Sir George Trevelyan, in 1863
I doubt very much that Trevelyan would have expressed these sentiments if he too was visiting his in-laws, instead of working, as he did, as a civil servant for the British government. You would think he would have been better prepared for the city as his father, the first Baronet Trevelyan, had joined the East India Company in 1826 and worked in both Delhi and Calcutta (as it was then spelled) until 1840. But alas, it does not seem that dear old dad prepared his little Georgie well whatsoever, because clearly he didn’t have the kind of positive experience I did there. And that’s not just because my in-laws might be reading this…..or is it? The fun part is, you’ll never know!
Calcutta, like many Indian cities, Mumbai included, was once a small fishing settlement. By the late 1600s there were three little villages ruled by the Nawab of Bengal (excellent band name, by the way, if anyone wants it) who granted the East India Company a trading license in 1690. The company began to fortify the area as a mercantile base with military fortification and, like freeloaders have since the dawn of time, stopped paying rent and taxes. The East India Company, reasonable non-intrusive tenants that they were, took back the area through military force in 1793, and as an additional treat, abolished local rule of the area.
What’s wonderful about that is that the East India Company wasn’t even a country, right, it was a corporation, so this is like is Starbucks invaded Peru and took Lima as it’s headquarters. You can, of course, argue that Starbucks has done precisely that in insidious ways by making up drink sizes and ruining the concept of a latte by adding so-called “pumpkin spices”, but that’s an issue for a different day. The point is, the British kept Calcutta, as the city eventually grew and was called, as their headquarters until 1911, when they moved their capital to New Delhi due to the rising threat of Bengali nationalism. Well, Bengal still isn’t its own country, and the British are gone but certainly not forgotten, as I learned in my recent trip.
Mr. India grew up in Calcutta, or Kolkata, as it is now called, a shift that mimics the Bengali pronunciation. Many people here still call it Calcutta, because the difference is minimal and 300 years of history can’t be all wrong. Situated in the now divided state of West Bengal (East Bengal being a little country commonly known as Bangladesh), Kolkata has a very small Punjabi population, and Mr. India happens to be one of them. There is a phone book for Punjabis in the city, and while I would imagine the Singh list is long, the book itself is a short one. There is a social club for Punjabis (because clubs are a big thing here in India, perhaps because the British came, started clubs, and didn’t let Indians join them, so they had to make their own, and did, with vengeance. If you can’t beat them, relentless copy everything they did, I guess) where you can dine on tandoori chicken, masala chips and kabab, and wash it all down with endless glasses of cheap and magnificent Old Monk rum. But for the most part, this is not the place where Punjabis roam free, cavorting with their own kind. It’s a Bengali city, filled with fish dishes and images of the fierce goddesses they so admire. Diwali, one of the festivals celebrated by more Hindus all over India, is not that big a deal in Kolkata, but it does coincide with Kali Puja, a festival for the goddess Kali, so they let it slide.
The British might have had mixed opinions on the city, but I personally found Kolkata to be lovely. Perhaps it was the contrast in weather between the humidity of Mumbai and the cooler climate of Kolkata in November. Or perhaps it’s the charm of the city, which I can free admit might have to do with my Western bias. After all, you can still feel the British influence in Kolkata. Written into it’s very bones is a European aesthetic mixed with Bengali elegance. Large graceful buildings line shady streets and beauty lurks in hidden corners. At night in the fall a tree sweetly named The Scholars Tree opens it’s flowers, pouring a sweet spicy fragrance in the air. And the food is outstanding. This is a city of people who know how to eat, who devote their lives to eating. In Mumbai work is king. In Kolkata, at least on my first trip, Victoria is still queen, and eating is her consort.
While I have more to say about Kolkata, for now I will just give you some more photos, and you can see for yourself if Trevelyan is right, or I am.