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    South Asia
     Sep 19, 2009
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 railway station.

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 remembers.

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 Statesman.

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 other.

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.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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