City of Dreadful Night

The City of Joy

by Dominique Lapierre, translated by Kathryn Spink
Doubleday, 464 pp., $17.95

Calcutta, despite its former resplendence as the first capital of the British Raj, has a dark reputation. One thinks of the Black Hole, or as some Indians prefer to call it, “the alleged Black Hole,” where British ladies and gentlemen died horribly during an uprising led by the nawab of Bengal in 1756. One also thinks of all the travelers’ tales of living corpses gnawed by giant rats right in front of the best hotels; of terrible riots, crippling strikes. Even the goddess after whom the city was named is the most frightful in the Indian pantheon. Kali the Terrible, depicted with a tongue dripping blood and a garland of skulls around her neck is worshiped in Calcutta at a temple next to one of Mother Teresa’s homes for the destitute and around the corner from a filthy stream where corpses decked in flowers are cremated. In front of the temple is a guillotine where goats bought by worshipers are sacrificed to the goddess.

So when an Indian diplomat in Hong Kong said I’d find Calcutta “a friendly sort of place,” I thought he was indulging in some kind of Indian humor. I was too geared up to assume the worst to believe him. And as my plane came to a stand-still at the terminal of Dum Dum Airport (yes, even dumdum bullets were invented in the shadows of Kali) there was a small scene which appeared to confirm my worst expectations. A burly Indian businessman, while chatting to his friend, grabbed his heavy bag from the overhead rack and clumsily, though accidentally, bashed it on the head of the Thai International Airways stewardess. In Thailand the head is believed to contain the soul and being touched—let alone hit—on the head is a grave humiliation. The stewardess was furious and demanded an apology. The Indian did not say a word, he did not even look at the woman, or acknowledge her presence in any way. She was a servant who had stepped out of her role of silent subservience. So she had to be ignored.

In fact, the diplomat in Hong Kong had not been joking. People are remarkably friendly in Calcutta. Just as Kali the Terrible has another identity as a sweet, motherly goddess, Calcutta is not only the “City of Dreadful Night” that Kipling described. Creativity blooms in the midst of poverty and violence, for Calcutta is also a city of poets and dreamers, of splendid though crumbling palaces as well as of ghastly slums. It is telling of the city’s schizophrenic nature that the two most revered Bengalis, endlessly depicted in garish posters sold in the streets, are Rabindranath Tagore, the poet, playwright, novelist, and part-time holy man, and Subhas Chandra Bose, who tried to topple the British Raj by collaborating with Hitler and the Japanese. Tagore was the consummate Bengali Renaissance man, artistic, spiritual, rational, and enlightened. Bose, like many dreamers in the 1930s, had a great fondness for uniforms and …

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