Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Black Hole

British history in India undoubtedly centres on Kolkata, née Calcutta, and the surrounding region of Bengal. It was here that the British East India Company set up one of their main trading posts; it was here that they fought their first battles against the Indians; it was here that they made their capital, only moving to Delhi in 1911; and it was also here that many of the struggles for Indian independence took place.

Upon doing some more research about it, Britain's imperial foray into India turns out not to be the result of some overarching, Machiavellian plot to conquer the entire world, but very much the product of happenstance, luck and corporate profit-seeking. Indeed, it wasn't until 1857 (100 years after the first territorial conquests) that the British government stepped in to take up a controlling and administrative position. As improbable as it sounds, until then it had been the British East India Company that had been carving out dominions for itself. It's as unlikely as imagining McDonald's or WalMart taking over entire countries ... OK, strike that thought.

This rich heritage means that there is much more to do in Kolkata than just visiting temples. There is an eclectic collection of museums, some of the most interesting of which are dedicated to the region's famous sons, such as Rabindranath Tagore, the national poet (though also claimed as such by Bangladesh) and one of only two Indians to have been awarded a Nobel prize, and Subhas Chandra Bose, an independence hero at home but not so universally appreciated abroad because he threw in his lot with the Axis powers during the Second World War.

There does, however, seem to be a concerted effort to ignore the colonial past. From the renaming of streets and buildings (not to mention the city itself) to the neglect of Raj-era reminders. For example the British cemeteries, which are particularly fascinating, not for their pomp and grandeur, but for their glimpse into the fates of the "cogs of the Empire" (particularly evocative are the large numbers of young wives, some still only teenagers; one can imagine their stories: married off by correspondence to promising colonialists, arriving to an exotic land, and then quickly succumbing to an even more exotic disease). Or also the palace of a local maharaja who was completely enamoured of all things European to the extent that the palace is chock full of Italian marble, Belgian glass and Bohemian crystal; floorspace is given up almost entirely to French furniture and Grecian-style sculptures; and portraits, landscapes and Renaissance works battle it out for every square inch of wall.

Though I'm looking forward to moving on as well, as you can really feel the smog and grime working its way down your throat (you really know a city's air is polluted when your snot becomes black!). I have also managed to accumulate another accident to add to this week's cricket encounter. As I was crossing the road today I got run over by a scooter that was going in the wrong direction i.e. not at me, though that was the wrong direction as well, but against the flow of traffic, and so I didn't see it. Luckily it was going rather slow so I only have a nice bump on my shin and a bit of a limp. But that's OK as I'm hoping that the next few days will be more sedate, though I'll leave you in suspense as to how and why (and where).

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