Return to Calcutta

Report by Denis Doble

Return to Calcutta
In February, Patricia and I spent an enjoyable week in Calcutta (I prefer that to Kolkata, the new Indian name). I was posted there with the Diplomatic Service in the 1980s.
It was good to see some considerable improvements – no one obviously dying on the streets; very few human rickshaws (the administration are trying to stamp them out); some new flyovers and a new airport; 4 five-star hotels (there was only one in the eighties); and a changed West Bengal government after 30 years of the Communist Left Front, which concentrated on the peasant classes in the rural areas rather than the city itself.
The imposing Victorian Memorial and the Anglican Cathedral were refurbished in the 1990s and business in general is picking up. After many years in construction, the metro is running well too.
Calcutta still remains a city of clubs, a legacy of the British. We stayed in the Saturday Club,
mainly a sporting club, the second oldest in the city after the Bengal Club, founded in 1825. We had dinner in the Calcutta Club, founded originally because Indians were not allowed in the Bengal Club. The Tollygunge Club in the south, near which we used to live, continues to flourish as a country club with an excellent golf course. The clubs are not short of new members, unlike some of our London counterparts.
Community relations appear to be reasonably healthy. That is no mean feat in a city of 16
million, or maybe more, with Hindus, Moslems, Buddhists and Christians. We visited the
Cathedral, the oldest Anglican Church, St. John’s, and St. Andrew’s, the Scottish church. Both St. John’s and St. Andrew’s are well attended. The historic Christian Cemetery in South Park Street is well cared for. I am involved in this through The British Association for Christian Cemeteries in South Asia, which aims to improve the state of civilian cemeteries throughout the country – a difficult task!
Calcutta though, with its extensive slum areas, is still in great need of international charity.
Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying has plenty of customers. I recalled that I accompanied
Archbishop Runcie there with mother Teresa herself when I lived in the city. Volunteers from many countries were in evidence, giving tender loving care.
Future Hope still has great support. The Oxford Mission at Behala, which runs boys schools and a Music Centre is in good shape. I am a committee member in the UK. Charities such as those for women trapped in the sex trade or vulnerable to trafficking, with which our own Ellie Cooke was involved, are doing great work. We hope to set up a project ourselves with the Rotary Club of Battersea Park, and I briefed the present British Deputy High Commissioner about our various activities.
We had a cruise on the Hoogly (as the Ganges is known there) and looked up old chums. The Bengalis, with their great literary traditions, are as lively as ever, and the city, when you get to know it, is as warm and hospitable as it always has been. We hope to visit again before too long.