Darjeeling is such heaven, and the Windermere Hotel in particular some kind of Agatha Christie Cole Porter haven of bliss, that it’s hard to rewind to yesterday’s day in Kolkata. Right now a hot water bottle is being inserted into my bed while a coal fire crackles in our room. We have had high tea, gins in the bar and dinner is inclusive, just like old fashioned family hotels. It isn’t grand but it’s the best ever; parlours, pianos, verandahs, Lots of old photos on the walls, a man looking suspiciously like my grandfather with Pith helmet -and it could be him – right place, right face.
But back to yesterday. We worked out that 1 Council House Street, the current tax office, which we’d found the day before, was not where my grandfather worked but where he lived, while in Calcutta; the post office, on the old Fort William site, his domain, domed like St Paul’s, being a minute’s walking commute round the corner. This is old Dalhousie Square, heart of “white Calcutta”.
But even though we know the location, our elderly old intellectual gentleman guide has assumed our ignorance and so chooses to trust his ignorance instead, sending the protesting driver round in circles till we are trapped unmoving in the hysterical pulsating traffic that I can only call ‘the breath of Tendulkar’ as the whole city has gone cricket bonkers.
At last he capitulates and we find it again, but just a glimpse up at the old apartments. It doesn’t matter that I can’t see inside, I can imagine it. But we’ve also gone to the wrong christening church, not because he couldn’t find it but because he assumed I’d made a mistake and now we are on the wrong side of the traffic jam again. I’m thinking I’ve spent all day in a car.
Then everything changes. We’ve looked at Victoria memorials, writers buildings, parliament houses, cathedrals, in an irritated flash. We suggest the old coffee house. It’s not on the itinerary but our man softens, relaxes. The coffee house is marvellous, great yellowing room with balcony for illicit trysts and deals, fans spinning, full of students, business people, old people, couples, groups of old men. Everyone knows our man and he’s pleased, restored. When each of us is in the loo, he apologises profusely about us getting lost, is upset we miscommunicated. He reminds me of my old Hungarian acrobat teacher Eugene, an absolute old bugger but a fabulous old gent.
Reciprocating, our man takes us to the Marble Palace, also not on our itinerary, and we have no tickets which you need to get 24 hours in advance. He sweeps us in, soft words to the guards, tells us the gossip and the history. It is amazing. A palace full of dusty rooms piled with mad antiques, marble floors like carpets, birds twittering in a sunny courtyard beyond-while the interior remains in dust-hung gloom. Now he has become A wonderful knowledgable guide and we rise to each other’s occasion.
We get to my father’s church, The Holy Rosary. He finds a way in. It is a white Portuguese church full of painted statues. And there is the font, plastered with colourful cherubs, where my father was baptised all those years ago, an innocent baby, loved by his parents with everything in the future, hope, promise, before time undid him.
Baptismal Font The Old Coffee House
We part with the guide, good friends; so glad we hung in there and negotiated the rapids of misunderstanding to have a brilliant day.
In the evening we do a bit of shopping in the new market, have great fun haggling and get the stuff we want. We go into a little shop in the market where they don’t have what we want but the man, who has spent time in England doesn’t want us to leave. There are four men in there and the two doors are suddenly shut. Three are polite, anxious, but the man from England is sly, turning his talk in a neural linguistic programming kind of way, dealing out key words like ‘honour’. He has sent his boy to fetch more stuff but frankly we are equal to the game of time wasting.
I am not intimidated but bored. The doors are shut to keep us from other potential shops’ wares, I think. I know he has nothing we want but he keeps going, his eyes despise us, his phone rapidly texting….Where am I from, why am I here, what do I do? Well I am from Peckham, my father was born in Calcutta, and I am a stand-up comic. And Kaye is from Australia. One of these phrases is the magic code and we are out of there. It’s like El Cid on the beaches of Spain on his white horse, the hordes parting. Yup, it was like that.