A tale of three cities

A tale of three cities
The taxis in the both these cities are a part of their identity, Photo Credit: Orijit Sen

Calcutta's history with Edinburgh is nearly as loaded as that with London

Rimli Sengupta
June 24 , 2014
12 Min Read

One corollary of being a Calcuttan is having a special lens on London. Under a decrepit crust, swathes of central Calcutta still brim with edifices modelled after those in a distant city. This distant city rubs off, through inadvertent daily contact, even on the most incurious Calcuttan.The awareness blooms insidiously, like mould on leather during the rains. Add exposure to history and literature and the mould colony can get quite thick. Throw in the prism of Empire and the growth gets more exuberant and the lens more bilious. Visiting London, for a Calcuttan, is therefore unlike visiting Paris; it is never entirely free of baggage. On a recent visit to London I got a sense of how heavy my bags were.

Standing at the foot of Big Ben on a November evening I marvelled at how arrival at a new city can feel so utterly like return. A stiff breeze across the Thames ruffled the reflection of the glittering red double-deckers plying on Westminster Bridge. I will admit to remembering Calcutta’s red double-decker buses, but not even the rosiest glasses can turn those WALL·Es into these EVEs. Perhaps it was the familiar manner in which the city nestled its river. But what river! Could this really be the storied Thames, much eulogised in literature over centuries? With the tide out it was barely a rivulet, resembling Calcutta’s Keshtopur Canal in May. I imagined men from this city of skinny waters arriving at the maw of the monsoon Hooghly, beholding the possibilities in its vast waters, then building a city by that river in the image of this one.

In fact, it felt like a return because it was. London had entered me early, at 12, when I first read Great Expectations. It was an abridged version but I can recall its impact with clarity. On a cab ride through the central business district of mid-70s Calcutta I remember recognising Dickensian London, in all its grimy Victoriana. I have always thought of London as a part of my inheritance. And like any other colonial product, I had returned to the mother city.

The miniaturing of the Thames notwithstanding, I was determined to bring to life the locales bright in my mindscape. In a blur, I rode the Tube to Charing Cross, took a stroll on the Strand, engaged with a speaker at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, had dinner at Piccadilly, saw a show in Drury Lane, and went to the ballet at the Royal Opera House. I also took a slow boat to Greenwich, one of the few places where Britain remains ‘prime’, and en route savored the rich palimpsest of history as London slid by.

The fuzzy glow of return lasted until an electric encounter at the V&A Museum: an inch from me was a wine chalice used by Shah Jahan himself. Three hundred and fifty years ago an unknown Agra artisan had taken white jade, too hard to be scratched by steel, and teased it like wax into a languid swirl that tapers into an exquisite head of a wild goat. I thought of the artisan’s gnarly hands buffing the jade into a pearly sheen. And I imagined the emperor picking the chalice up by the goat’s head, inspecting the play of light on his wine and raising its opalescent rim to his lips. If this chalice could sing its journey — from the emperor’s hands in seventeenth-century Delhi to its glass coffin in today’s London — what an epic that would be. Most likely a litany of betrayal, war, plunder, convulsions of rising and falling empires. And a procession of looters and buyers.

Ghosts of this procession followed me through the British Museum — past the massive winged bulls of Assyria, the colossal bust of Ramesses II, the Rosetta stone, the intricately carved walls of Persepolis, the nearly effaced statuary from the Parthenon, and on and on. In each gallery I saw people from the looted territories reverentially trooping through — Greece, Egypt, Iran, and of course the Subcontinent. They whispered as they shepherded their young, forcing them to look. They gazed, plaintively. I gazed plaintively. At an ethereal shahtoosh ‘story’ shawl from Kashmir. At the most exquisitely intact seals from Mohenjodaro, of a humped bull and a tusker. And I wondered, are these mine? In what sense are they mine?

A culture blossoms, fiercely blazes, then dies. An alien comes upon the ravaged land. Finds exquisite, inscrutable ruins everywhere. Picks them up and takes them home. Deciphers them, documents them, becomes the custodian of this found culture. Do the people inhabiting the same spot deserve automatic custody of historical treasures? What if they are at an enormous cultural remove? But who judges the remove? And who anoints the custodian? I don’t know the answers. But it was painful to read the pamphlet in the Parthenon gallery explaining the British Museum’s refusal to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece. Between ‘what if others ask for their stuff’ and ‘we know best’, it sounded ominously like our arguments against letting Kashmir go.

If Britain is a nation of magpies, its crowning achievement is surely Cleopatra’s Needle. This beautiful obelisk of pink granite was erected around 1450 BC at Heliopolis by Thutmose III and is inscribed with hieroglyphic felicitations to him and to Ramesses II added two hundred years later. How this 220-tonne object was transported from Egypt to London in 1877 — the container ship had to be abandoned in rough seas — is a gripping tale. Suffice it to say that the Needle was retrieved and installed by the Thames at the Victoria Embankment in 1878. And a lovely installation it is: a black, smooth granite base worked into a floral receptacle for the weathered pink granite. At its foot I saw a plaque bearing the names of the men who died transporting it. The British are magpies sans pareil.

To be fair, sections of London felt very colonised by the ex-colonised. Each immigrant borough had a special character. I was tickled to find street signs in Bangla script at Brick Lane and in Gurmukhi at Southall. This does not happen in Paris or Amsterdam. The Sunday market at Brick Lane was an explosion of colour: crafts, bric-à-brac, cheap clothes, used shoes and all manner of street food. The delightfully cosmopolitan crowd seemed to have people from everywhere; at one point I counted ten languages within earshot. Later, when walking past the Jami Masjid I saw two handsome Subcontinental men walk by in blood-spattered lab coats, their hands bloody. Belated Halloween? No, it was the first day of Bakr Id.

Physical London had begun to jostle for space with the London in my mind’s eye, so I perversely left it behind and took a train to Edinburgh. En route, I caught a glimpse of the prim English countryside: pretty cottages, impeccable greens, rolling dales cradling mini rivers. Three hours later, as the train crossed the Tweed river and entered Scotland, it was as if a switch had been thrown. The sun came out for the first time in days and bathed the unbridled Scottish landscape: white limestone crags, electric green hills dotted with sheep, colossal stone castles, and the North Sea, at times breaking right next to the tracks.

Emerging from Waverley station at Edinburgh, I was struck by how different this city looked from London. All around me were towering and severe Gothic edifices of stone, none painted and most with a patina of grime — a seismic and dour cityscape. In stark contrast, the people were disarmingly warm, topped with the delicious Scottish brogue. No stiff lips here, upper or lower. And roguish wit aplenty.

Edinburgh, the seat of eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment, embraces her writers with great gusto, and none more than Walter Scott for his 1814 novel Waverley. Near the station named after his novel is Scott’s monument, which looked to me like a vaguely terrifying Gothic rocket ship. And it was mammoth, much taller than India Gate. I had never seen such an exuberant memorial to a writer at the heart of a major city. And this is someone from Tagore-marinated Calcutta.

The best part about walking along Edinburgh’s otherwise touristy Royal Mile is to dip into the narrow lanes off it — here called ‘wynd’ or ‘close’ — some of which have been continuously inhabited for over seven hundred and fifty years. Tucked within Lady Stair’s Close I found the Writers’ Museum, housed in a building from 1622. Inside, amongst writing desks, walking sticks and sundry memorabilia of Edinburgh’s famous writers, I connected with Robert Louis Stevenson’s cry for his beloved ‘Auld Reekie’ — old smoky — as Edinburgh was affectionately called due to the copious sooty smoke from its innumerable chimneys. Driven out of Edinburgh by severe respiratory illness, Stevenson writes from the pristine air of his island refuge in Samoa: ‘When I forget thee, Auld Reekie, may my right hand forget its cunning!’ My sentiment exactly, and one I try to chant even when choking on the smoke Calcutta belches at me.

Calcutta’s history with Edinburgh is nearly as loaded as that with London. On the one hand there are the mountains of jute and tea that helped fund Edinburgh’s edifices and the castles that litter the countryside. On the other, there is the inheritance of the Scottish enlightenment, the tradition of secular and rational thought à la David Hume and Adam Smith, which galvanised Derozio amongst others and ultimately led to the Bengal Renaissance. After visiting Hume at Old Calton Cemetery, I looked for Smith at the Canongate cemetery off the Royal Mile. Mentioned on Smith’s gravestone next to his more famous Wealth of Nations, I found my favourite: Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1759. As Bengal reeled from the impact of the battle at Pawlashi two years before, where many Scots killed and died birthing an empire, Smith sat in Edinburgh writing this preternaturally progressive treatise that explores, among other things, the “origin of ambition”.

The UK of today, or GB if you like, is neither U nor G. It is a small country, grey and damp. I ended up looking at this quashed coloniser from a place of being from it somehow, but not of it. This coloniser–colonised embrace, for the Scots and the English with India, and more specifically with Calcutta where it all began, is deeply multifarious. Like two entangled hydras. I can certainly feel all my tentacles when considering England and Scotland—from cherry-red mailboxes to famines to Charles Dickens and Adam Smith. And I have met with the tentacles from the other side as well, as with this Scottish man I met at Smith’s grave.

He was in his late sixties, with a shock of lovely white hair, raking the flaming orange fall leaves from the grave. He asked me where I was from and absolutely lit up when he heard, exclaiming, “I was born in Calcutta and spent my childhood there!” He had clear memories of the house he grew up in and knew the address by heart — a stone’s throw from where I grew up. As I shared this bit of remarkable serendipity, I saw him instantly leap to his world as a ten-year-old, a world that none of us can outgrow. I saw intense nostalgia and a yearning to return, to a place he thought I inhabited. So there we were, two stray dots suddenly linked in both present and past, in memory and desire, by the invisible strands of an Empire long dead.

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