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The Ghosts of Calcutta

Hugh Purcell finds stirring memories of the British Raj in this thriving city, a far cry from its dreadful reputation of a generation ago.

It has been said that Calcutta attracts two kinds of visitors, those seeking sainthood by extreme acts of philanthropy and those seeking their past. I belong to the second category. The first time I visited India I felt I had been there before and nowhere do the ghosts of our collective past return more evocatively than in the first capital of the British Raj.

Today Kolkata, as it is now renamed, does not deserve its bad reputation. Kipling called it the ‘city of dreadful night’ and at times in its history it has indeed seemed that ‘above the packed and pestilential town, Death looked down’. In the early 1970s for instance, when it was inundated with refugees from East Pakistan, the travel writer Simon Winchester wrote of ‘the hot stench of the slow-decaying poor, the mobs flowing ceaselessly over the Howrah bridge, the treacle of the Hooghly swamps below, the bent and broken limbs and the rotting rubbish piles and the screeching horns and the rickshaw bells and the infuriating calm of the cud-chewing cows.’ I remember it too from the Louis Malle documentary film Calcutta (1970), which the Indian Government objected to because its reality denigrated the country. Today’s Bengalis do not like the legacy of Mother Theresa either. Whatever you think about her extreme philanthropy, it has been estimated that she cost the city over four billion dollars in lost revenue. Tourists are still frightened off by the images propagated by the Missionaries of Charity, images of begging bowls, of flies on a dying face. Please do not be put off. In my last two visits to Calcutta I have not encountered this public nightmare and, even if it exists, follow the Paul Scott advice on India and ‘seek the scent behind the smell’.


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