There are many great world cities each with their own character and peculiarities. All shaped by its history and people. To spend several weeks or months in any metropolis leaves a lasting impression from the particular time visited. One such place for me is Calcutta (now named Kolkata) in West Bengal, India.
My first visit was for a few weeks on board the vessel MV Logos in Feb/Mar 1978 (see my bio or another post here for more background if interested). I was working as a seaman and our ship was berthed at the ‘man-of war’ jetty on the river Hooghly which runs through the city. The river as an arm of the Ganges has religious importance to Hindus. It was a strange experience to watch garlanded dead bodies on rafts floating up and down the river on the fast flowing tides. The crows sitting on them were doing more than hitching a lift. On one occasion a body got wedged by our vessel. As a deckhand it was not a nice experience to dislodge.
My second time in the city was to prepare for a visit of the said MV Logos for about 3 months at end of 1981. The work involved getting permissions from government and port authorities for the public to visit what was then the ‘world’s largest bookship’. It also included publicising and organising many types of events both on board and on shore such as conferences and meetings with churches and civic organisations. With the ship’s crew of 140 from about 25 nations there also were a lot supplies also to arrange. It called for interaction with a wide range of people at all levels of society.
Actually living in the city instead of on board a ship meant you experienced life as a local. My accommodation was in the grounds of the Carey Baptist church and Calcutta Bible College. Both were in the same compound in the heart of the city. Initially I stayed in the church manse and later got a room in the Bible college. The church was named after William Carey, said to be ‘the father of modern Protestant missions’. A one time shoemaker from England he went to West Bengal in 1793 where he had enormous influence as a Bible translator, educator and social reformist. His life example subsequently inspired many missionaries to go to far flung places. In the Carey church is a plaque stating that Adoniram Judson was baptised here on his way to Burma (Myanmar). Like Carey he was a pioneer, one of the first American Protestant missionaries. Anyhow enough church history. Suffice to say that living there almost 200 years later impacted on me.
The church pastor and his wife were very hospitable. As well as leading a busy church with many programmes and outreaches they also hosted a constant stream of visitors to the city for both meals and accommodation. In addition they had a radio programme broadcasting in Bengali which generated interest in Bible correspondence courses.
In my Bible College accommodation the principal asked if I would do Bible studies with a Thai Buddhist monk named Pariyat. Thus began several weeks of studies in the gospel of John with this man who was on a pilgrimage to find the truth. It was a special time exploring the Bible with our very different backgrounds and worldviews. There was something very challenging and sincere to me about his forsaking everything to travel in search of the truth. I pray he found the ‘Word made flesh’.
When I moved out of the manse of the Carey church I had to fend for myself much more as far as meals were concerned. My favourite was a Tibetan restaurant a short walk away from the compound. Not too spicy and with more Chinese type food it suited me. At times I was the only customer in this small restaurant which also appeared to be home for the family who ran it. It made for familiarity. Having a fixed menu and becoming a regular customer for evening meals helped both the family and me.
Aside from buses the main public transport around the city was the trams. I don’t recall using trains in the city, only out of town. The trams were a carryover from colonial times. In ramshackle condition it was amazing that they lasted so long in a bustling city of then 9 million. During my time there a metro underground was being built. It took many years before completion. It was disconcerting to see major infrastructure projects like that where the excavation was being done by hand. A human chain of women carrying soil in baskets on their heads.
If needing private transport it was either by taxi or by rickshaw. India’s economy at the time was quite closed to the rest of the world. This included cars and so taxis were nearly always of one type, the ubiquitous Ambassador car. Indian made and based on a 1950s style Morris Oxford. In Calcutta there were no cycle rickshaws which was common elsewhere in India. Instead it was men running barefoot pulling the rickshaw by hand. Sometimes with two passengers and trips could be for several miles. The rickshaw pullers who did this gruelling work through the choking fumes of grid locked traffic did not live long. The cost for taxi or rickshaw was roughly the same. Due to that I preferred to give custom to the rickshaw wallah as thought they were the neediest. After a while I was convicted when one fellow couldn’t pull me over the long Howrah bridge that crossed the river. Hopping off I walked alongside and didn’t take them any longer.
The tension of living with the injustices of poverty was not easy to adjust to. I would carry coins and give to the continuous stream of beggars that a foreigner attracted. The margins between life and death for many were wafer thin. At times the sheer desperation of people affected me. The following is an extract from a letter I wrote at the time…
“It’s 10pm as I sit here in my room in Calcutta Bible College – all day it has been raining causing the streets to become more chaotic than usual. If one wants to study humanity or
different social conditions then Calcutta must be an ideal place. The other day a small boy and his mother were crying out in the street and I was moved to give them something. I hesitated and when eventually I reached their area, they had gone. The Lord seemed to say true charity must be spontaneous, without reasoning. Who should one give to if confronted by a dozen beggars daily from the deformed and limbless to tiny children? My observation is that most foreigners, myself included, after a few months develop an insensitivity to our environment. The majority of us live our own lives oblivious to the real needs of those around. In many evangelical circles social action is not a very popular word but it seems to be a desperately needed element in our gospel message and witness. These issues I share with you as they weigh on my heart at the moment. (How do you respond to a ragged man with one arm and no legs rolling along the street?).” 10 Dec 1981
The city’s needy has inspired many works of compassion with the best known being Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity. During my time there I also encountered some less famous but just as worthy charitable works. Years later I found reading ‘City of Joy’ (by Dominique Lapierre)** helpful in describing the city’s economic and social conditions.
During the day I was based in the magnificent offices of the esteemed shipping agent Mackinnon, Mackenzie & Co. It was built on a grand scale with cavernous high ceilings. It felt like working in St. Paul’s cathedral. One of many beautiful buildings in the city that were a legacy of fine, yet usually crumbling, colonial architecture. Calcutta was the capital of British India till 1911.
I had a big desk in the open plan ‘cathedral’ area as it was deemed to be safer from theft. Without my arranging I seemed to have been appointed a dedicated ‘chai’ (tea) wallah. Unlike the normal sellers of chai on the streets these men were dressed in finery appropriate to the office surroundings. Elaborate turbans and bright uniforms with lots of braid. My appointed man stood at a distance along with others but would often be looking my way. It made me nervous as the slightest expression on my part would instigate action. He would then appear with a tray to serve chai. If I had visitors that of course necessitated chai without any prompting on my part. His aim was to wrestle as much tips from me in the day as possible. That was his job and I had mine.
Preparing a visit of MV Logos to a port or country was at times high profile. To gain maximum publicity we would try and invite some VIP to officially inaugurate our visit at an opening ceremony. To this end one of our local committee arranged for he and I to have a half hour audience with the governor of West Bengal. It felt intimidating being escorted in a golden lift by another resplendently dressed individual. The governor put us at ease in the sumptuous surroundings and was happy to officiate at our opening on board ship.
It was not all work and it was good to find places to relax. One such was the Maidan. A large green park space near the river where cricket mad inhabitants would practice and others like myself stroll. Away from the heaving humanity of the built up areas. To watch cricket as the day cooled provided a haven.
Kolkata, city of many faces.
** There is also a film of same name, based on the book.
*** If on Instagram you can see more of Elisabeth’s work at elisabethgrant.art