Let’s not mince words. It is a stinking cesspit of squalor, poverty and disease. It sits on a mosquito-ridden swamp and only owes its existence to the fact that it was a trading post for an empire founded on opportunism and avarice. It contains too many people, far too many cars, and it sweats, stinks and crumbles in a stifling, baking sun, permanently on the precipice of disaster, even oblivion. Why then, is this such an utterly magnificent, totally captivating city and probably, alongside New York, the only place I'd unreservedly, with no debate, put in the top five of the world's great urban centres?
My fortnight in Calcutta has largely been spent wrestling to find an answer to that question. I'm over here with fellow Scottish writer Andrew O'Hagan, as well as Sue and Abi from the Telegraph and Laura and Julia from UNICEF. We are part of an advance party of writers, who doing a follow-up book to the highly successful Weekenders project, which raised money for Sudanese charities. With the exception of Sue, we are all new to this city. Despite being stuck, for what seems like half our lives, on the Chowringhee in traffic which pushes so much poison into our throats and lungs we can barely speak in the evenings, we fall, one by one, for the charms of this amazing place and its people. Calcutta just never gives up; its citizens don’t know when they’re defeated. That is what makes the city such an ultimately uplifting experience.
My first experience is at the street children's home-come-school Future Hope, which is run by the genial and affable Tim Grandage, a man who's quiet, mannered demeanor obscures the fact that he's one of the most driven, passionate people I've met. Tim takes us around the city by day, driving with demented ferocity round its clogged streets like one of its craziest natives. Like so many of the ex-pats I met, he evidently loves this city and shows us around with inexhaustible energy displaying his encyclopedic knowledge of Calcutta and Bengali cutlure. Future Hope is just what it says and it's all20down to Grandage's audacious vision, and the selfless dedication of both him and his staff. Anybody who believes all that neo-social Darwinist rubbish about human development should come here and meet those rescued street children. They are so evidently blessed with ferocious intelligence and abundantly cultural resources. It's no surprise that some -often abused and illiterate only a few years previously- are now earning scholarships to exclusive English public schools. But I want to know where those kids came from.
For the purposes of my research I need to see both sides of Calcutta. I'm staying at the exclusive Tollygunge Club on the end of Calcutta's metro. I'm hanging out with some wonderful people at the amazing Violet Smith's legendary Fairlawn Hotel on Sudder Street, where I will relocate to at the end of my visit. I've a place in the Stewards Box at the Calcutta races tomorrow, which I know I will thoroughly enjoy. Tonight though, I have arranged for a guide to take me out around the railway stations, where the destitute street kids still sleep in there thousands. Yet Calcutta, like all cities, is a house with many rooms and I could hardly have had a more incongruous start to the evening.
We have gone out to an apartment on Middleton Street for dinner, where Naresh and Sunita Kumar are our hosts. Naresh is India's greatest ever tennis player turned sports commentator, a man who once held match point against the legendary Rod Laver and who has seen more Wimbledon's than I have bookies offices. Sunita was Mother Teresa's long-term assistant and the official biographer of the soon-to-be saint. They are the perfect hosts, a lovely couple, and, warm engaging company. Their apartment is luxurious and stylish and we are served up what is quite possibly the best meal I have ever had. After dinner I collapse onto the couch with my drink, waiting for midnight and my guide Ajit to pick me up in his bone-shaker of a car and take me outside onto Calcutta's brutal, unforgiving streets.
At this point, I must confess, I was half-hoping that something would20come up to compel him to cancel out. Sealdah Station in the evening is an overwhelming experience. Battered old diesel trains suck in and spew out a multitude of passengers who seem to carry their lives on their backs. I'm informed that most of the luggage consists of clothes. For a city so dangerously, often fatally cavalier about public health, Calcutta's citizens are obsessive about personal hygiene, taking any opportunity they can to wash and undergo a costume change, essential in the summer when the humidity is 100%, but a strange vanity in the warm but dry winter. Ajit explains that there is little happening at the moment, as there are not many street kids around. It doesn't seem like that to me. As far as the eye can see there are children sleeping rough everywhere; on the concourse, down on the platforms, everywhere there is some sort of light which offers some kind of safety, they congregate in great numbers. Most are wrapped in a single blanket, others curl up together or with a mangy street dog. Calcutta's stray dogs are something else, often furless and mutilated, always scarred, scabby and disease-ridden. The place is also infested with rats, one particular specimen looking almost big enough to carry off a smaller dog in its mouth. Ajit tells me that the numbers will increase later as the commuters vanish and all the kids settle to sleep. Not all of them are tired right now, and a begging party are soon in pursuit of us.
To kill time it's suggested that we go down by the banks of the Hugli where a Hindu caste called the Doms act as funeral directors, helping to prepare and burn the dead. Our car tears across the now deserted streets, pursued only by the odd pack of demented dogs. They lie asleep in the heat at night but come into their own as masters of the streets when the people and traffic have gone. Through my westerner's cultural eyes this is by far the grizzliest, most macabre spectacle I have ever witnessed. The corpses come in on a lorry then are taken down to the Hoogly by the family and a Dom funeral director. The bodies are washed down in this filthiest of all20mother Ganges's tributaries. Then they are put onto a stretcher and taken back up the bank and placed on a funeral pyre constructed from wood in the shape of a pyramid with it's chopped lopped off. My guide explains that the quality and the amount of the wood determining the status and wealth of the family. At this point though, i'm more interested in keeping the aroma of burning flesh out of my nostrils and the incense sticks burning everywhere merely seem to accentuate this smell rather than conceal it. I never had a great fondness for incense but now it's scent is indelibly associated in my mind with burning corpses. The body shrinks in the flames like an old crisp packet thrown into a pub fire. In spite of myself I recall with distaste the tandoori mixed grill I had enjoyed the previous night.
The guide asks if I want to get closer, and explains that the relatives won't mind, that death is a very public event in eastern culture. Nonetheless, I already feel like a twisted voyeur and I decline the offer. I can see more than enough from where I'm standing, only a few feet away. There are three bodies blazing away in various stages, and the atmosphere is surprisingly not one of overt grieving but something rather more contemplative. I'm slightly shamed by the trivial notion that it feels a little bit like bonfire night in the Scotland of my childhood. People huddle close to the fires for warmth, many dressed in white (the Hindu mourning colour) glowing by the flame. The ashes are eventually dumped into the Hugli, Mother Ganges taking it's own back as the spirits pass into the next world.
Our next port of call is the main hospital in Calcutta. I have seen makeshift Red Cross hospitals in the combat zone of southern Sudan and on mass refugee camps in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Nothing has prepared me for this however, the main hospital in a busy city in a peacetime democracy. There are bodies everywhere, taking up all the space in the poorly, dimly lit corridor. They are on the wards, six stories of dirty, cavernous rooms with people lying groaning on beds. They are also20prone on trolleys and the floors, attended to by a skeleton staff. It is possible to walk through the sick, dying and diseased for a disconcerting time before running into a member of staff. To call this a hospital, as we in the west understand the term, is stretching things beyond the realms of credibility. This is the last chance saloon and the next stop is the Hugli and the funeral pyres.
By now the trip is starting to look like a chamber of horrors, misery upon misery piling up in my head. As a Calcutta street veteran, my guide Ajit is inured to all of this, but for me it's becoming not so much horrific (I’ve never been particularly squeamish) as dispiriting and emotionally draining. When you look at the scale of the problems here and you consider the global political agenda, it's naive to envisage that things are going to change for the better very soon. But the likes of Tim Grandage at Future Hope won't believe that, they will believe that you do what you can and that can make a difference to some people, if not all of them. Come to think of it, I do too, that's why I'm in Calcutta researching my story for another Weekenders book.
Our next port of call is Haora Station, Calcutta’s biggest. You could easily fit Kings Cross, Euston, Waterloo and Victoria into this huge barn and they would still rattle. Tonight it has something of an eerie feel to it. Like S...... this place is normally teeming with children, but one street acquaintaince of my guide, a young man called Bashir, informs us that it has been raided by the police. They either move the kids on or put them into the children's jail. It's impossible to ascertain the ages of the kids, as malnutrition and sleeplessness make them smaller for their age than they should be. Basher tells us that of the kids have headed onto the goods trains, go back out to the villages or even as far as Bombay until the police heat cools off.
When we get back down to Sealdah on the other side of the river, we talk to a group of street kids preparing to bed down for the20night at the back of the station. Sami is aged twelve but looks about seven or eight. Despite his small stature he is full of life, coming over as a natural and resourceful leader. Tasneem, a girl with blazing eyes and a beaming smile, tells me that she is twelve. Fascinated by my shaved head, she rubs it gleefully. I can only smile back gracefully. Girls are in the vast minority amongst street children. They tend to stay in the family unit or be sold as servant. Either way they are more inclined to put up with abuse as their expectations are generally lower than that of the boys. I find it amazing the way they interact, always looking out for each other. It's also touching, though at the same time quite worrying, the way that they evidently trust us. After all, so many, probably the majority, have suffered violent and/or sexual abuse at the hands of adults. I find myself hoping that they run into somebody like Tim Grandage or one of his Future Hope colleagues before they encounter someone with more sinister intent. Yet despite the unbelievable hardship they endure,20compared to most western kids they seem so wonderfully happy and contented.
This idyllic picture changes instantly when the police arrive. Some are decent sorts, moving the kids along in a stern but professional way. Others are heavy handed, cracking their batons down on young skulls and backs. This is sickening to watch all the more so for our powerlessness to assist in any constructive way. Ajit signals to me and we get our small group of new friends out of the station and into our vehicle. We joyride through Calcutta's deserted streets for a while until the police go, the kids in full song in the back. Afterwards it isn't easy to say goodbye as it means we have to dump them back on the street, but they bear it with good grace, always wanting five more minutes, as kids do. It reminds you that they are just children and it's past their bedtimes.
The dim Calcutta street lights separate as Ajit drives me home. I thank him his knowledge and his time and this sad, disturbing yet ultimately uplifting night. Although I get back to the exclusive Tollygunge Club with my head buzzing, thinking that while something here has gone terribly wrong, my overwhelming impression is that a great beauty possesses this town and its people. When you smile at somebody who makes eye contact with you, no matter how fleeting, you get a grin back the width of the Ganges. People casually say hello in the street, ask you where you come from. You can stand on a street corner chewing the fat with a stranger for hours. If you want directions, somebody will take you there. If you get caught short and need the toilet, you tell some stranger and they'll take you into their home. It may be really no better than going up against a wall, but it's the deed that counts. In contrast, the London I left seems so repressed and emotional stunted. People only seem able to achieve a fleeting and dissatisfying communion through shopping, fits of inappropriate public rage (they don't have 'road rage' in Calcutta, despite the worse traffic problems in the world, while we invent 'illnesses' to excuse our neurosis) or by tipping loads of alcohol down our throats. But you can do that in Calcutta too. In one bar on Park Street I feel like James Stewart in the film Harvey when I see the biggest rat ever, sitting tamely under the table, ignored by the waiters.
Appropriately, our last night in town is spent in a jazz club, drinking and dancing yet another crazy, wonderful day away. Calcutta is a city not so much flirting with disaster as having repeated unprotected sexual intercourse with it. It's used to living defiantly, almost cockily, with the worst possible prognosis. After all, many of the apocalyptic prophecies for the city, like ethnic strife, or political internecine struggle have not come to be realised. However, what is happening now seems in some ways worse. It's the slow, strangulating death of a city in the blistering heat and the rains of the Monsoon, where a crumbling threadbare infrastructure is cracking under the strain of its people. Millions and millions of them coming to this great and terrible place in search a better life.20It20is only their spirit and courage that keeps the Calcutta going. And the utterly bizarre and life-affirming thing about it is that all too often you get the distinct impression that it just might be enough.
Originally featured in the Daily Telegraph.