On the Grand Trunk road

Day 15 in India, Friday, 6 January

On the GT road, the great trunk road which once ran from Kabul to Dacca.  We first visit the Portuguese Catholic church at Bandel, one of the oldest Christian churches in India, wondering how they managed when taken over by the British, where Catholic churches were only exceptionally tolerated in mainland Britain until the nineteenth century. Perhaps there was a special dispensation – they could hardly have closed down all the Catholic churches in their empire.

We are heading for the village of Debandapur, birthplace of the Bengali novelist Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, through which the drying-up Saraswati river hardly flows. Chattopadhyay doesn’t have the same status as Tagore but he is none the less an important figure in Bengali literary history. The memorial building in the village has perhaps 30-40 cabinets with models showing scenes from the author’s life, his youth and adolescence in the village, publishing successes, a fire where one of his manuscripts was destroyed, his first wife and child, whom I believe died of plague, his second wife and contacts with other literary figures and honours bestowed. I like the ingenious and pedagogic approach, my appreciation greatly assisted by having the captions translated for me.

After Debandapur, we head back in the direction of Kolkata to Serampore, a Danish colony until 1845 when it was sold to the British, the Danes finding it hard to compete with the East India Company. Other than a fine church, St Olav’s with a Danish King’s initials on the wall, restored in collaboration by Denmark and India, there is not a lot to recall the Danish period. We sample the fare on offer at the Danish Tavern but stick to Bengali dishes as the Danish specialities, listing boiled vegetables, sound less than enticing. There is also a cemetery elsewhere in the town but the names on the graves have long since worn away so perhaps not so much to see there; dilapidated cemeteries are an environment that could favour mammalian-reptilian misunderstandings about natural location so I’m not sorry to give it a miss.

On the way back we pass from one end of Kolkata to the other, appreciating the vastness of this massive dense city. London is large from the Staines by-pass to Brentwood in the Far East but not this large and London also has substantial patches of greenery at Richmond and elsewhere to break up the urban.

Kolkata has seemingly endless rows of sometimes ramshackle shops and fine but neglected buildings. But the city is changing even in the few years I have known it. There are more and more gated upmarket blocks of flats ribbon developed along the access highways with their supermarkets, cake shops and other retail flotsam and jetsam of the rising middle classes, often only metres away from far more modest traditional lock-up shops. Central Kolkata’s attractions are perhaps too chaotic, the air too polluted for the upwardly mobile. But there are so many blocks being built, I ask myself whether it’s a bubble, whether there will be enough people earning enough money to buy all these flats. And I wonder what these people who live there do and who builds the flats – are the investors from Bengal or elsewhere and, if they are from Bengal, is this a sign of the growing robustness of Kolkata’s economy or of a lack of other profitable investment opportunities?

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