Our trip to east was a combination of a voyage of discovery for Mallika, Tarini, and Saroj, and a nostalgic journey for me. Calcutta, our first stop, is a city with which I have a passing familiarity, having been there a couple of times on work in the last few years. But the last time I spent any real time in the city was when Kaka and Kaki lived there in the early 1970s. We stayed at the Tollygunge Club, which is a wonderful place for a visitor. The staff is very welcoming, the rooms are spacious and look right out onto the golf course, and the food is well above the average club fare. It’s a little out of the way, of course, but I would definitely stay there again.
We started our pilgrimage with a visit to the British answer to the Taj Mahal, the imposing Victoria Memorial, which still dominates the Maidan and the surroundings. We found the tour of the museum inside to be well organised and informative. There is a huge differential charge for foreigners—Rs. 100 as against Rs. 10 for Indians. I was amused when the ticket clerk asked me where I was from in English. I suppose the non-Bengali-sounding accent and the expensive camcorder threw him off. I answered that I was from Delhi, and the man’s disappointment was palpable!
We then wandered across the Maidan to the Birla Planetarium, arriving just in time for the only English show of the day. This was a total disappointment – the narration was pedestrian and the film equally so. We revived our spirits with a visit to the Astor Hotel for a Chinese lunch and then made our way northward in search of the mythical Marble Palace. I say mythical because while it is listed in every tourist brochure as among the top ten sights in Calcutta, nobody—policemen, taxi drivers or passers-by—seemed to know exactly where it is. We pushed on regardless and were lucky to find a small sign off the main MG Road, which pointed us in the right direction.
The Marble Palace is a huge ornate mansion, which belongs to the Malik family, and sits in decaying grandeur in its own gardens, surrounded by dilapidated Calcutta tenements. In one of those idiosyncratic requirements that the Indian bureaucracy is infamous for, a visit to the museums inside requires an official permit from some obscure government department since it is a private residence. And therein lies the rub, given that it is highly unlikely that the casual visitor would have the time or the patience to apply for such a permit. So, in time-honoured fashion, a little palm greasing was applied. It goes a long way in making life a little easier, as we quickly found out.
We were ushered into the cavernous hall by a sloppily dressed and bored-looking guide. He proceeded to give us a rapid tour of the building, leading us quickly through halls filled with Greek statuary and pottery and with walls graced with grand oil paintings by long-dead British artists. It was like a scene right out of Harry Potter and the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry! In another inexplicable bureaucratic twist, children are not allowed into the upstairs galleries. Saroj and I went up to the next floor eagerly, expecting to see all sorts of forbidden delights, while Tarini and Mallika explored the inner courtyard. However, we were disappointed to encounter merely more of the same as downstairs. We found our way out of the building and made a quick tour of the small zoo outside which had a collection of parakeets and porcupines. However, our attempts to photograph them were quickly thwarted and we left under the disapproving stares of the guard who felt that his palms had not been greased enough.
On the way back, we decided to take our chances with the great Calcutta Metro, which runs all the way to Tollygunge. I had my doubts whether a modern mass transit system could be run efficiently and cleanly in a place like India, but it was a reasonably decent experience, all things considered. The platforms were quite clean and although the coaches were packed to the gills, there was not much pushing and shoving. The Calcutta crowd appeared quite well behaved, a refreshing contrast to the rowdy Gurgaonites. And at Rs. 4 per ride, it certainly is an economical way to travel.
The next day we browsed at the Oxford Book Store, another Calcutta landmark, and then visited Flury’s. Sadly, it was a disappointment and far removed from what I remembered of it. Perhaps this was because the place was under renovation, but I also think that the chocolate was sub-standard. Our friends Sushobhan and Madhu took us to Kewpie’s, a restaurant serving authentic Bengali food, located in a private home. The entire meal, with wonderful Bengali delicacies like potol and chingri maach, was a delight, and even Tarini and Mallika enjoyed it. The restaurant is tucked away in a lane right behind the Subhash Chandra Bose Museum and is well worth a visit.
In the evening, we visited the few relatives with whom we were still in touch. We dropped in on Shontu Mama and Nandini Mami in their retirement flat in Ballygunge. I had never met him before and had only the faintest memories of his elder brother, Montu, who had been very close to my parents. When I learned that Shontu Mama had been a tea planter, I mentioned our friends Bittoo and Sabrina Gill who live in Beverly Park in Gurgaon. To my utter amazement, Shontu (known as Butch in planters’ circles) said that Bittoo had worked for him several years ago. That is an incredibly small world! Fortunately, they remembered each other fondly; otherwise, these encounters can be quite embarrassing and awkward. That evening, Tullu Mami came over to see us at the Tollygunge Club for a short while. It’s always a pleasure to spend time with such a cheerful and positive person.
The next day, I got up early to play golf at the Tolly course. What a delight to roll out of bed and right onto the course! I played the entire 18 holes with a borrowed set of clubs and had predictably mixed results.
On the drive to the airport, the downside of Calcutta revealed itself to us. We had left enough time to get there in normal traffic, but then this is not the usual state of play in Cal and I had foolishly overlooked this fact. Our enterprising cabbie took a route via the Jadhavpur bypass to get us to the airport on time, driving at breakneck speed and showering choice Bengali abuses at all who ventured onto the path of the careening Ambassador taxi. In the end, he got us there with 15 minutes to spare. Only the intervention of my resourceful secretary back in Delhi with Jet Airways succeeded in getting us onto the plane.