In November 1993 I flew to Calcutta (as it was then, Kolkata now) to visit my friend Pete Burgess, who was half way through a trip hiking and hitching around the world. We planned to head up into the Himalayas for some trekking, but first we spent a couple of days in Calcutta. I recall the arrival in Calcutta as one of the greatest assaults on my senses and my emotions in my life. Nothing had prepared me for the wild extremes of wealth and poverty, the extraordinary buildings, the energy and the squalor. Smells – good and bad – were almost overwhelming. Below is the diary entry I made on that first day…
What a city! My mind was blown within hours of getting here – assailed by so many new images, smells and sensations. Winding back…
I arrived at Calcutta’s small, tatty airport at 02.00, but I’d mistakenly told Pete I wasn’t due in until 04.30, so I knew I’d have to wait for him to arrive. It was 3.15 by the time I’d cleared passport control and baggage claim and went outside to wait. Every now and then a taxi approached me to ask where I was staying. I didn’t budge, although I was slightly worried I’d missed Pete. But at 04:30 he arrived and we careered off on a crazy taxi ride to Sudder Street, where he was staying. A low mist hung around the fields, while along the road there were small fires burning, with small groups of people (men) clustered around. In the city the mist mingled with the smog and the smoke.
We rested a while and then at 06.00 we went out to start exploring. It was quite light by now – the streets bathed in a warm rosy glow. I’ve never seen anything like it: people were squatting by water pumps on the pavement, washing themselves and their clothes. Then we came across a disgusting rubbish skip where beggars were sorting through stuff, collecting plastic and other items of “value”.
We walked down to the Victoria Monument. By 07.00, the grounds were already packed with middle class people doing their exercises! Hazy sunshine, mist on the surface of the lakes, fantastic marble architecture. It was a wonderfully relaxing stroll. Then the rest of the morning was just a riot of images…
-Pete having his sandals repaired on the roadside by a cobbler who had all his belongings alongside him…
– Sensational Raj buildings lined almost every seething street, but almost all were crumbling away.
-Plants and even trees growing out of gutters and roofs and walls. Fading and pealing paint. Rusted wrought iron work.
-Coconuts for sale everywhere.
-Heat of course, but not crushing heat. And not quite as crowded as I’d expected.
-A bike swerving full tilt into a little boy sitting on the side of the road, sending them both flying (both OK).
-Men being shaved on the roadside.
-A tiny, wizened old man the size of a baby, begging. So horrific – Pete and I both had to give him money.
-Loads of people sleeping on the pavement outside the Salvation Army building.
-The underground railway being dug out by hand – workers with picks and shovels.
-Will this place ever be regenerated, or is just going to crumble away?