I fell in love with Calcutta at first sight, as one falls in love with a woman. (I raise my hat respectfully to all those who know how to fall in love gradually. This is not my way.) Had I expected to fall in love with, of all places, Calcutta? Certainly not. Of course not – what, fall for a place that I had first encountered as a history student in the vile form of the Black Hole of Calcutta; Calcutta that everyone connects to Mother Teresa, picking her brave way past flyblown beggars, the half-dead and the diseased; Calcutta the archetypical home of swarming India, of desperate impoverished millions?
None of this put me off. I have had a high tolerance for squalor ever since a childhood that made me familiar with the back streets, the tenements and the peasant farms of postwar Italy. France, in my teenage years, was little better. No one relishes sewer smells, but if you couldn’t stand them, continental Europe was not for you. India I knew somewhat, South India in particular, and I had lived in Sri Lanka. I’d never been to West Bengal, Calcutta’s home state, home to some of the third largest sociolinguistic group in the world: the Bengalis. Here I’d had a hint of what was to come: when I was 18 I’d been introduced to Bengali culture by the wonderful films of Satyajit Ray, movies with no connection to Bollywood, movies that Chekhov might have made had he been born a Bengali and become a film-maker.
Leaning out of the cab heading for South Calcutta from the airport, I was instantly drunk on the aroma of spices and humanity (not stale or sour or unwashed humanity – I have never known a folk who wash as joyfully and as often as the men and women of the sub-continent). I loved the little ragged shops, crammed as only Indian stores are crammed. I loved the automotive museum of its streets, the boxy little Ambassador cabs, toy car relics of another age. A compulsive novelist, I scribbled a first paragraph, as we drove. It’s hard to say – for me, anyway – what it is in a city that induces rapture. It’s not glorious architecture, much as I love to stroll through, say, Paris streets, it’s not a profusion of remarkable buildings, monuments, museums, great restaurants, or any of the things that I understand draw people to cities. It’s a sense that life is on the streets, already visible in all its aspects, present to sight and smell: Naples was the first city I fell in love with, Naples the famously transparent city, where as you climbed the steps of a sloping neighborhood, the houses around you offered a multi-story diorama of life in all its aspects: on each floor, open to the street in the heat of the night, priests knelt at deathbeds, babies screamed out their first breath, couples embraced, and the laundry clotheslines that all but blocked out the sky celebrated this panoply, this living soap opera, like Tibetan flags waving their blessing. At any rate it was so when I was young; I hope it still is; anyone who was there in those fearless postwar decades will tell you that my account is no exaggeration.
In Calcutta I found my Naples again, in a form one might never expect: everything – food, joy, camaraderie, on the street, but: no beggars. That’s right. No beggars. Nor have they been rounded up and made scarce, as in Giuliana-era New York City. West Bengal has been a Communist state for almost all its history, and its government made sure that food was so cheap that no one would go hungry, and clothing so cheap that no one need live in rags. And they don’t. Bengalis! Beautiful Bengalis, the handsomest race I know, display themselves, the women especially of course, like Berbers with all their finery always on show. And food — remember that all the Western alarm about street food in exotic places is exactly the reverse of where the danger lies: it lies in restaurant food, prepared out of sight, with who-knows-what going into it. In the street – all along the street, in the district of Tollygunge where I found myself – you see your food being cooked before your eyes, at a temperature that ensures your safety. Day after day I ate the most glorious stir-fry dishes, in particular a vegetable chow mein, watching the herbs and spices and chopped-up veg dance in the olive oil of a sizzling wok, before the noodles are thrown in – dear God, my mouth is watering as I write this! – to writhe like a huge, ecstatic bundle of tiny snakes, fit for a rajah, a day’s worth for 40 cents.
Poverty there is, of course; it isn’t drastic but it’s there. Tapwater there is, not to be drunk. (And for me as a vegan, no danger of toxic dairy or meat.) Bottles of water are everywhere, a hundred of them on every block. Noise there is too, of course, plenty of it; the East is never quiet by choice. When I lived there first I was amazed to find even the jungle perforated by vans driving to and fro along the lanes, blasting out music and advertising, all day.
The streets of Calcutta are not clean. But here I have to be honest with you. I dislike clean. I have never wanted to go to Scandinavia. It looks clean, to me. I don’t like bugs or stink or manifest foulness, although I’ve put up with it, as a guest in houses in the Rif mountains of Morocco where we all slept around the edges of a room that contained a hole in the center of the room, a hole to be used for unmistakable purposes, a hole that gave directly onto the town sewer, only a foot or so below the floor. This took some getting used to. But cities should be cities, places where calm is barely tolerated, where people drive like predators and howl like prey, where fires are lit on crumbling sidewalks to heat up food acquired at all-night resto-cafes.
It must be clear to you by now, dear readers, if you’re still reading: I’m not a tourist. I’m a traveler. Guide books are the killing jars of surprise, the thing for which a traveler lives. Guide books are the manufacturers of disappointment. If you’re a traveler, your memory and heart will be full, as mine is, of astonishment: the day, cycling through France, I came over a hill and saw a castle larger, grander, than any dream could have pictured, a castle without peer in the world – Carcassonne. I had no idea it existed. The morning after an all-night train journey with my head against an iron bar, when I staggered unawares into the largest square in the world, the Djemaa el Fna in Marrakesh, the Djemaa as it was in the old days, when the blue men came from the desert and told their stories and fought, bare-knuckled, not as a show for tourists.
The ultimate surprise? It’s this: Calcutta has a subway system of surpassing beauty and efficiency, its platforms and trains wide and accommodating, its digital schedules bright and reliable beside screens that offer filmed previews of current Calcutta theater shows, in an underground that puts not only the MTA (recently voted the worst subway system in the world) to shame, but rivals the best anywhere.
This is all stage décor, of course. What makes Calcutta so truly remarkable is the sheer sweetness of the inhabitants, its faces that breathe kindness, its people that supply it when (and not before) you need it, with a love in their eyes I’ve never known to be so consistent elsewhere. Of course it helps if you have a long white beard. (I’ll lend you mine.) Young men and women jump to their feet on the subway and seat you where they themselves had found a seat. And what’s absent in Calcutta is not only begging but offering to guide. Respect is unfailing. No one stares at you as though you were a Martian or an opportunity. I have never felt so at home in a place.
So what happened to the stereotype of Calcutta? The seething mass of frantic importunacy? What sustained this lying myth, of course, wasn’t only Mother Teresa. It was Communism. Who in our world, wanted to hear about a happy, thriving, loving Communist state? Protected by a false vision of their city, Calcuttans have survived in comparative innocence, saved from the tourist hordes. Who ever even heard of Communist West Bengal, when Communism comes up in conversation? For my part I had the advantage of growing up in an Italian town with a Communist mayor; Prospero Velo was his wonderful name; I had the advantage of spending time in Bologna, a Communist-run city that, like Calcutta, breathed (and maybe still breathes) the joy of sharing.
So where, you will wonder, are my travel photos to bear out the vision I’ve painted for you? Tourists take photos. Travelers just remember and move on, as nomads always have, leaving the soil of their brief dwelling to retain no lasting mark. Leaving it to the wind.
Carey Harrison recently completed The Heart Beneath, a quartet of novels he began 49 years ago and which he regards as his life’s chief endeavor. (A separate series of novels, the Justice quintet, was fitted in, over the years, as were three more unconnected novels.) The Heart Beneath was published by Dr. Cicero Books in a revised edition in September 2016. That month, Harrison began a year as a Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study in Berlin, who awarded him the Fellowship in honor of his lifetime’s output of fiction. He continues to write and teach at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.