Thursday, 29 December
Masked and with my inhalator at the ready, I make my first trip into central Kolkata to Metcalfe Hall, once a public library and now an exhibition venue after refurbishment. The exhibition “Ami Kolkata” (I am Kolkata) is excellent with fine historical photographs, posters and other cultural items (see my Facebook page for photos).
I learn from Intach’s “Calcutta Built Heritage Today” that the design of Metcalfe Hall was based on the Temple of Winds in Athens, which I assume is the same as the Tower of the Winds; the similarity between this building and Metcalfe Hall is not immediately obvious to me but I’ll struggle for a while and see I can’t get my porticos, colonnades and verandas in order. According to Wiki, the Tower of the Winds was the first meteorological station in the world and there are eight sundials below the frieze depicting the eight wind deities Boreas (N), Kaikias (NE), Apeliotes (E), Eurus (SE), Notus (S), Livas (SW) Zephyrus (W) and Skiron (NW). I already knew Boreas and Zephyr but am pleased to make the acquaintance of the others. It feels good to see a well refurbished building as there are many fine, even exquisite, buildings in poor condition.
The Tower of the Winds inspired other buildings among them – St Pancras Church in London and the mausoleum of the founder of the Greek National Library, Panayis Vagliano at West Norwood cemetery, long on my list as one of the magnificent seven, the Victorian cemeteries of London.
St Pancras church has been in my thoughts but not “new” St Pancras church referred to here but Old St Pancras Church towards Camden. A sliver of the church graveyard had to be sacrificed to allow the Midland Railway access St Pancras station. The cavalier treatment of the unearthed bones caused a scandal and none other than Thomas Hardy, an architect in training at that time, was instructed to deal with the matter. His ingenious solution was to re-inter the skeletal remnants and stack the gravestones in a striking circle around a tree. Sadly, the tree was attacked by a fungus a couple of years ago and its saga is now all. I’m glad I managed to get there and photograph it.
This followed by coffee at the Old Post Office building, another restored architectural icon, and the Oxford Bookshop in Park St before being deterred by the 40-minute queue from a visit to Peter Cat, a favourite restaurant. We make instead for the Metropolitan Library with its large collection of old and new books about Calcutta, among other topics, on dusty shelves with books replaced by readers in gay abandon so that the Bhagavad Gita is nestling alongside a handbook on environmental science. But there is treasure to be found in the biblio wildlands and there is nothing wrong with the workspaces, it’s not at all crowded and will undoubtedly become one of my “oases” in the struggle to learn more about the megacity.
Finally, to a mall where I look for shortbread to replace my hosts’ massacred packet, victim of a nocturnal feeding frenzy. I find only digestive, which doesn’t quite obliterate the memory of my gluttony.
Back to base and now to continue reading Shashi Tharoor “Inglorious Empire. What the British did to India”, my daily Bengali and some Pagnol for a varied diet.