Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
THERE are three Calcuttas — the winter capital of India, the metropolis of the largest white population in the country, and the tightest-packed human sardine-tin known outside China.
As you see it first, it is the only British town in India. Both as seat of Government and centre of European population it has taken on an English aspect, which you do not find elsewhere. Not only are buildings English, but they are English buildings of good standing. The prevalent style is eighteenth-century classical; the colour is the buff -white of Regent Street. As a matter of history, the houses are adaptations of Italian and Sicilian models; but they look Greek. Almost every one has its portico, its Doric or Ionic pillars, its balustraded roof. In the filthiest native quarters you will come on such houses, grimy, peeling, tumbling to pieces — the homes of forgotten sahibs, now forlorn islands in a lapping sea of bamboo shanties. Calcutta, you can see, has not merely a history — every town in India has that — but a British history.
Its history, indeed, and its greatness are all British, wherein it is unique among Indian cities. It is not the cradle of British India: the cradle was Surat, which was opened to British trade in 1612, and in the Imperial Library at Calcutta you reverence, as the oldest archives of British India, the letters of the Surat factors. To the profane mind the most natural touch is found in the list of them, wherein an unfortunate, otherwise obscure, Val Hearst, is branded to eternity as "drinking sott."
It was in 1687 that the Company came to Calcutta, and named Fort William after the Dutch king who came two years later. In those days, and long after, distinction between the imperial and commercial was not: despatches then were letters from "the gentlemen at Fort St. David's," and the administrator who now becomes an Honourable Member of Council then aspired to the office of Export Warehouse-keeper. Only in 1774, when Warren Hastings became first Governor-General of Bengal, with a vague superintendence over Madras and Bombay, did Calcutta begin to be imperial.
The year before Fort William had been finished, and still remains — a ludicrous anachronism now, for what need could there be of a fort in Bengal? — but an imposing document of Anglo-Indian history. An octagon of fosse and grass-grown rampart, bastion and curtain and sally-port, with the Governor's buff -white Georgian house standing up out of it — it remains to remind you of what nowadays you might easily forget: there lived strong men before the North-West Frontier.
The other later public buildings of Calcutta are neither few nor mean, but they hardly do themselves justice. They either hide behind trees or else they step forward on to your toes, so that you must rick your neck to look at them. Government House is in the fashion. From the high rails and sentries you infer that something important is within; but unless you chance to turn your head in the right direction from the Maidan — Calcutta's park — you might live in the place for weeks and never see what it. was. But when you see it, it is plainly a king's palace. Designed, as everybody now knows, after Kedleston Hall, which Adams built, the imitation was begun by Lord Wellesley exactly a hundred years ago: at the time the Directors of the East India Company were painfully shocked at his extravagance. Government House stands in a garden full of lawns and tall trees. From the central building, which is crowned by a truncated dome, radiate galleries connecting with four wings; so that the impression of the house from either side is of a light buff semicircle with Ionic columns and a porch in the centre, and similar columns outlining the wings. To the porch of the main entrance you go, a couchant sphinx on either side, up a double flight of steps, imperially wide; the impression of solidity combined with lightness is distantly suggestive of the Capitol at Washington. Left and right of this staircase shoot two tufted palms with ivy clinging round their trunks — England and India intertwining. Left and right and in front are antique cannon on pale blue carriages; that in the middle rests between the wings of a dragon.
South of the proconsulate spreads the Maidan, which is Arabic and Persian and Hindustani for a flat open space. To the profane mind the broad expanses of burnt grass — about a mile and a half square — suggest Clapham Common in August; but the Maidan is much more. At one corner is a racecourse, elsewhere tennis-courts, golf-links, bicycle-tracks, cricket-pitches, riding-roads. It is an exercise-ground for horses and dogs, a playground for children, and a fashionable promenade for all Calcutta. In the evening, when the sky is red over the bank of factory-smoke beyond the Hughli, and the spars and tackle of the ships and barks are silhouetted on it like diagrams, the unending file of carriages rolls up and down the balustraded Red Road, or lingers over the river to watch the cool sunset. Then the band plays in the Eden Gardens, and Calcutta promenades at ease till it is time to dress for dinner. The Maidan is very English — Clapham Common, Hyde Park, and Sandown Park all in one — a necessity of English life. And the statues with which it is starred everywhere — Hardinge, Lawrence, Mayo, Outram, Dufferin Roberts — are also part of the life, the imperial life of British India.
Part of the life also is on the river, for the Hughli is as essential a limb of Calcutta as the Thames is of London. In the days when Simla was not, Viceroy and merchants alike retreated out of the city stenches to Barrackpur and other spots on the riverside. For two hours you steam, first past the black-funnelled liners and the black-smoked chimneys, then through fleets of country boats and bathing natives, then between low banks punctuated with red and grey temples, bordered with an unbroken fringe of trees, out of which palms lift their heads daintily. Reach after reach, till the thickets part and you see long stretches of grass; you pull up at a stage wherefrom leads a path that is a tunnel of green. At the end you are in an English garden and park translated into India. Broad drives cleave through undulating lawns. The undulations are artificial, for drainage; but at this rainless season the grass is grey. Yet the bushes and creepers blossom opulently into blue and purple and scarlet. This is a botanical garden in itself, with banyan and dusty-seeded teak and pipul spreading like a pyramid. There are scores of other trees with botanical names, bright green and black, brown and red — trees swayed by the wind into bows, trees shooting bolt upright or drooping to earth, symmetrical or gadding in feathery tumult. Between them you catch vistas of the blue-bosomed Hughli, dotted with bamboo boat-cottages, embroidered with palms and pagodas. This is Barrackpur; but besides Barrackpur there are half-a-dozen suburbs, and the merchant keeps his steam-launch as in Finchley or Merton he used to keep his carriage.
Yet the life of Calcutta, the thirty-five-years' resident will tell you, is not what it was. In the old pictures you see Chowringhee, the great street along the Maidan, a range of pillared bungalows; now much of it is red brick, stores, hotels, boarding-houses. In the pictures the sahib drives in a chariot, often with four horses; now he uses a victoria or a dogcart. Comfort, groan the elder men, is dying out of Calcutta. In the sixties, when it took four months to come out, men found it worth while to settle down in India and make it their home. Now it is very rare to find a man who has been ten years on end in the country; though in Calcutta and among the planters of Behar and Assam you will still find some who have not seen home for fifteen and twenty years. But now, as a rule, a man goes home after five years and marries; after ten years his children go home; his wife goes to see them every other year or so. Life is dislocated. Nobody is quite sure whether he lives in India or Europe, and is at home in neither. Among the merchants — the legitimate, if not the lineal, heirs of the "gentlemen at Fort William," and still the backbone of Calcutta — there will be, say, three partners, of whom one is always spending a year at home. Or else the senior members live at home altogether and send junior assistants to India, to the detriment of British trade.
And yet, though croakers croak, trade in Calcutta is still a great and imposing business. If in cotton its ten mills cannot compare with Bombay's hundred and more, it has a monopoly of jute-spinning, and over a score of tall chimneys smirch the lucid Indian air. For every kind of retail trade it is the finest centre in India: it has the largest white population among the cities, and it is the emporium for the largest white country populations — the indigo and tea planters of Behar and Darjiling and Assam. And of late years Calcutta's trade has received a powerful impulse from the development of the Bengal coal-fields. The mines are mostly within a hundred and fifty miles west and north-west of Calcutta; the production has leaped in twenty years from 957,000 tons to 3,142,000; the exportation in ten years from 300 tons to 136,000. As steam coal it may not be so good as the Cardiff stuff: nothing is. It makes much more ash; but then, east of Suez, it is very much cheaper. When you can buy it in Colombo at 22s. a ton, and have to pay 29s. for Cardiff coal, the expense of an extra hand or two in a stoke-hold is a small matter.
If you want to be convinced that Calcutta is first of all a city of business, you need only look at its river and docks. On any day, at any hour, the Hughli carries a traffic that would not disgrace the Pool of London. Here is the British India Company, with a fleet of over a hundred steamers, alongside of the boat with which every Bengal peasant goes to market as the London tradesman goes with his cart. Up and down they ply — narrow open canoes with a tiny deck-house, Indian gondolas; or fat barges, as broad as they are long, built all over with bamboo into floating cottages, a platform above the roof for the captain, and a post and rail to fence the cargo.
The bigger ships lie three and four deep along the shore, liners and tramps, and especially sailing-ships. You wondered why you never see the big, full-rigged ships and four-masted barks about the sea or in ports of call; the reason seems to be that they are all in the Hughli. Here is the "Somali" of Liverpool, the biggest British sailing-ship, and here is the broadest-beamed boat in the world, who twice tore her own masts out by the weight of her cargo. By the side of the new boats with their high freeboard, the long, low-waisted ships of older date look like toys — but toys of what beauty! Their spars and tackle are like a web of gossamer, and their hulls, black and white, grey or green, sit down to the caressing water as a swan sits.
You can travel ten or twelve miles on a trolley round the wharfs and docks of Calcutta. Here are ships coaling or loading by basket, which is cheaper than machinery; here a steamer coming into dry ,dock to be cleaned; a dumpy-masted Dutch boat, her decks mere mounds of coal, filling up for Sumatra; a tank-ship Waiting for a job; a British India boat tied up by the cat's cradle of railway siding, discharging a cargo from Mombasa. And among them all crawl dredgers and barges of grey mud, and the docks are checkered with brick-fields, for the port is ever increasing.
Labour is not extraordinarily cheap — a good coal-coolie makes a rupee a-day, or eight shillings a-week; which is only a couple of shillings less than some English country labourers — but it is abundant. For Calcutta is stuffed with people as a pod with peas.
You have only to look at the map. In most maps of cities the ground represents open space and the blots on it houses; in Calcutta the ground is all dwellings with little squares of open space dotted over it. You can twist and turn for hours in passages that rub each elbow as you walk through them. In some places you have to go sidewise and edge along thoroughfares like a crab, so narrow are they. The rest is dwelling-place, pigsty, cesspool, or whatever you like to call it.
The workshops are smoke-black sheds, and the workers sit with just room between them to half-use their arms. Other shops are all counter; the keeper squats on his heels among his groceries, and sleeps among them at night. Many huts are built of bamboo-matting stretched on poles, or of transparent wattle-work; but these are clean and wholesome compared with festering lanes in which people sleep and breed and sicken, because there is no room in the dens.
These people are of a new type to the stranger coming in from the North-West. The Bengali is of a yellow-brown complexion; his face shows quick intelligence, but his eye is shifty. He goes, as a rule, bare-headed, his black hair carefully parted and oiled down. His dress is a white calico garment looped into loose drawers; above it, in the cold weather, he wears a woollen plaid, generally brown, draped round his shoulders, or drawn over his head and mouth. Also, if he is any way prosperous, he wears ribbed woollen stockings or socks fastened up with garters or suspenders. Black is the usual colour, but I have seen sky-blue gartered with sea-green; with a glimpse of fat brown thigh between the stocking and the drawers, it is, on the whole, the most indecent dress I know.
But by his legs you shall know the Bengali. The leg of a free man is straight or a little bandy, so that he can stand on it solidly: his calf is taper and his thigh flat. The Bengali's leg is either skin and bone, the same size all the way down, with knocking knobs for knees, or else it is very fat and globular, also turning in at the knees, with round thighs like a woman's. The Bengali's leg is the leg of a slave.
Except by grace of his natural masters, a slave he always has been and always must be. He has the virtues of the slave and his vices, — strong family affections, industry, frugality, a trick of sticking to what he wants until he wears you down, a quick imitative intelligence and amazing verbal cleverness; dishonesty, suspiciousness, lack of initiative, cowardice, ingratitude, utter incapacity for any sort of chivalry.
But his chief and marvellous trait is his abundance. Calcutta and Bengal breed, and breed, and breed. Stand on the Hughli bridge at sunset — on the east side, the factory-smoke lying in a sullen bank under the glowing scarlet; on the west, the cornfield of masts, and the funnel-smoke and the city-smoke fouling the ineffable stillness of Indian evening; a free space of blue overhead, so clear and soft and pure that it seems no longer the canopy of the world, but the embosoming infinity it really is; and the Bengalis crossing the bridge. On one side going in to Calcutta, on the other coming out, an endless drove of moving, white-clothed people, never varying in thickness, never varying in pace, never stopping, no interval, just moving, moving, like an endless belt running on a wheel. Just population: that is Bengal. Food for census, food for census!