Post 27 – Day 14 ‘The City of Ambassadors’ (Pt 1)

Post 27a Post 27b

It was not my intension to write a history of India, but India undeniably ‘is History’, so divergence of an historical nature is unavoidable. All good road trips, by definition and inclination, soon diverge from the planned route, so my meanderings back and forth into the past are guilty only of a shared and parallel disposition. Those hoping for a text pre-occupied with terrorist ‘shoot outs’, brushes with the law over alleged drug offences, or a biker’s guide to the best wet t-shirt and margarita joints in sub-Himalayan India have probably long realised this is not the good read for them. For those hoping for a contemporary re-enactment of the subcontinent’s hippie trail, you, and I, are about 50 years too late; and Goa, that once-upon-a-time Mecca of adolescent ganga smokers, as they wound their way slowly south to Australia, is not on my itinerary.

My first knowledge of India was that of its place within the history of the British Empire, for the teaching of Australian history in the 1950’s was inextricably tied to, and subsumed by, that of the so-called ‘mother country’. We, and India, were just annotations within that larger imperial narrative. On world atlases we were both coloured pink, the colour of empire. My first item of Indian-British history, the polemics of my juxtaposition aside, was a reference in Year 6 History to the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’. So it is on this subject that I will commence; courtesy in part, of A. W. Jose’s ‘The Growth of the Empire’, 1910, of which I have long claimed ownership of a second-hand but much loved copy. It might be a little out of date but it is a child of its time, a tome instilled with a sense of imperial destiny and the fatherly hand of British governance.

It was an age of Anglo-French conflict on two continents; North America and India. Britain was not yet the pre-eminent European power in India, for France and the Dutch were also traders and politically active there. British presence was restricted to the enclave of Madras plus Bengal, and a length of the intervening coastline, though this isolated from the former two points of influence. The Mogul Empire was disintegrating and Bengal had fallen under the control of Aliverdy Khan, though he was nominally a lieutenant of the Emperor at Delhi. He treated the European trading companies equally, but forbad them to undertake steps that would strengthen their position at the expense of the others. He died in 1756, this at about the same time that news reached India that the ‘Seven Years War’ was imminent in Europe. His adopted son and successor, the Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula, was suspicious that the British were intriguing against his succession, and subsequent to this the British considered his protection could not be counted upon. The British at Calcutta feared an attack from the French base at Chandernagore, and against the demands of the Nawab the British began to strengthen their defences. Their explanation of the reasons for the fortifications was dismissed by Siraj-ud-Daula as an insult, that they should trust him less than his father. He attacked Calcutta, and though most of the British had fled from there, a token force of soldiers as well as a number of civilians, under the command of John Zephaniah Holwell, remained in the old Fort William, this having been first built in 1696 to protect the British East India Company’s trade in the city of Calcutta. The defence of the fort was ineffectual and on the 21st June 1756 the defenders surrendered only to be packed into a small and poorly ventilated dungeon. In the space of a single night, of the 146 British and Anglo-Indian captives, 123 are said to have died from heat exhaustion, suffocation or by crushing. Holwell survived.

Controversy surrounds the affair, and the actual number who perished, though it seems that the Nawab did not order the captives imprisonment and was innocent of causing their deaths. It was not a deliberate atrocity. The exact number left in the fort is uncertain, and some prisoners are known to have escaped. Holwell claimed only 23 survived the night, the episode becoming the historical basis for representing, the short-lived and prejudiced opinion of a minority that it was, of Indians as a base, cowardly and despotic people. But his figure, with some justification, has been questioned, not least because of the physical difficulty of accommodating so many people in a room ’24 x 18 feet’. In 1915 the British scholar J. H. Little went as far as to label Howell’s version a complete fabrication, and though other historians disagree with Little’s view, and independent survivors collaborated Howell’s account, there are strong grounds to indicate Howell exaggerated what actually transpired. Whatever actually happened, the story illustrates the difficulty in ascertaining truth in history.

The outcome of the deaths, even more so than the loss of territory and trade, roused the British in Madras to undertake swift action against Siraj-ud-Daula. British forces under the joint command of Admiral Charles Watson and Major-General Robert Clive retook Calcutta and captured the French base of Chandernagore. Clive went on to defeat the Nawab at the Battle of Plassey, overwhelming a native army of 55,000 with a force of 3,000. The first locally raised unit to be armed, clothed and drilled in the European fashion by the British for their Bengal Army was the Lal Paltan battalion. This was raised by Clive in Calcutta in January 1757, and fought at Plassey six months later. In 1759 the Dutch also had settlements near Calcutta. They threatened shipping using Calcutta but were defeated by Clive at the Battle of Badara, and as a consequence agreed to keep no further troops in Bengal. Thus began the sequential consolidation of British rule in India, first by the East India Company, and following the end of the Indian Mutiny, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, directly by the British Crown.


The length of the human intestine suggests a wise person should make breakfast the first, literally breaking the ‘fast’, and the heartiest meal of the day. Evening meals should be light, minimising the amount of decomposing matter sitting about and bubbling away in our body overnight. I’m of the nutritional school that believes hearty meals should be enjoyed in reverse order, if not at every sitting, and that the consumption of food, the body’s need of energy and sustenance aside, is very much a recreational pursuit. However, I tread the middle path of gastronomic practice, avoiding the evils of gluttony and obesity and the equally pernicious doctrines of trend cuisine; this defined as eating something simply because your peer group is.

Well that’s the lie I’d like to convince myself of. Truth is I’m just another opportunistic grazer; that is ‘nibble it when you find it’, and don’t waste time on the drudgery of eating when you’ve got something better to do with you hands, eyes or teeth. And leave macrobiotics and French cuisine to those with no better activity to pursue, or more money than sense.

Food can be a real nuisance sometimes, especially when you’ve got too much of it, or too little. Somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean, between the land of ‘more than enough’ and the land of ‘barely if at all sufficient’ is a conjured mythic realm of my conjuring where the demands of human physiology and the delights of human culture are eloquently balanced, by command. Being a realm, as I envisage it, of equitable yet benevolently totalitarian apportionment, as in ‘be thankful for what you are given’, there would be no refined sugar and no tooth decay, no nutritionally-derelict, over-refined white bread but wholesome rye sourdough loaves with olives, dried tomatoes and sunflower seeds, no cheap cask wine but instead cool and flavoursome water fresh from the tap; the taps being publicly owned, the toll from their usage going to fund the creative arts, the biological sciences, and actually doing something about global warming. I was of an opinion that this realm might in fact prove to be parallel, if only in intent, to the fabled land ‘Utopia’ of the same-named book published by Sir Thomas More in 1516; its publication being prior to losing his head on the chopping block at the behest of good king Henry VIII of England. More describes the inhabitants of Utopia, in part, “They never sacrifice any animals, for they can’t imagine a merciful God enjoying slaughter and bloodshed. They say God gave His creatures life, because He wanted them to Live”. A good vegetarian-based doctrine always appeals. Then it was made known to me that More was not such a humanitarian saint after all being directly responsible for the death of at least one protagonist, and so Utopia might prove a poor model, its founder spiritually flawed.

It is doubtful if I am making sense here, the logic and construction of the argument wandering about a little, as is my habit. But the relevance of my verbalism did serve to increase my morning appetite. So it was that I trod the corridors of my hotel finding my way at last by a long and circuitous path to the dining hall, where once again I was to observe that the numbers of the assembled staff far outnumbered those of the clientele. There was a banquet on offer, but what seemed too few mouths and too small a capacity of available stomachs to consume it. I had this sneaking suspicion that someone, possibly more than a few ‘some ones’, was going to dine well on the left overs. I could not see any of this food later being thrown to the dogs, even though in India there are estimated to be around 28 million stray dogs to throw the food to. And yes, I do sympathise that feeding on rubbish and rancid scraps, even for a homeless dog, is not a preferred choice of a meal. Instead I pictured a lot of untouched food, all of it of a princely kind, being ferreted away to those who would likely appreciate it more than me, well prepared and flavoursome as the food proved to be. In Sydney such unclaimed or unsold food is either the target of ‘food guerrillas’ who raid the food waste bins of supermarket chains and bakeries late at night, or is destroyed by staff who are instructed by company edict to pour chemicals over unsold foodstuff so that it can no longer be eaten. So it was with this sense of awareness, or maybe misconception, that I enjoyed a hotel breakfast of cereal, toast with marmalade, fresh coconut juice, coffee, and a choice of watermelon, pineapple or rockmelon. “Hold on, I can’t even afford rockmelon at home, something’s out of kilter here” I realised. So of the rockmelon I had seconds, but each bowl only moderately filled; ‘small portions’, so to speak.

Suitably fed and watered I meet my official guide from the West Bengal Department of Tourism. He will guide me, and instruct my driver, through the day. There was a pecking order here, for even staff had a hierarchy to which they adhered; the jati system in practice I assumed. But what first strikes my attention, once we enter the throb of peak hour traffic, is the many yellow cabs and white government cars of the ‘Hindustan Ambassador’ variety, a model based on the English Morris Oxford Mark III of the mid 1950’s and in production in India continuously since 1958, with little modification. It so happened that in 1957 all the machine tooling for the British Morris Oxford III series was transferred to India. Lock, stock and barrel. These venerable Ambassadors might no longer be seen as the sexy machine of choice by India’s young and affluent, but they sure have style and staying power. Nor did they seem bound by a caste system for the rules of traffic looked like every man for himself, and each and all owned horns, none of which were mute.

I had a Morris Major once, though neither as grand nor as iconic as the Ambassador I readily admit. My Morris Major weighed a ton, ran on the sniff of an oil rag, drove like a tank, and you never needed to engage first gear from a standing start. Second gear did just fine. These Ambassadors looked like they came out of the same nursery and were of the same parentage; paint ten inches thick and built to last into the next century. Only road accidents and pronounced neglect bring them to an untimely end. They are assembled at Uttarpara near Kolkata, which might explain their proliferation here in this city. I hadn’t before noticed them so much, maybe they are herd entities and only come out in appreciable numbers at certain times of day, or like African wildebeest are given to cycles of temporal and spatial migration. In Australia taxi cabs exhibit distinct patterns of circadian rhythmicity, dependably clustering at restaurants and night clubs at opening and closing hours.

My first stop is the Dakshineswar Kali temple, on the east bank of the River Hooghly, its presiding deity being Bhavatarini, an aspect of Kali. The temple is approached through a post and lintel style arch ornamented by swastikas, police in drab khaki making certain that pedestrians enter by the left sidewalk, leave by the right sidewalk, and only cars of the chosen few enter by the middle roadway. The temple faces south and is three storeys high. The upper storeys are topped by nine prominent spires. It was built by Rani Rashmoni, a philanthropist and devotee of Kali in 1885, but the temple is especially famous for its association with the 19th Century Bengali mystic Ramakrishna. The grounds were apparently owned by an Englishman, John Hastie, and I was informed by my guide that it was partly an old Muslim burial ground. In the courtyard surrounding the Dakshineswar Kali temple are twelve east-facing shrines dedicated to Shiva. Being neither a devotee of Kali, nor Indian or Hindu, I did not attempt to enter the temple. Instead I wandered the adjacent thoroughfare, amusing myself inspecting the stores selling effigies of the goddess, large plastic water containers devoid of water, bananas, lots of mass produced Shiva lingas, heaps of spider shells and white polished conch shells, and miscellaneous votive items. A group of young Indian teenage girls in fashionable scrub denim jeans walked elegantly among the throng of pilgrims, holy men, beggars, and devotional attendees. The chic teenagers could have fitted into the trendy Paddington or Glebe markets on a Saturday morning without a cosmopolitan glance out of place.

By the time I fumbled through my pockets for my camera the girls had been swallowed up by the crowd, so I passed my time photographing the unfolding display of sari clad women, in family groups or with their mothers, husbands or children, walking to and from the temple. Hundreds, though their numbers were, I did not see one garment in duplication, not one instance of repetition. Each sari was unique in its choice and combination of colour, print design or embroidery. I just stood there unobtrusively clicking away, steadily archiving images as they walked past. For the subjects of the camera lens this was an inconsequential episode in a single routine day of their lives, but unbeknownst to them they had attained a digital ascension. At least as long as the memory card resists corruption. It was such an incredible canvas, my recording of it interrupted momentarily as a family group might notice my activity and purposefully pose, the occasional placing of a baby before the camera lens for me to specially photograph, or the all too frequent cross-passing of a figure just as I was about to photograph a particularly resplendent garment.

Though a wealth of colour, draping styles, and embroidery ornamentation, was represented by the profusion of saris that paraded unintentionally before me, it turns out that for millennia Bengal has been famous for its fine transparent cotton muslins. Some were so sheer that they were but a gossamer web about the body of the wearer, the effect conveying nakedness. Bengali cotton is mentioned in the 2nd Century BCE ‘Arthashastra’ and in the anonymous 1st Century CE Graeco-Roman text ‘The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea’ which noted that the finest Indian muslins were ‘Gangetic muslins’ from the delta area. Some muslins were so fine that a test for estimating their fineness was to see if the fabric could pass easily through a ladies finger ring. The highest quality muslins are so delicate that they can only be woven during the monsoon period when the humidity is high. Every-day Bengali muslins are called ‘deshi’ muslins and are heavier and more opaque, however, hand loom weavers are now producing semi transparent deshi saris with relatively high thread counts. Mill-made saris have taken over the market for heavier every-day textiles. The design of a traditional deshi muslin sari is simple and understated, the colour being added through discrete supplementary warp and weft patterning. In the Hindu dominated West Bengal there is now a greater expression of colours than in the past, for example vivid yellows, greens, reds and blues, these no longer a strict suggestion of caste, ‘varna’, the word literally meaning colour. A commercial white on white embroidery known as chikankari, believed to have been developed in the 17th Century, was once commonly made in Kolkata, as well as other major eastern Indian towns, but its production is now declining.

Leaving the temple surrounds was less joyous than entering for outside of the exit gate was a dual line of leprous beggars their arms and hands, what of these that remained, outstretched for any coin that could be gleaned. ‘Death row’ at my local council dog pound gives me a greater sense of hope than the lot of the people assembled here at my feet. It was like the flotsam and jetsam left ashore by the receding tide at my favourite beach, the once pristine tide line now the dying ground of the world’s waste, at least that portion of it that floats. What do you do?


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