Post 29 – Day 15 ‘The Zoo of Silence’

Post 29a Post 29b Post 29c

I wake at 12.10 am to the sound of fireworks. It is a crescendo of celebration, a celebration of the New Year. Nice to know someone stayed up that late at night just to wake me, but within the hour I tire of restlessness, become immune to the noise of the party people outside, and return to a state of sleep. It proves worse than being awake, full of dreams of past misdeeds, lost opportunities, and images of my library in flames. I’d never gotten over the multiple burnings of the library of ancient Alexandria and the death of Hypatia last, I think, of its curators. Christian zealots, all men I bet, dragged her naked through the city’s streets and flayed her alive with potsherds, in Greek ‘ostrakon’, or a word thereabouts, the basis for the word ostracise. Shortly after her death someone wrote that she was a learned mathematician and philosopher of high repute, several centuries later a man of supposed Christian faith wrote that she was little more than a witch and an idolatrous whore of infamy. None of Hypatia’s written works survive.

Day fifteen recommences with the receipt of emails from my two daughters followed by a visit to Seagull’s Bookshop. The emails were happily welcome but Seagull’s bookshelves, well stocked as they were, were to prove barren of anything that might have been to my interest. Bookshops can be like that, the worse ones being those stocked almost totally with titles that you just had to have, but each volume with a price tag that only the libraries of state and federal institutions could afford. I am convinced such bookshops are the contrivance of a cruel and malicious god. Fortunately there is at least one holy bodhisattva who has stayed behind to provide book remainders to scholarly bibliophiles in need of greater enlightenment, and as hoarders of academic texts will admit, the shelves of a bibliophile’s library are never complete. My wife once asked me when will I have enough books? My answer, delivered with neither doubt nor hesitation, was “when I have just two more”. Given the chance I’d like to buy one of those time travelling police street boxes that ‘Dr Who’ owns, except I’d fill mine with bookshelves and buy myself an electrically powered librarian’s wheeled trundle so I could scoot with minimal loss of time from title of interest to title of interest. I’d probably employ lots of young library assistants and get them to dress like the Indian goddess Tara, or like Minoan milk maids. I know there are many out there who will remind me that Dr Who is only a fabrication of Britain’s BBC, nothing more than a quaint fictional television series, but I will retort with clear conscience that in our world of codes and conspiracies ‘BBC’ might also, to those guardians of secrets withheld from the knowledge of mere illiterate mortals, mean ‘Bibliophile’s Book Closet’. It is a possibility that should not be too readily dismissed.

Some dreams you just don’t want to wake up from, but from the good ones I always do. My time in Seagull’s had been nothing but a dream, sadly the emails equally so. So day fifteen commenced once more, but this time in the world of the banal, no astral travelling, no parallel universes, and no London police boxes. Breakfast is cereal, pineapple juice, coffee, mixed fruit, semolina cakes and something like a savoury donut, then off with my guide, him looking quite ravenous and none the better for the meal I bought him yesterday. To give hint of his day’s gustatory intent he makes the point of tightening his trouser belt one more notch. I suspect he is planning ‘seconds’.

We stop at a Kali temple but I did not desire to witness the animal sacrifices, my time in the world of agricultural research had equipped me with experience of it enough, an old vision of seeing a sheep’s throat cut with a long knife simply to collect a small sample of blood in a laboratory beaker being well etched into my memory. A river channel near by is choked with garbage, but the river water and ‘mud balls’ made from thick grey sediment, hand-scooped from its banks, are being sold as sacred items to religious devotees. I forego the temptation of purchasing either for novelty’s sake. I just couldn’t see Australian Customs officers allowing their entry, no matter what spin I put on the mud or water’s spiritual efficacy.

Being a keen pilgrim to various museums of natural history I arrive at the doors of the Indian Museum, the largest museum in India and founded in 1814 by the Danish botanist Dr Nathaniel Wallich. The museum was originally housed in the building of the Asiatic Society, but in 1875 it reopened in the present grand structure located on Jawahar Lal Nehru Road. The Indian Museum is a multidisciplinary institution covering the fields of art, archaeology, anthropology, geology and zoology. The museum is designated under the Constitution of India as an ‘Institute of National Importance’, and was the first museum of its kind in Asia. The Indian Museum thrived under the curatorship of its founder, who was also one of the principle donors to its vast collections. The government took an early interest in the geology and mineral resources of India, this interest leading to significant funding endowments being made available to that department alone. The Zoology and Anthropology sections of the museum gave rise to the Zoological Survey of India in 1916 and the Anthropological Survey of India in 1945.

It is best to arrive early, as I did, though unplanned as it was, for by midday you are obliged to swim with the tide of visitors, any significant length of movement in the opposite direction being almost impossible. The patronage would be the envy of every museum in Australia. Standing room only by the time I decided to retreat. The Indian Museum also houses an urn containing Buddha’s ashes and because of this is also a place of pilgrimage, thus explaining a little of its popularity.

Sadly my impression was mixed. Wonderful as it was, overall the museum was run down, though from an educational perspective the exhibits were well presented. The mode of displaying the exhibits was from the epoch of my youth, each specimen neatly laid out, each with a meticulously drafted individual label, each display as extensively represented as possible. It is a style now all too easily replaced in the world’s museums by catchy sounds and flashing lights, and buttons that you push, the display of actual specimens too often being minimalist.

I headed straight for the Bharhut gallery as this houses railings and a gateway of the Buddhist stupa excavated from Bharhut in Madhya Pradesh. Excavated in 1874 by Sir William Cunningham these depict scenes from Gautama Buddha’s life. Not yet inundated by crowds I loiter in the gallery for some time, eagle-eyed guards ever watchful. The beautiful collections of sculpture relics displayed at the museum were well tended but the natural history collections were neglected. The mineral collection was extensive, to the point of being exhaustive, each item of crystal, gem or ore being carefully positioned in wooden and glass cabinets of expert crafting. All up it is said to contain 80,000 specimens, including meteorites and fossils. But there was a lot of dust. Not to be outdone in the wealth of its representation the Coin Room boasts the largest collection of Indian coins in the world. Unfortunately the museum offered no opportunity to trade off their spare holdings of East India Company coins, not even the more common varieties of lower denomination. I would have to make do with a sample of the many fakes offered by street vendors.

The Egyptian exhibit was small though informative. However, the mammal gallery was a grim zoo of silence. India can claim to be home to over 400 species of mammal, and like the fauna of Australia, many of these are threatened with extinction; about 90 by current count, and climbing. The state of the mammal gallery served to underline the plight of the fauna surviving in the wild. Too many of the stuffed animals were miss-formed by the hands of the taxidermist, the preservation of their bodies often mange-ridden from age and lack of adequate ventilation and the need for constant temperature and humidity control. It was like a double death. There were civets, Jungle cats, pangolins, dholes, cheetahs and more here, I did not make a count. At night, none came to life.

The photographs in my copy of ‘The Natural History of India’ gave a kinder portrayal. So I hurried from the mammal gallery in anticipation of seeing the exhibit of Indian insect biodiversity, a taxonomic group of particular interest to me as India possesses a rich and diverse fauna. Some of it is so sought after that collectors will risk imprisonment in return for the high prices offered in the trade of illicit specimens. Large and beautifully coloured beetles and butterflies can fetch prices in the hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars. And the trade is not restricted to India, it’s a worldwide phenomenon, Australia included. Several countries have licensed breeding programs that allow local villagers to breed and sell prized species, thus gaining an income without wild populations being further endangered. That’s the theory anyway.

But to my chagrin the insect gallery was closed. The sign giving notice of this was obviously old, its discoloration indicating an overly long attachment to the gallery doors. It was apparent no one had entered for some time. I feared what lay within, and mulled that maybe it was a portal to ‘Satis House’, the dead mansion of Miss Havisham, therein to be found the nibbling of cockroaches and museum beetles at the remains of the pinned specimens, and discarded food wrappers and newspapers gathered by rats amongst the cabinets. A person of darker humour might image a withered entomologist inside, sitting at a grime covered laboratory table, dry and sunken eyes fixed to an old Leitz microscope, a skeletal hand outstretched in long abandoned hope of further grant funds for the resurrection of her cold abode. For too many years such a fate had befallen the collections housed in the Macleay Museum of the University of Sydney. The exhibits crammed together such that access to many was denied, the whole glorious lot of the work of three generations of naturalists, Alexander Macleay, William John Macleay, and William Sharp Macleay, thrown into the upper bowels of the museum’s purpose-built building, there to sit in neglect for years at the mercy of mould, pests, sunlight, and the whim and fancy of institutional bureaucracy.


Once again I give sustenance to my official tourist department guide, the driver as before dutifully assigned, foodless, to the protection of the tour car. He is relieved in this responsibility by the guide just preceding the expected payment for the meal. The timing is well rehearsed. I soften my contemplation of it all with the knowledge that, on this occasion, the bill was less and the portions of food larger.

In the afternoon I seek out the Oxford Bookshop but it proves a repository of titles I do not need, as empty as that of Seagull’s in my dream. I take the dream and the emptiness of my success at Oxford’s as a portent of what further to expect in the local realm of bookstores, so do not bother to search for the street location of Seagull’s; the real one.

However, I do go exploring for the Army and Navy Stores, a department store of historical interest. My guide has never heard of the establishment, but I do not expect a discount from his daily fee will manifest from his ignorance. He left me to my own devices for a little while claiming he was expected elsewhere, but assured me he would return. Army and Navy Stores opened a Kolkata branch in 1901, supposedly in Chowringhee Road. It used to be one of several great British department stores in the city. Their chain of stores was formed in London in 1871, as the Army and Navy Co-operative Society, by a group of military officers to supply consumer goods at reasonable prices, the Society receiving many requests to serve the needs of homesick military personnel and civil servants in India wanting something from ‘home’. The department store’s height of popularity was the years 1890 to 1940, the Army and Navy Stores functioning as emporium, bankers, caterers, insurance brokers, and even undertakers; now there’s a niche market. They sold pith helmets, toilets and plum puddings, the A & N catalogue running to over 1,000 pages. It’s the stuff of empire that you miss nowadays. Lost Empires; since their general demise the world’s gone down hill. To underline my point, you can’t find a decent clay tablet with cuneiform script anywhere since the downfall of Babylon, and the nearest you’ll get to an honest loaf of Imperial Roman bread is a stone one on display at Pompeii, and that thanks solely to the eruption of Mt Vesuvius, tragedy that it was to both baker and his customers.

My search for Army and Navy Stores was a failure. Those I approached either had never heard of it or could not understand my language. If it hadn’t have been for that biblical episode at the Tower of Babel I wouldn’t be in this predicament. I just wish I had not left my pocket GPS at home. But I did later stumble on Mahatma Gandhi Road, formerly known as Harrison Road. I did not know who Mr or Mrs Harrison might have been, but one newly arrived in India, and naïve to the cosmopolitan ways of its cities, might expect a certain civility, non-violence even, from the vehicular traffic plying a road named after Mohandas Gandhi. But no, they drove as they did elsewhere, push shove, push shove, and sounding horns as if heralding the coming of angels. Brahmins, ladies in fashionable saris, Untouchables, and even itinerant foreign tourists, gave way to anything with more than one rotating wheel.

The hazards of sharing the roadway with marauding traffic aside, I took quirky pride in my discovery of Mahatma Gandhi Road, though my guide, newly returned to my side, could not fathom my interest. He just looked puzzled when I attempted to explain the significance of street directory detail in the context of an epic road trip. My attempt at comparing the parallel similarities of road spotting with the science of bird-watching just met with a blank look, his eyes glazed over with astonished bewilderment. He exclaimed that it was just a road, Kolkata was full of them, and worse from his perspective, “there are no restaurants of worth here”. We shared no point of common reference.

It was in Kolkata, in the momentous year of 1928, that Gandhi pushed through a congressional resolution calling on the British government to grant India dominion status. So recognition by way of the naming of the main east-west thoroughfare in North Kolkata, this also being the shortest distance between the major railway stations of Sealdah and Howrah, is fair applause I would imagine; though possibly not the reason the road was named after him. I suspect it was because of the far greater legacy he bequeathed to India and the wider world.

Tomorrow I leave Kolkata, and so I say farewell now to my guide, topping up his West Bengal Tourist Department salary with an additional expression of my thanks, and making no deduction for the cost of his two meals. His wallet had a wad of bank notes of worthy dimensions, and his were all big denominations. Belatedly I realise I neglected to give him the restaurant receipts, he could have claimed them on his tax.

I return to my hotel room before 5 pm, and the hotel being too far from anything worth walking in exploration of, I fall victim to the temptation of Indian television, all 50+ stations of it. It was Bollywood, cricket, dubbed foreign movies, product commercials, and an advertisement from the Australian Tourist Commission. Indian movies proved to be enthralling. They were frequently of an historical theme, or were based on such sagas as the Ramayana. Consequently there was usually a lot of blood and gore, and at least one rollickingly dance routine thrown in for good measure. There was many a romantic or pensive moment, and the wistful batting of eyes. Yet forgive me if I am thinking erotic Hindu temple carvings here, but in Indian movies no one ever gets to kiss, lips remain sanitized. And for all the heaving of chests, everyone keeps their clothes on. Maybe they didn’t want to encourage anyone to unnecessarily add to the population as they already had sufficient. There was a doctrine of moral etiquette here that I just didn’t get, but I sure liked the costumes and the long hair, and that was just on the men. It was so disappointing that for all the hours I had spent walking the streets of Kolkata, and even being seen in the vicinity of a couple of trendy restaurants, that I was never approached once by a film scout. I had heard that Kolkata, not just Mumbai, has a burgeoning film industry, and though I had been approached by many Indian families for a free snapshot, the one approach I did want never materialised. Perhaps my visit was just poorly timed, the film crews all overseas on location somewhere in Central Australia.


Awake late at night the over weary traveller can always find refuge from insomnia in the multitude of little tourist brochures that come your way. Some you collect thinking they might be of future use, others are foisted upon you. A third category is those that sit upon hotel room tabletops in the hope you will take pity on them and flip idly through their pages.

On this particular night it was several booklets, giving little details about the city, that took my attention. Located on the River Hooghly Kolkata was the capital of West Bengal. I already knew that but I did not know that the port of Kolkata is India’s oldest operating port. My collection of brochures further informed me that as far back as 2003 nearly a third of Kolkata’s population lived in squatter or slum accommodation, that in 2011 the combined population of the city and its suburbs exceeded 11 million, and that it is the third most populous metropolitan area in the country. One booklet claimed that the name Kolkata derives from the Bengali term Kolikata, the name of one of the three villages that predated the arrival of the British, and the area where the city was to be established. A second brochure, with equal authority, informed me that the named Kolkata stems from the locality of Kalighat, the ‘steps of Kali’. Both sources agreed that the recorded history of the city began in 1690 with the arrival of the British East India Company, although archaeological findings at Chandraketugarh, 35 kilometres north of the city, provide evidence of habitation in the region in which Kolkata stands dating back two millennia. Job Charnock, late administrator of the British East India Company, is considered the founder of modern Kolkata. Revisionists of history claim a highly civilised community was already in residence there. Regardless of the truth, Job Charnock was an interesting character, described by some as silent and morose, yet he had whits about him enough to rescue an Indian widow from the funeral pyre of her husband; her intent being to undertake the traditional immolation practice of ‘sati’, now illegal; the word not to be confused with that used in Buddhism to denote ‘awareness’ and ‘correct mindfulness’, one of the seven important factors of enlightenment. The widow was a fifteen year old Rajput princess, and Charnock was so smitten by her beauty that he took her as his common-law wife. It was a more puritanical age than that of today, Charnock was accused of converting to Hinduism, though he stayed a Christian all his life, and the laxity of his lifestyle, as in daring to marry a Hindu, was used as a cautionary tale of the moral ills of the world and the temptations of India. He died in 1692 and in 1695 a mausoleum was erected over his simple grave. The mausoleum can be seen in the graveyard of Saint John’s Church, the second oldest Protestant church in Kolkata. The inscriptions, attendant to the mausoleum, make no mention of his Hindu wife.

In 1883 Kolkata was host to the first national conference of the Indian National Association, the first avowed nationalist organisation in India. Between 1942 and 1944 the city was bombed several times by the Japanese, and coinciding with World War II millions starved to death during the Bengal famine of 1943. Resulting from clashes during the partition of India and Pakistan many Muslims left the city. During the 1960s and 1970s severe power shortages, strikes and actions of the violent Marxist-Maoist Naxalite movement damaged much of Kolkata’s infrastructure and the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971 led to a massive influx of thousands of refugees. Between 1977 and 2011 West Bengal was governed from Kolkata by the Left Front, which was dominated by the Communist Party of India. This was the world’s longest serving democratically elected communist government. My hotel documentation, apart from detailing the respective costs of laundry items, also notifies the traveller that Kolkata is subject to a tropical wet and dry climate.

Much the richer for the reading, and thankful I am visiting in the dry season, I find the oblivion of sleep at last.

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