‘Howrah Bridge!’ I utter in a stunned whisper. It’s out there somewhere, closer than I think, and it is the only way I will get into Calcutta…’
On 5th of March 1982, Brian Paul Bach had lusted after Calcutta like crazy. Negativity had drawn him there initially, he had confessed. Yet, he had stayed only to fall headlong in love with the City of Joy, so much so that somewhere down the line his love turned into an obsession. Today, he prefers being called Brian Sahib, has authored (among many of his other works) books on the city and knows nearly each and every rivet on the Howrah Bridge. His Goth inspired photos give away his passion for Calcutta and I am lucky to have got Brian share his love for the city on Maverickbird. This post is for all the die-hard Calcuttans (who love their city to death, moi included), the ones who share a love-hate relationship with it and the haters (who cannot stand it for all possible reasons on earth). Calcutta is tough, but then love has never been known to be easy and when it comes to loving Calcutta, the feelings are always extreme. Presenting the first of the three interview series of foreign visitors’ impressions on Kolkata and this one is from her most ardent lover, the very gifted Brian Paul Bach. This is Brian’s Calcutta.
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Table of Contents
Q: As a writer what is Calcutta (now known as Kolkata) to you?
– Throughout thirty-plus years of visiting Calcutta, I’ve found this exceptionally singular city to be an ever-increasing treasury of discoveries, intrigues, notions, and friendships. Similarly, each of these elements and much more are seemingly inexhaustible. That fact is very rewarding and comforting to me. Because for me, Calcutta is a reliable and secure milieu. There’s drama, mystery, stimulating images – both graphics and poetic, a universe of personalities, history, and an utterly unique atmosphere of epic-ness and intimacy, constantly exhibited with intertwining characteristics, practically everywhere. That means there’s much to describe, to document, to capture, to learn, to interpret, to understand, and to simply witness.
“Kolkata is a truly extraordinary entity.”
I’ve always approached the city as it is and not via the typical distractions, such as what it should – or shouldn’t – be. Because, what it is, to me, is a truly extraordinary entity. To put less blandly, Calcutta (Kolkata) is exciting, passionate, challenging, dramatic, stately, pictorial, full of contrasts, full of character (and characters), artistic, tawdry, lived-in, honest, wry, humorous, surprising, historical, stylish, edgy, neglectful, stunning, dingy, rich/poor, confident, gigantic, frank, loud, increasingly polluted, stained, sensitive, cultural, classy, singular… and of course, epic-and-intimate, in all its combinations. It is not, however, overwhelming. True, the scale of the Hooghly River, the bridges, the Maidan, the great thoroughfares, the increasing traffic, the core city itself, and the general populace, is vast. But there is also a well-known small-town – even village-like – quality to the city, as the resulting amalgamation of humanity and environment requires a sense of community (a constellation of communities, really) before anything else.
“Calcutta, and now Kolkata will always be controversial in some way”
I think that’s perhaps one of many reasons why the city was derided so long for being rundown and degraded. Many Calcuttans have simply been focused on survival, as if in a village, while governmental priorities were aimed elsewhere. Calcutta’s dramatic elements of scale, expression, and personality naturally contribute to a collective intensity, which results in a potent, intrinsic attraction for me. Like any great metropolis, there’s a lot going on at any given moment. Like any great metropolis, Calcutta (Kolkata) will always be controversial in some way, mostly from a global perspective these days, rather than local, as its problems are scarcely unique in their impact. Continuing with the constellation analogy, I like to refer to Calcutta as ‘The Star of the East’. From my early visits in the 1980s and early 90s, I attempted to capture some of Calcutta’s ‘hodge-podge’ characteristics in my first book, The Grand Trunk Road From The Front Seat (1993 and 2000).
“I realized that I felt quite at home in the Calcuttan environment.”
Many of “masala” characteristics of Calcutta (now Kolkata) bordered on the stereotypical (e.g. urban decay – which I thought more eccentric and Dickensian than nihilistic – ‘organized chaos’, ‘one big slum’ etc). However, I made it clear that such an entity was worth appreciation, and not just analysis. Thus, by the time I was committed to my next book, Calcutta’s Edifice: The Buildings Of A Great City (2006), I found that the more I immersed myself in all things Calcuttan, the more I was writing about the city in a contextual sense, and not just describing architecture. Just like London, Los Angeles, and several other cities where I’ve picked up threads and followed them into remarkable labyrinths, I realized that I felt quite at home in the Calcuttan environment. I have certainly experienced this ‘invitational intrigue’ throughout the Indian subcontinent, but in Calcutta, it’s especially apparent and accessible, and that’s as good a reason as any to focus on what’s there. So I do, with relish.
This is not a travel guide. This is a love letter to my hometown from the author, Brian Paul Bach. For a proper Calcutta food guide, check out Calcutta Belly.
Q: What had brought you here?
– I was brought to Calcutta (now Kolkata) by way of negativity. In other words, ‘negative publicity’. For the longest time in the West, Calcutta’s reputation was dubious at best. And if the city was mentioned at all, it was usually within the context of St. (Mother) Teresa’s efforts and effects, blessed and admirable though they are. It was basically written off as a ‘single-issue’ city and to the Western media, Calcutta and what it apparently represented (poverty, poverty – and more poverty), was best disposed of as a disaster. Plus, it was controlled by Communists (horrors!), which supposedly explained everything. Anyway, past such peripherals, after considerable North American and European travel, I became quite interested in Bombay, mostly because of its architecture and soon enough, this ‘launching-pad’ rapidly expanded into a kind of all-India intrigue.
” I was brought to Calcutta (now Kolkata) by way of negativity after reading Geoffrey Moorhouse’s Calcuttan portrait .”
It was while working night-shift in a punishing, noisy, and risk-filled factory job, I happened upon Geoffrey Moorhouse’s seminal study on Calcutta, written in 1971. I read it with increasing interest during my all-too-brief lunch minutes on the job. Hunched in the frosty dark of my ramshackle 1953 Dodge station wagon, with pages illuminated by sterile arctic street light from above, I was duly exposed to a location that might as well have been in another solar system, so remote was I from it. I mention this experience in colourful terms because the object of my reading – Calcutta in general – seemed so utterly opposed to my current shivery situation. Yet, somehow there seemed to be a subliminal, valid connection between the obvious dereliction and danger which surrounded me in the here and now, and the perceived dilapidation and error Moorhouse’s Calcuttan portrait was conveying to me from afar.
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” An issue of National Geographic from 1973 made me realise that Calcutta definitely looked like my kind of town to explore.”
I have always appreciated the oddball and the offbeat and hadn’t I just discovered a ‘further light’, a strangely captivating world, half a world away, potentially more copacetic with my sensitivities and tastes than I could possibly have known? Therefore, I had no choice but to consider this grandly new object I’d never really recognized before: Calcutta itself. Fortunately, Moorhouse’s Calcutta is also a document of its time, for, in 1971, Calcutta was a sort of ‘war zone’ comprising a mixture of political and social turmoil, as well as its location in the nutcracker of a regional war, from which Bangladesh emerged. Additionally, forces from not only Pakistan but Delhi were brought to bear on the city, as well as thousands of refugees from eastern Bengal. Soon after, I revisited an issue of National Geographic from 1973 with an article I’d previously glossed over: ‘Calcutta: India’s Maligned Metropolis’ and luxuriated in the splendid photos by the great Raghubir Singh. I had to admit, Calcutta definitely looked like my kind of town to explore.
“And a couple months later, I was suddenly bound for Calcutta (now Kolkata)”
When first in India in 1982, I was with a group travelling in a railway carriage, shunted from train to train all around the country. It was an outstanding introduction to many of India’s major regions and sites, but Calcutta was not on the itinerary. Then one fellow traveler, a lawyer who later became a federal judge, was determined to see the city on the Hooghly. So when he made a side trip to the city and joined us later on, I anxiously queried him about his findings. But aside from mentioning that he stayed at the Lytton Hotel, he hardly said a thing and he also had a stomach indisposition, which I assumed was wholly Calcutta’s fault. Anyway, a couple months later, I was sitting in an AC Chair Car at New Delhi Station, on the #104 Bi-Weekly A-C Express, bound for Howrah.
Q: Your first impression and how and why the city grew on you?
– My ‘world premiere’ encounter with Calcutta occurred at its most consummate and spectacular gateway: Howrah Station. Night – weary and a bit dazed, but excited – with trepidation added. The station was immense and active, but amorphous and disappointing. (I hadn’t learned to appreciate Halsey Ricardo’s masterpiece quite yet…) Perhaps excerpts from my journal might evoke some of the feelings of the moment:
” ‘Howrah Bridge!’ I utter in a stunned whisper. It’s out there somewhere, closer than I think, and it is the only way I will get into Calcutta…”
5 March, ’82 – Outside the station, in search of a taxi, the extent of the dense night becomes apparent. But somehow it feels like I’m in one big, colossal room. Off in the fuzzy darkness, that must be the Hooghly… Maybe…? To the left, far above, two precariously-placed red lights burn, barely discernible through the thick obscurity, and separated by a wide gulf of night. Slowly, a sketchy concept of something big, very big, very looming, perhaps even monstrous, forms in my mind. ” ‘Howrah Bridge!’ I utter in a stunned whisper. It’s out there somewhere, closer than I think, and it is the only way I will get into Calcutta…
Then, we are on Hooghly’s far bank – Calcutta at last!
Taxi commandeered (₨ 12, to the Chowringhee YMCA), we are off and headed for the unseen mass of metal that surely must be up there… somewhere. The roadway is completely unlighted except for the half-glow of other vehicles’ running lamps. Everything else is subject to dodging: rickshaws, gharries, pedestrians, and who knows what. I’ve seen this situation many times in rural India, but this is Howrah Bridge! Then, we are on Hooghly’s far bank – Calcutta (now Kolkata) at last!
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“Rather than anticipating worse things, the swing of Calcutta begins to take hold of me”
We descend into the city. Below I can see a hopelessly complicated maze of lanes, alleys, lamp-lit byways, and bazaars jammed with people. I’m on pins and needles of excitement. The trepidation is fading, but breathing comes fast and my heart is pounding. Traffic slows, stops. We sit in rigid silence. Then, BAM! Something has run into us. My hair stands up. Outside, a figure hurtles into the guard-railing, straightens itself, face framed in my window. My grim driver curses and shakes his fist out the window. A kid bicyclist hit our rear fender, survived it, and wobbled on. Rather than anticipating worse things, the swing of Calcutta begins to take hold of me. A relief! Things are getting interesting.
“The night clerk is of good cheer.” Brian’s first experience of Calcutta is straight out of Dickens novel.
My curiosity stimulated by every dim and dark angle of this twilight-zone city, I ask the driver, ‘Is this Dalhousie Square – er – BBD Bag?’ ‘No, no… not yet,’ he answers cryptically. The streets are so poorly lighted, I have to look fast in order to see what the cab’s headlights pick out. There aren’t many shops along here, nor the naked bulbs and hurricane lamps that accompany them, either. Another stretch and a wide indeterminate void open up to the right of us. The driver’s intonation is sepulchral: ‘This is the BBD Bag…’ Mystery follows mystery. Grey fluorescent light sneaks out onto the Stygian Chowringhee sidewalk, inviting me to ascend the stairs into the Y’s welcoming domain. Built in 1902, it seems centuries older. A plaster bust of Mahatma Gandhi overlooks the check-in desk. The night clerk is of good cheer.
Oh! “‘Cal-cutta!’ I murmur. this place is alluring, enchanting even. I feel… privileged somehow.”
The gloomy, mansion-like quality to this place is alluring, enchanting even. I feel… privileged somehow. My room is a remarkable domain of faded Indo-Edwardian splendour. I open the double doors to the balcony. Out there is the bulk of the Indian Museum, enshrouded in thick night – not fog – just sparsely-lighted darkness. Then, from down there, in Sudder Street I presume, a disjointed musical sound. Also, a glistening point of light occurs, then grows. A wedding procession – groom and kid on horseback, bearers with bright lanterns, a shuffling band toddling, and a gen-set towed in the rear. The whole unit, moving like a comet in slow-slow motion, down the funnel of the dark way ahead…‘Cal-cutta!’ I murmur.”
” I was ready to take up where I’d left off, only in better fettle, primed to become a true Calcutta devotee.”
A few years later, I returned, with my wife Sandy. The two of us had recently explored Burma and SE Asia, but this was her first step on Indian ground, and for both of us, our first entrance into Calcutta (now Kolkata) via Dum Dum Airport. Daylight this time, and with its clarity came a whole re-acquaintance, that I knew then and there, on the taxi ride in, was going to allow for new perceptions, fresh interpretations, and previously unimagined appreciations. I was elated. Even the return to the Chowringhee Y, with a room next to the one I’d previously occupied, and the intactness of the gloriously moody environs, seemed utterly new. Such familiarity bred comfort – and relief. I had worried that everything would be different as far as tone was concerned, perhaps wrecked, but here we were – here I was – ready to take up where I’d left off, only in better fettle, primed to become a true Calcutta devotee.
“From then on, my genuine love for the city grew, and quite naturally, is still growing.”
That first evening of my return to the city, I left our lofty chamber and went down the echoing hallway. Gazing out a tall window into space below, the gentle immediacy of the Calcutta (Kolkata) quietude greeted me. Down in the deep blue twilight, a columned portico, in a courtyard that defined its own separate world. The scent of a small garden rubbish fire smouldering. The hushed chatting of kids done playing for the day. A few bird calls. A mother bidding the kids to come into a fabulously atmospheric mansion just at hand. Peace – both pictorial and substantive – right in the middle of an expansive and populous city. In that instant, I revised every notion I’d had from my first visit.I was back in town, and all was well. From then on, my genuine love for the city grew, and quite naturally, is still growing. I guess that, in a way, it had to be the right moment to awaken my previously slumbering and clouded awareness in that respect.
Check out the rest of West Bengal series on travel, food, and culture.
……To Be Continued
– Brian Paul Bach is a published writer, artist, photographer, filmmaker, and traveller. Additionally, he has been a worker in the theatre, an academic library, and the music business. He is a student of film and its lore, a casual dramatic performer and voice impressionist, an appreciator of theatre architecture and operation, and an architectural writer. Golden ages of film production, automotive design, and world architecture are of special interest, as are music, social culture, and most things concerning the Indian subcontinent. Brian’s published works, illustrated with his photos, drawings, and maps, include: ‘THE GRAND TRUNK ROAD FROM THE FRONT SEAT’ in two editions, 1993 and 2000 – the Author’s travels from Calcutta to the Afghan frontier; and ‘CALCUTTA’S EDIFICE: THE BUILDINGS OF A GREAT CITY’, 2006 – a major examination of this under-known city’s architecture and culture in over 700 pages, with almost as many illustrations. In numerous libraries worldwide, the book has been presented to two successive Chief Ministers of West Bengal state, at the 2006 and 2012 Calcutta Book Fairs, the latter attended by the Author. Lately, Brian has observed his own generation’s behavior, its choices and its outlooks, and the result is ‘BUSTED BOOM: THE BUMMER OF BEING A BOOMER’, his first e-book. Soon to become available are Brian’s works of fiction: ‘FORWARD TO GLORY’ a four-part ‘epic-noir-satire’ that charts the rise of an actor from obscurity to the biggest stardom in the world, and ‘LURID’ a thriller set in Calcutta, in which the city is threatened with total destruction by an ancient demonic force. Brian lives with his wife Sandra, an accomplished ceramicist and chef, independent cat Condell, and faithful hound Hudson.
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