Sharath included Kolkata in our travel plans. The name Kolkata is another one of those British Raj mispronunciations, but I admit “Cal” rolls off my tongue better than “Kol”. I wondered why we’d want to spend three days in the decaying dirty city where my parents lived and I was born.
Let’s say I was surprised. We stayed at the Bengal Club, a typical British-era club in post-colonial India. It is next to Park Street with all its restaurants. Within our first hour of being in Cal we were at Flury’s eating deserts that I remember my dad brining back from his business trips. Next morning we walked up to Victoria Memorial and then strolled back along the Maidan. One evening all six of us hopped onto a boat at the ghats and the oarsman took us for a very leisurely float on the Hoogly giving us sunset views of the famed Howrah bridge and the new bridge. Then we took an Ambassador (a type of car) taxi ride tour up the bank, crossed Howrah bridge, drove past the Howrah train station where we used to transfer on our way to Rourkela when I was seven and we moved there for two years, back down the other bank, on the new bridge, and over to Victoria Memorial. We hired one of the gilded buggies there and got a ride around the Maidan in the moonlight. Another morning we strolled along Chowringee to Esplanade and took an aging tram from Cruzon Park back down to Khiddirpore road.
Sanjay took us for a tour of the old Fort Williams and the museum there. Fort Williams was where the East India Company first set up shop from whence they gradually wheedled and then forced their way to rule India. The newer fort at Williams was built after the brutal 1857 Sepoy Mutiny and was one of the most expensive military installations of its time, built to protect the assets of the most profitable corporation of its time. Fort Williams is currently the headquarters of the Eastern Command of the Indian Army, and we also got to see artifacts from the India-Pakistan war which lead to the creation of Bangladesh. There was a copy of the Blood Telegram sent by Archer Blood, US counsel in Dacca, then East Pakistan. A book by the same name is a well written account of what lead to the Bangladesh war of independence and of America and Nixon’s roll in actively supporting genocide. Here’s an article about the book about the telegram (still with me?):
If Nixon and Kissinger are the villains in this book, Blood is the hero — along with 20 members of his consulate, all who considered it their duty to officially state their dissent from the U.S. policy in Pakistan. A telegram was sent to Washington — hence the title of the book. In it, Archer Blood criticized his government’s policy in Pakistan as “morally bankrupt.” He accused his superiors of failing to prevent genocide and supporting a regime that was crushing democracy and slaughtering innocent people. To ensure the widest circulation, he gave the telegram the lowest classification.
We also got to see the Instrument of Surrender by which Pakistan unconditionally surrendered its armed forces in East Pakistan to the Indian army which led to the end of the war and the birth of Bangladesh.
I don’t know how much of all this Vivian and Evan absorbed but it was a great refresher for me. If I were a history teacher and had a lot of resources I’d let museums do some of the teaching.
But most of all we ate with friends and friends of friends. We ate Malayali home cooked food, Punjabi lunch at Kwality, late night sizzlers at Trinca’s with a live band, prawn toast at the Bengal Club, French and old-school continental at Mocambo, chelo kebabs at Peter Cat, the epitome of Bangali sweets – nolen gurer sondesh at Balaram Mullicks, and a full Bangali lunch at 6 Ballygunge Place. And one evening after a few drinks, Sharath I were daft enough to try mutton rolls at Kusum’s. Street food at its best and we lived.
How did you eat at all those places in three days you ask. I did think about that as they had to wheelbarrow me to my flight. And that doesn’t include the deserts, ice creams, brownies, and cakes that Sharath and Sanjay were buying for Vivian and Evan around every corner.
Oh, Kolkata. Oh, what fun.