I take a taxi to Kalighat, one of Kolkata’s most sacred sites.
As so often in India – as in the world – the nearer one draws to the sacred, the more likely one is to trip over the profane. According to a young man in my hotel, twenty-one rupees is the auspicious and sufficient sum to pay one of the many local guides certain to materialize upon my arrival at the Kali Temple. So as I discard my shoes and plunge into the complex, accompanied by a grinning guide, I slip the tiny sum into my pocket.
Entering the temple, my brow is dyed at a shrine where mothers pray for sons. Next I’m led to a place where, moments earlier, a goat was slaughtered. Paint-red blood drips on the walls and floor, and I watch two men carve the beast into tasty strips. Having perished propitiating Kali, the goat will now serve to feed the local poor.
Ominously, I’m warned to watch for thieves and “wicked characters,” as we move into the inner sanctum of the temple. I will only have a moment to cast my offering to the god. “But hold your wallet,” my guide says, and then orders me to throw my flowers.
Having satisfied the god, I’m led through the temple to a sacred tank, where I am to pray for my family back home, and lay a garland round the neck of another stone divinity. This I do with due solemnity, but then the metaphorical sky blackens. I have been here before, in other times and places, and my heart sinks with the memory of other temple malefactors. Now, I’m told with rising menace, I must make a donation of 5000 rupees.
“5000 rupees now! Else a lifetime of bad luck awaits you, friend…”
I would have simply walked away, but there were five men around me now. Fumbling in my pocket, I offer 100 rupees to the guide – still five times the recommended fee – and he snatches the note away. “You are a wicked man,” he says, shaking his head. For a moment, I thought he might push me down into the murky tank, but he cursed again and disappeared into the temple, doubtless searching for new prey.
Seeking to shake off my sadness at another sacred place defiled, I wander the alleys behind the complex, past the “Home of the Pure Heart,” Mother Teresa’s still controversial hospice for the dying, and down towards the Adi Ganga. Also known as Tolly’s Canal, this channel runs from the Hooghly River down through Kalighat. Alas, this once navigable river has become an open sewer, killed dead by pollution. Children play among waste rising from pools of sickly water.
After lunch, I take an historical detour and walk the vast grounds surrounding the Victoria Memorial, a masterpiece of imperial design, built to commemorate the reign of the Empress of India herself. The Memorial was opened to great fanfare in 1921. And yet, twenty years after the death of Victoria, the Raj was nearer to the end than its beginning. Inside the Memorial is a museum that recalls the history of colonial Bengal, a microcosm of India’s experience as the object of Western economic, military and cultural desire. The long encounter between Britain and subcontinent contains all the elements of tragedy and romance, of discovery and desecration. It was a relationship premised and sustained on exploitation, yet one that also sowed the seeds of its own demise through the mingling of Indian and European philosophy, art, literature and ideology. The Bengali Renaissance would help give shape and form to the very nationalism that would ultimately drive the invaders back to their island home. The legacy of that renaissance still shapes the identity of the city of Kolkata now.