April 4-6 Kolkata & Epilogue
Day 13 Friday: Dibrugarh, Assam – Kolkata, West Bengal by Air
Our flight would depart for Kolkata at 8 am. We left the hotel around 5:45 am and had to wait at the airport for a while for check-in. The Air India flight departed on time and we arrived in Kolkata before 10 am. The airport is fairly modern and a complete contrast to the one I first landed in Calcutta in the summer of 1978!
As the traffic was not bad, we arrived at Hotel Dee Empresa in an hour’s time. We had our rooms and Navin arranged a sightseeing tour for the group at 2 pm. I took Lesley to Blue Sky Café and we had lassi and marsala tea. I moved around like a local as I knew the area fairly well by now.
Kolkata, the third most populous city in India, has many incarnations. The British arrival in the 17th century had changed the fate of an obscure village on the banks of the Hooghly River: it evolved into the capital of Great Britain’s Indian empire until 1912. Today, Kolkata is the capital city of the state of West Bengal and the cultural capital of India.
The local guide began our city tour at the heart of Kolkata which is ringed with British colonial buildings dating to the 18th and early 19th centuries. In essence, they symbolised the imperial power over the subcontinent.
First, we stopped at St John’s Church, the first parish church established in 1787. The design was based on St Martin-in-the-Fields in London. It boasts an impressive painting of the Last Supper by Johann Zoffany who gave the 12 disciples the faces of British personalities famous in the city at the time.
The church is a living history book. We saw the armchair of Warren Hastings, Governor of Bengal. In the churchyard is a memorial to Lady Canning who died in 1861 and the mausoleum of Job Chamock who established a trading post in Kolkata in 1690 thus laying the foundation for the British Indian empire.
We also saw a memorial to the victims of the “Black Hole Tragedy”. When the Nawab of Bengal captured the old British fort which stood on the site of the present General Post Office (GPO) in 1756, he imprisoned over 100 British inhabitants in a small and airless cell. Only 23 people were alive the next morning.
Then we had a quick city tour and saw the white grandiose GPO built in 1860s, the imposing red brick Writers’ Building from 1777 with Corinthian façade, St Andres’ Kirk and the Government House (which is now the residence of the state governor) with Neo-Classical gateways. The guided pointed out the Maidan – a 400-ha park as we drove through the city.
Our guide then took us to Kali Temple which is Kolkata’s oldest pilgrimage site. As non-Hindu, I cannot enter the inner sanctum which contains an image of a wild untamed figure with tangled tresses and wide ferocious eyes. Her extended tongue has a gold covering which is changed every day.
Our third stop was Mother House, the headquarter of the Missionaries of Charity founded in 1950 by Mother Teresa (1910-1997), an Albanian nun who first landed in Calcutta on January 6, 1929. We visited the museum while a service was going on in the next room where her grave is placed.
We wished to pay respect but could not enter the hall owing to the ongoing service. Anyway, we saw her room with a bed, a writing desk and a wardrobe. It was the first time I came here: in 1978, I only visited The Home for the Dying near the Kali Temple where I met Mother Teresa at the back door when she came back from a village visit.
Our last stop was the Victoria Memorial, the city’s most celebrated landmark which took 16 years to complete (1905-1921). It was the brainchild of Lord Curzon, one of British India’s most flamboyant viceroys. It is now a museum with 25 galleries.
We only spent half an hour in the garden admiring the colossal building from the outside. There is a majestic bronze statue of Queen Victoria in front of the memorial.
It was getting dark. Navin took us to the Strand, the river front to enjoy the cool evening. We had a lovely stroll along the Hooghly River where we could see the lit-up Howrah Bridge and the new bridge. The area is lively with locals, tea and food stalls. I saw a family accompanied by a band arriving with an image of Kali and offerings in hand. They walked to the river bank and walked around in circle a few times. I loved to watch the rituals. But as I had to join the group and leave, I had to go. I wonder whether the image would be burnt or thrown into the river at the end of the ceremony.
It was after 7 pm when we returned to the hotel. As the tour would end the following day, the whole group went out for a farewell dinner. It was raining heavily. Luckily the BBQ restaurant is not far. We arrived without getting too wet. I had turf and surf for around R550. It is cheap but the Indian style of cooking has not brought out the best of the prawn and beef. I found the meat overcooked, too salty and saucy. Anyway, we enjoyed the trip and have seen a very different part of India.
There was no group activity. All except Laurelyn and Lesley would be going to the airport in the late afternoon or late evening, we practically a morning or in my case a full day in Kolkata. Navin suggested us visit the flower market by the Howrah Bridge.
Seven of us met at the lobby at 6:30 am and travelled in two taxis. I shared one with Janet and Leslie. The traffic came to a halt when we were five minutes’ drive from the market. We therefore got off and walked. It is an eye-opening experience!
The traffic was chaotic and grinded to a halt. On the side of the street are stalls, street sleepers and garbage. The whole area is derelict and dirty. After walking for about 10 minutes, we arrived at a pedestrian bridge leading to the flower market. Many were heading to the market while many were leaving with flowers in their hand or shoulder. The whole area was lively and exploded with energy: noises came from all directions, colours and scents of flowers and quick movements made one dizzy.
I ran into Lesley and we walked together. We walked up and found a vantage point to look at the market below for half an hour. Then we took a short walk along the famed Howrah Bridge. I thought I had travelled through a time tunnel: old buses were running along the bridge and some locals were carrying enormous loads on their head or on a bicycle. Some had loads of flowers and were on the way to sell them. A few were struggling to push their heavy cart.
As the market is close to the centre of the city, Lesley and I took this opportunity to explore the old Kolkata on foot. The area around the bridge is more crowded, dirtier and noisier now than in 1978. I looked sadly at the overcrowded and derelict buildings. I saw only men: some were bathing and washing at the water stand, many were apparently seeking odd jobs, some were preparing tea and food at the street stalls.
We walked past the Writers’ Building. But the security guards stopped us from taking photos even from the outside. We stopped at the GPO and looked through the gate where the “Black Hole Tragedy” took place. When we reached the Royal Insurance Building opposite the GPO, we decided it was time to return to the hotel for breakfast.
We arrived at the hotel after 9:30 am. In the restaurant, we met Susan, Claire and Jeff. I got up so early that I felt tired after the exhausting morning walk. I went back to sleep till noon. Lesley left and moved to another heritage hotel nearby for a night before flying back to Glasgow.
After checking out of the hotel, I went to the College Street to look for a book for Brenda. Once again, it was a most unforgettable experience: I have never seen so many small book stalls/stands most of which are selling books for schools and examinations. I watched Indian students and their parents yelling and fighting for attention of the stall keepers in a few bigger book shops. The deafening noises and thongs of people are unbelievable.
I saw a tramway and decided to take a ride. I literally ran after a tram and jumped onto it! I found a seat and paid R6 for a ride. The glass window was filthy and half covered with coloured paper. It is therefore difficult to see the outside world from the tram. I am glad that trams in Hong Kong are much better maintained and comfortable!
I intended to have a cup of tea at the Oberio Grand Kolkata. I walked in this famed luxurious hotel after wading through countless street stalls selling cheap clothes and other stuff outside the hotel. But the coffee shop does not appeal to me. So, I left and continued my walk to the Indian Museum.
I spent two hours in the Museum. The sculpture collections on Buddha, Hindu gods and goddesses are outstanding. There is a gallery on sculpture from Gandhara. But I was moved as well as shocked when I saw the sculpted railings from the 2000 year-old Bharhut Stupa. I must have spent over 15 minutes looking at each railing. It is so well preserved and perfectly sculpted. I must go to see this archaeological site on my next visit to India.
I was emotionally and physically exhausted by now. I went to the Elgin Fairlawn Hotel which is highly recommended by Lesley. It has old charm and atmosphere. I sat down and had a fresh lime soda as I was very thirsty. I had thai noodles at the Blue Sky Café before spending a few hours at the lobby of the Hotel Dee Empresa. Shortly after 9 pm, I began to call for a taxi. As it had been raining heavily the whole evening, I had difficulties to find a taxi for half an hour. I got a anxious. Finally I got a shared taxi for R450 and managed to arrive at the airport around 11 pm. I checked in and the plane departed on time shortly after 1 am. I was so tired that I slept the whole way back to Hong Kong despite the uncomfortable middle seat. I landed in Hong Kong before 8 am on April 7.
Remarks (to add)