for which your forehead receives a red tika, or dot, administered by one of the dhoti-clad attendants.

Kali's next-door neighbor is Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity Hospital for the Dying and Destitute, where a different sort of tourist ethic prevails. Visitors are encouraged to enter a ground-floor ward and observe. Stacie and I knew that what awaited us was not pretty, but we wanted to witness, if only for a moment, the celebrated work being carried on in Mother Teresa's name--the work of giving dignity to the dying.

Presided over by the sisters in their trademark habits of white linen with blue-striped trim, volunteers were attending the patients, serving food, administering IVs and changing dressings and bedclothes while rickety ceiling fans struggled to keep the stultifying tropical air circulating.

On this particular afternoon, the ward information board counted 90 patients--47 males and 43 females--with one new admission and four deaths. Hard is the heart that can leave this scene of pathos without making a generous donation.

Central Calcutta invites pedestrian exploration, but to see the outlying sites requires a ride. The Indian Tourism Development Corp. and the West Bengal Tourist Authority operate eight-hour "luxury" bus tours for the bargain price of 100 rupees, about $2.40 when we were there.

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