Pottering India, I keep wondering where all the Brits are. I’m not nostalgically missing the old pith helmets and racist moustaches, obviously, but where are the Gap Yah kids and the package holidayers and Outrageds of Hemel Hempstead? There are lots of French people and Spaniards and Israelis and Germans and Americans—opening cheese shops and bakeries and ensuring Pushkar’s menus are full of falafel—but the Britishers are notable by their absence. Is the white man’s burden of postcolonial guilt too much for our fellow countrymen? Somehow I doubt it; Mau-Mau doesn’t seem to put us off safaris, or the Lost Generation off emigration Down Under.
It’s something else, fear and distaste intermingled. For Americans and others, India is the embodiment of the exotic Orient, a land of spiritualism and diversity and colour. British ideas of the subcontinent are different. India means dirt, poverty, heat, stink, call centre irritation, overpopulation, cripples, slumdogs.
Thanks to Mother Teresa, Calcutta is perhaps the epitome of this myth. The city is castigated by many otherwise positive visitors: ‘simultaneously noble and squalid, cultured and desperate’, the usually breathy Lonely Planet puts it. On his great Asian railway voyage—my train reading for this trip—Paul Theroux’s stamina is finally worn thin in the city, where he seems only to stumble upon mutants and death, and he abandons it by air. ‘On the first day the city seemed like a corpse on which the Indians were feeding like flies…’ For its inhabitants themselves, and especially those pesky Chatterjees, Theroux has worse:
Bengalis were the most alert people I had met in India. But they were also irritable, talkative, dogmatic, arrogant, and humourless, holding forth with malicious skill on virtually every subject except the future of Calcutta. Any mention of that brought them up short. But Mr Chatterjee [a distant relative, I like to believe, along with the great poet-writer Bankim Chandra, the grouchy postcolonialist Partha, and the merry purveyors of Chatterjee Asbestos Ltd we spotted from the taxi] had views. He had been reading an article about Calcutta’s prospects. Calcutta had been very unlucky: Chicago had had a great fire, San Francisco an earthquake, and London a plague as well as a fire. But nothing had happened to Calcutta to give planners a chance to redesign it…
But the myth is wrong now, if it was ever true. Cal (as its young anglophone residents call it) is the great underrated old gent of India’s metropolises. It has more heart than ruthless flashy Delhi, more soul than glossy vapid Bangalore, more serenity than the frenetic materialism of Bombay. The whole city feels like a subcontinental Sleeping Beauty kingdom, drowsing in the sticky air. Lush green plants unfurl and erupt everywhere, through cracks in the pavement and the roofs and windows of crumbling colonial buildings, and the sky is thick with the hypnotic whirr of cicadas. So this is ‘tropical Gothic’, I remember thinking when I first saw this seedy grandeur.
This fantastical slumbering cityscape teems with life just below the surface. (And mostly the good, unSatanic sort of life. Yes, there are pariah dogs the size of rats and pariah rats the size of dogs, and cockroaches the size of post-apocalyptic dinner plates which have evolved the power of flight and haunt my nightmares. But they’re comparatively rare and stay at the corners of your eyes.) Every corner has a sweet shop (Bengalis have a toddler’s achingly sweet tooth), a circle of men playing cards, an entrepreneurial old woman selling pots of daal, a kathi roll stand, a pile of dusty books, a political slogan. Just to make it all zappier, the pugilistic chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, has decreed that bits of public space should be erratically painted bright blue, and is installing strange three-headed streetlamps ‘like London’.
In a battered bright yellow taxi, we wound through narrow, sweetshop-lined streets out of the centre, the city giving way gradually to bursts of green-choked river and rubbery trees. Out in the wonderfully named Diamond Park colony of Thakurpukur, a pair of Chatterjee elders greeted us very warmly. They fed us a delicious homemade lunch of fried river fish, prawns in a peanutty sauce, spicy fish nuggets, aromatic daal, mysterious gourds, mango chutney, sweet curd, and mithai, and treated us to an examination of the sprawling Chatterjee family tree—all 32 generations since the ‘Aryan invasion’. ‘Chatterjee is the most common name in the world,’ one of my uncles said with a twinkle in his eye, ‘they have it even in China and Germany, although of course it sounds a little different now.’
They send love to all of you in the great Chatterjee diaspora. We left waddling—and with the promise that my errant brother will come visiting soon.