Kolkata Day Two

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.

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