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Edition 47

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Memoir

Calcutta

I’M PERCHED ON the western edge of Australia, looking out on the buoyant and impressive Indian Ocean. The vista, if I turn back towards my city, continues to be dominated by cranes. A city transformed by capital and mining; a population that has grown faster than we’ve ever seen. From the time this place was a colony, population has been a struggle and particularly during the cycles of our boom times. If I put on my long-distance goggles and look north, I’d see the mining capital laid out in all of its exploration logic, and the waste left after the extraction has taken place. Laid out all over that red earth.

Growth is addictive. We keep coming back for more. We’ve cranked our controls up high. It’s good for the economy.

John Butler locates his allegory about the Kimberley, the last great ‘wilderness’ region in Australia, in the monumental struggle over the James Price Point gas hub when songlines and industry collided:

Now it’s come to a showdown and it’s all push and pull.

Got the lawyers having a field day while the cowboys are funding schools.

It boils down to how you see it: do you see Kimberley,

Or just another damned hole in the ground, just another opportunity?

I found my nirvana on the streets of Calcutta. Surprisingly. It had nothing to do with spirituality or anything I thought I lacked. Everyone I encountered was purposeful and confident. I have only ever lived in Western Australia so I am a wide-eyed enthusiast when I see large groups of people behaving co-operatively on an everyday basis, despite their differences.

Calcutta is a magnificent city in ruins. Its extravagant nineteenth-century architecture was largely modelled on the grand buildings and streetscapes of England. It’s startling when you first come upon the Post Office, the Writers’ Building (clerks, not poets) and the massive figure of Queen Victoria, Empress of India, at the Victoria Memorial Hall. It boggles the mind to see the grandeur and that commitment to a ‘stately, spacious, monumental and grand building surrounded by an exquisite garden’ that Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, commissioned and erected on the Maidan, the gorgeous open field of Calcutta littered all day and night by the enterprise of cricket and play, military parade or protest. The scale of these city features is monumental in every sense.

The city of Calcutta was held hostage for decades by the figure of Mother Teresa standing in as its image broadcast to the West. That was my introduction, from afar, and those images were mixed with a lurid and contested historical phrase, ‘The Black Hole of Calcutta’, that, in ignorance, was imposed on the contemporary city.

These images are but one small part of the story of West Bengal. What is more pertinent is the breathtaking innovation, revolutionary thought and passion for learning and ideas that distinguished the period described as the Bengal Renaissance, spanning the centuries from the late eighteenth to the twentieth. The example of writers and artists and thinkers in the humanities and sciences, and the pride with which these things are held, has fostered a culture of people confident to discuss and argue.

THIS ISN’T JUST a historical moment, it’s an active part of life for many across the whole of society. It is not just the predilection of an elite.

Tens of thousands of people, ordinary readers, attend the Calcutta Book Fair to look at the range of books in a range of languages, including Bengali, Hindi, Urdu and English.

So, I want to hone in on how it is that people, after their formal education has ended, still read works of literature, follow cinema and actively read films, and have an interest in reading ideas-based books. I have a professional interest: as a publisher I am dismayed – heartbroken is more accurate – at how small the readership is in Australia for books that are not made with a soggy middle range of formulaic elements. Books produced out of the fascination with celebrity are increasingly consumed in the place of serious works of fiction and non-fiction.

The city of Calcutta is filled with bookshops and makeshift book stalls on many streets. After a Dalhousie Square walking tour in ‘white Calcutta’, I buy a handsome hardcover volume about imperial Calcutta from the Foreign Publishers’ Agency bookshop on JL Nehru Road near the Grand Hotel. This bookshop has the most comprehensive collection of high theory books from publishers such as Verso (formerly New Left Books) that I’ve seen since the 1990s. The proprietor applies a 10 per cent discount to my purchase on the information that I am a colleague in publishing and bookselling. The gesture has meant I’ve kept his handwritten cash memo as a memento.

On a meandering walk to the Kali temple along Ballygunge Place I find a modest bookseller with a very small range of books. I ask him to recommend a piece of contemporary Indian writing and he presents me with the first book by Calcutta’s great chronicler, Amit Chaudhuri. We haggle over the price as it is old and scuffed, but once we reach an agreement his two young male assistants take over, one to write a receipt and one to wrap my little book in brown paper with string, just as I once did for my customers in a bookshop in Perth. In most of these bookshops there is an old-book smell, slightly dusty, that is matched with the scents of incense and the general redolence of spices. If you are lucky, the sweet aromas of Bengali sweets (milky, custardy, honey, pistachio, jaggery) from the street will be much more pungent than the competing smells of rotting rubbish and cow shit, as they are for me.

STREET LIFE. ACROSS the sprawling city’s greater metro area where more than fourteen million people live, it is possible to ask for assistance on the street: for further information, for directions – even recommendations. This is my own experience: it is straightforward enough to find English speakers in most parts of the city and to find courteous people with accurate information most of the time. Men and women are about equal in their literacy levels and it’s up in the mid-80 per cent range.

On Republic Day, shared with the non-republic Australia Day on 26 January, I step out after the marches and celebrations for a leisurely walk at noon. On a street corner I hesitate, just long enough for two young men to offer assistance with directions. They are in their mid-twenties, very neat in their casual clothes with T-shirts and jeans. They start with a tremendous vitality, as if they already know me, and are then a little taken aback when I match them for energy.

Dip is the leader, his friend a reluctant talker. We spend the next five hours together, walking around the Victoria Memorial, standing in queues; we take a taxi to the floating mosque at Rabindra Sarobar Lake and walk over its suspension bridge.

When we sit down on the lush lawn in the gardens around the Victoria Memorial we go deep, fast. Dip tells me of the life of a twenty-seven-year-old Indian man, living with his parents who are keen to arrange a marriage for him. He has already rejected two potential brides but, frankly, wishes to remain single a bit longer and pursue his ambition to be a film actor. He’s had a small part in a small film and has a taste for this as being more appealing than his IT career.

The focus turns to me fairly quickly. Single woman wandering the streets on the national day, visiting Calcutta alone. Living alone and not miserable. And no children. There are choices, after all, in a joyous life of privilege. But what happens if you get sick in the middle of the night, Terri-ann? I’d call a friend. But what if you were still sick the next day and night? I’d ask another friend or go to a hospital.

What would you do, Dip? My friend would come once, and then not answer their phone again if I called. We all have too many obligations to family to be able to do that. He asks me frank questions (his friend mute but attentive). Are you lonely? Do you feel isolated not being married? Why didn’t you have any children? It is refreshing having this conversation with these two young men who, I surmise, have only had one narrative for women like me (sad failure) handed down to them from their culture. Being outside the marriage market as I am, through choice and age, inspires some envy in Dip.

We stay in touch through Facebook for a year until my next visit, when I meet Dip at the Grand Hotel for a beer. It’s a risky move for a young man but he goes through with it and meets me in the foyer. He updates me on the marriage stakes and his parents’ annoyance at his not complying.

The reason I first visited Calcutta was to see where it was these powerful intellectual Bengali women I’d met all around the world had come from: women who, often with their mothers and sisters, conducted classes in their homes for neighbourhood children unable to attend daytime school.

Manjit Singh Hoonjan takes me on a walking tour on two of my visits to Calcutta. His company offers a range of walking options with descriptions such as ‘Confluence of Cultures: Bow Barracks to Burrabazar’ and ‘Bengal Renaissance Walk’. These are illuminating experiences that smash that Mother Teresa Calcutta image once and for all for me. In Calcutta: Two Years in the City (Penguin India, 2013) Amit Chaudhuri describes it: ‘By the early ’80s, Mother Teresa’s profile as the face of eternity was so widespread that, in the western world, this great city (mahanagar) of modernity, with its many contradictions and exacerbations, was seen as a present-day Galilee, a place of supernatural cures, of lepers awaiting the miraculous touch.’

On both of my Calcutta Walks tours I am the only paying guest, a surprise as it is a thriving small business. I’m collected at 6.30 am from my hotel and the proprietors give me a remarkable gift by honouring my booking and taking me on a three-plus-hour highly animated walk.

In four street blocks this is some of what I was shown: a Jain temple, glorious mosques, the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters, five synagogues – including one that seated 1,700 people and is now a monument of national importance – an Armenian church and cemetery from the seventeenth century, the Portugese Cathedral of the Holy Rosary, a Chinese temple, a Parsi fire temple, a Buddhist temple, a Shiva temple. We eat street food and meet local shopkeepers and the custodians of buildings.

What I am attempting to say here, as an anecdotal, non-specialist, folksy enthusiast observer, is that we can learn well from the restraint of failure or dysfunction. Calcutta is described as having been in paralysis in the face of a globalised world, with its economic decline after decades of neglect and struggle, a thirty-year long Marxist government with periods of stability and armed struggle, and echoes of the trauma of Partition when the eastern part of Bengal was split from its west. And yet the intense value that is applied to the pleasures of education, of reading and narrative and imagination, as well as its practical usage for a fulfilled life, seem imbued with less value in today’s Australia.

THE LACK OF decisive action over decades is the opposite of our predicament in Western Australia, where growth can easily become toxic and necessarily be the principal means for making funding decisions on industry and education, new roads and other infrastructure. It’s a city where young people struggle with rental costs and forego that old dream of owning one’s own Australian home.

I was once present when a proud working-man, a labourer by the looks of his uniform, took the microphone at question time at a literary event in Calcutta. It gave me the sense that education and knowledge are part of people’s lives rather than an experience from youth. Education as pleasure rather than a rite of passage was how I interpreted the eloquent statement he made about the nobility of work for a character in a novel under discussion.

Like a good western feminist, I make a pilgrimage to Kali. The flood of sensations I experience nearly sinks me. It’s the first time I denote exotic to my experiences in this visit to a new city. Everything else has points of recognition. The Kalighat temple is, even in the middle of a bright and sunny day, a place of frenzy. Many, many people are there, many keen to help a solo foreign woman. It’s very hard to read the messages being offered: a tour of the temple; the opportunity to see Kali, and a description of her role in this cosmology; an account of the daily rituals here; the opportunity to donate money to keep poor families in food for the next month. The sweet odour of blood is evident, but the stains on the tiles look older than today’s slaughter. It is a wet zone: the blood washed away after the daily sacrificial beheading of goats and then the butchering of the carcasses to be used to feed those poor families around the temple.

I give over a large sum and hope it’ll do the promised work, but it is hard to know. I step up to be admitted to the private and darkened shrine Kali occupies, and all sensations are profound. The airless space is crowded with candlelight as a soundtrack of ecstatic voices pushes me along. A flash of Kali’s face: three eyes, a gloriously long golden tongue. Ten arms, hands holding an array of tools and weapons including a bloodied sword and freshly severed human head. The incomprehensibility of human nature: strength and vulnerability co-existing in a terrifying symbol of female power, violence and nurturing maternal love. No equivocating here, as we are so adept at doing in the West. The reminder, for me, contained in this temple visit, is that there are ways to live with the complex choices and inherent contradictions thrown up every day, with both curiosity and ease. The insight that we contain multitudes is as clear as the day for me on this visit.

 

 


From Griffith Review Edition 47: Looking West © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review