Goddess Durga and odes to Asia's Paris
By Raja Murthy
MUMBAI - Durga, the goddess who rides a tiger and whacks evil, has taken over
Kolkata this fortnight. This annual conquest churns India's great east coast
metropolis into a concoction of colorful lights and creamy sweets.
Mumbai noisily and gaudily celebrates the nationwide Navaratri Festival of Nine
Nights, but traditionally Kolkata leads the festivities that end on the 10th Dussara
day, September 28. Diwali holidays come next, and then Christmas. During these
times, the God of Colorful Light Bulbs appears to have a Kolkata address.
Hollywood star Patrick Swayze, who died on September 14 of pancreatic cancer,
had experienced such luminous times in Kolkata, or Calcutta as it was when he
was there in 1990
shooting for Roland Joffe's adaptation of French author Dominique Lapierre's
best seller, City of Joy.
Both Swayze and I were there in Calcutta, as it shall henceforth be referred to
in this story, in an unforgettable winter of 1990. So was South African icon
Nelson Mandela, whom I saw while he was addressing Calcutta's packed Eden
Gardens cricket stadium, in his first visit to India after being released from
South Africa's Robben Island prison on February 11, 1990.
Swayze, on a career high following his smash hits Dirty Dancing and Ghost,
was staying in the landmark Oberoi Grand, with his fellow cast that included
Art Mallik, Shabana Azmi and a multi-continental production crew.
I was then staying in the streets of Calcutta as a homeless and broke young
man, stranger to the city, and sleeping nights at the entrance to the Howrah
But in one of those episodes that make life and Calcutta unique, I was having
my meals in the same Oberoi Grand, dining in the same in-house restaurants as
Swayze did and also where he didn't, as in the executive dining room.
The small difference was that while Swayze paid for his meals, like every good
hotel guest, I was invited, actually insisted on, by some mystery of fate and
the management of the Oberoi to tuck in for free in their celebrated
restaurants. If anyone says they don't believe in the goodness of strangers,
kindly refer them to Asia Times Online or pack them off homeless to Calcutta.
Living in the streets, I did invaluably experience what it's like to not know
when the next bit of nutrition is coming. It was then that some senior Oberoi
staff, Rajat Chhabra and Sudenshu Bhushan, Ajoy John of The Statesman, his wife
Saborni Das, Rohit Sood and Urmila Chatterjee, automatically morphed into being
trusted friends. They became a benevolent part of some wonderful outcome of the
Dhamma law of cause and effect, about which obviously one most gratefully
It was during this weird and remarkable time in Calcutta that I lurched off as
an independent journalist. One of my earliest tortures on readers was the
making of City of Joy.
But the Joffe film adaptation was already stirring much controversy. The
moronic sub-sections of Calcutta were agitating about the movie allegedly
"celebrating" poverty in the city and giving it poor global image.
Swayze's smash hit Ghost, co-starring Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg,
had that year won two Academy Awards - with Goldberg calling up Swayze in
Calcutta to share her Oscar-winning glory as "Best Supporting Actress". But
Calcutta was giving him a challenging time, as Calcutta often does, like an
unforgettable, warm friend whose cranky, erratic, unpredictable nature tests
one's patience to the utmost.
By the time City of Joy was released worldwide, I had moved to Bombay
(Mumbai), the City of Hope, and experienced deeper, far greater changes. But
Calcutta lingered in the mind, sometimes emerging more sharply, as it did this
with the collision of Durga Puja, Swayze’s death and past chronicles of
Calcutta this week.
I have been poring through two coffee-table works: Ranabir Ray Chaudhury's Calcutta
A Hundred Years Ago and Desmond Doig's Calcutta An Artist's Impression.
These two windows into 125 years of Calcutta history illustrate why it was once
called the "Paris of the East". Paris may be older in history and grander in
architecture, but Calcutta competes in richness of character.
Desmond Doig was one such noteworthy Calcutta character, about whom I heard
even in Bombay. Doig was editor and guiding star of the Junior Statesman (JS),
the decade-old trend-setting youth magazine from the then nearly-century old
The Calcutta-based JS, as it was known during its successful weekly life from
1967, was the nursery for some of India's better-known word merchants. Jug
Suraiya, Bacchi Karkaria, CY Gopinath, Pritish Nandy and Shashi Tharoor,
currently India's deputy foreign minister and former United Nations under
secretary general, cut their writing teeth in the mezzanine floor of the JS
office in the stately, marble-enriched Statesman House.
Doig was also a successful writer, sketch artist, painter, Himalayan expert,
historian and merciless taskmaster of excellence. CY Gopinath, who was my
editor for a time in Mumbai, told of how Doig made him rewrite, 25 times, the
opening lines of a story on tiger conservation. Doig would gently reject each
sub-topnotch effort with the same words, "Not quite there, la." The 26th
blood-curdling try was finally approved with a satisfied, "You're there, la."
After the JS was shut down circa 1975, in line with the law that nothing lasts
forever and death can strike suddenly, Doig moved to Kathmandu, Nepal, where he
lived until his death in 1983.
Through brilliant sketches and words, Doig's Calcutta An Artist's Impressions
beautifully depicts the city's centuries-old cosmopolitan character, as in
landmarks such as Chowringhee Road that houses the Oberoi Grand.
Within walking distance from the Oberoi survive many other famous old, colorful
Calcutta landmarks. Many are United Nations-declared heritage spots. Esplanade,
Park Street, New Market, the National Museum, Maidan, Fort William, Victoria
Memorial, St Paul's Cathedral and the Statesman House exist close to each
With Eden Gardens and the stadium nearby, Strand Road by the river, Howrah
Bridge and Writer's Building, this stretch of Calcutta easily ranks as India’s
culturally richest stretch of real estate, all near Chowringhee.
"Mark Twain slept there," Doig writes of the 19th-century hotel The Old
Continental in Chowringhee Road. "An entry in the guest book dated the 18th of
February, 1896, has him saying: 'I am glad to say that my stay in this house
with my family has been exceedingly comfortable and satisfactory'." The
Continental Hotel supported the Calcutta-Rome-Paris connection, with its
popular Italian owner FA Boscolo and a French chef in service until 1920.
Such Chowringhee characters, colonial continentals and city celebrations
colorfully co-existed in Calcutta since the 19th century. An early mention of
the Durga Puja, in a Statesman edition of 1882, is titled "Religious Fete". Our
reporter of 127 years ago says:
Doorga Poojah Holidays - These, the
most celebrated and highly honored of Hindoo festivals in Bengal, commence
tomorrow ... Calcutta, where the religious fete is kept up in its most popular
character, attracts millions within its limits ... while not a few European
tourists have taken advantage of the occasion to travel in places where
hospitality is during this period considered an almost sacred obligation.
Within a year, in 1883, Calcutta reported its first telephone connection across
the Hoogly river, Americans in Calcutta celebrating George Washington's
birthday and the Great Eastern Hotel off Chorwinghee road being fitted with
electric lights for the first time and inviting crowds to gawk at it.
And within 100 years, Doig's young team was giving the world their unfettered
take on Calcutta. "Bring along a suitcase full of tolerance and a thermos of
humor," suggested the April 29, 1972, JS feature, "How to Survive a Visit to
Calcutta and Enjoy It". The advice holds good 37 years later.