Victoria Monument, Calcutta

The soaring Victoria Monument, Calcutta

Before visiting Calcutta, the images that the sprawling city threw up in my mind were of people wailing and thrashing in the streets and legions of beggars clawing at passers by. This fantasy picture was obviously wildly off the mark from the reality, but I didn’t realise quite how far off it was until I arrived.
Calcutta airport had reopened and the flight went without a hitch. On arrival I bagged a pre-paid taxi to the nearest metro stop to my chosen accommodation and walked the short distance to it. Whilst there was plenty of evidence of poverty on the drive through the suburbs in the form of haggered people collecting firewood and makeshift dwellings, the area in which I was based, just south of the business district, was a bustling metropolitan area. The guesthouse was comfortable enough, although I was disappointed with the horizontal shower which wasn’t much cop.
Calcutta was once the capital of British India, and so elaborate colonial architecture was strewn about the city in varying stages of decay. I struck out immediately to view the Victoria Monument, just ten minutes’ walk from my hotel, a glorious white marble memorial to some frumpy German hag who was once Empress of India (even though she never once went there).
The striking building housed a museum which cost fifteen times as much for foreigners to enter than it did residents of India. I’d seen this kind of two-tier price discrimination before in South East Asia, and whilst believing it to be fundamentally wrong, you could at least see the thinking behind it when considering the relative wealth of the average tourist and the average Indian citizen. I wasn’t particularly fussed either way at viewing the museum in the interior of the Monument, but the pricing disparity made up my mind: the rupees were staying in my pocket on principle. Instead I wandered the pleasant gardens (six pence to enter regardless of skin colour) in which young Indian couples were lounging on benches in the shade, and admired the structure from afar.
The area in which I had based myself, in and around Chowringee Road, was great for people-watching. As someone who exists perpetually outside the realm of fashion, I’d found it interesting to see what the Indian notion of style was. As in the south, Indian men were almost exclusively dressed in button-down shirts and slacks; not just the commuters and office workers, either. Often the smart look was complemented with a pen or two neatly hooked over the shirt pocket. The top lip caterpillar was a very popular grooming style, present in around half of all blokes to varying degrees of bushiness. Interestingly, a few men here and there had also dyed their hair ‘Dot Cotton’ purple. India also had a few ginger beards, particularly amongst Muslims. For women, saree seemed to be the (hardest) word, although as expected there were a greater proportion of women in metropolitan Calcutta than out in the rural sticks who chose not to wear the traditional dress.
The well-groomed nature of Indians is tightly entwined with notions of status and class, which in turn are at the very core of Hindu culture, reflected in the caste system which legend states was handed down from the gods. Here, if you can afford to do so, you turn yourself out smartly in public. Indians are completely baffled at the legions of (relatively speaking) rich Western backpackers like myself who arrive on their shores dressed in well-worn t-shirts and shorts, the latter of which in particular are a sign of low caste. Why would someone so affluent dress so below their station? The freedom to dress how you choose rather than how society expects you to is an alien concept to many on the subcontinent.
The next day I moved further up Chowringee Road to relocate to the backpacker ghetto of Sudder Street, lined with budget hotels. Its magnet apparently attracted beggars and scam artists in their droves, too, but I didn’t encounter any of either during my time there. I passed the featureless, decaying budget hotels along the strip and made a beeline for a particularly special hotel that had intrigued me the moment I had read about it.
Run by a now passed-on Second World War veteran and his surviving wife since the sixties, the 220 year-old Fairlawn Hotel was a timewarp in modern-day Calcutta. It was decked out in a style that can only be described as colonial kitsch, being crammed with old ornaments, furniture and memorabilia. The walls were covered with old photos and newspaper and magazine articles about the hotel and its owners. I was assigned a small but characterful room at the top of the stairs by the friendly Indian manager, complete with high ceiling, heavy fabrics, Victorian plumbing and a cast-iron bathtub. The place was an absolute delight and the perfect base to enjoy The Good Life of Calcutta. After all, how many other hotels here could boast a signed picture of Felicity Kendal on the wall?