Calcutta; A day in the Empire's second city

It was a Saturday morning and a day off, so I decided to spend it in Calcutta. As usual the sun was bright and the air was still, heralding another hot, sultry day.

I decided to catch the eight thirty train, as then it would still be fairly cool and I could get into the city in reasonable comfort. After twenty minutes walk across marshy ground I arrived at the station which was as usual crowded with other passengers, coolies, shoe shine boys and people lying and sitting about all over the platform. Many of them seem to spend their time there in rags, because they have nowhere else to go.

It was not long before the train came steaming in and the rush for carriages began. From the outside these trains resemble English trains, but the inside is far inferior consisting of four classes, first, second, intermediate and third. All of the trains are made up almost entirely of third class compartments with just a few first, second and intermediate and as servicemen and most white people use second class one can imagine what a scramble there is for the few seats available. As far as comfort is concerned these trains leave a lot to be desired, for even the first class is not as comfortable as our third at home is.

The landscape in this part of Bengal is very flat and uninteresting and as the train stopped at every little station, I was not sorry to reach Calcutta.

The part of the city frequented most by white people, or Europeans, as we are called, is a street known as Chowringhee and the streets branching from it, so I made my way there by tram. These are invariably hopelessly overcrowded, with people hanging on outside with an arm through the window. They are all single deckers and run in twos joined together. The heat and the crowd made this journey rather unpleasant, but after ten minutes I found myself at one end of Chowringhee, so I fought my way off of the tram after releasing my feet from under someone else’s.

I started to walk along this street which has become so famous with servicemen in these parts and one of the hundreds of shoe shine boys who line the pavement, soon drew my attention to my shoes which were rather dusty, thanks to the person in the tram who could not find floor space for his own feet. While I stood there having my shoes cleaned, someone tried to sell me a programme for the race meeting, another chap tried to sell me a paper, and a beggar woman with a baby in arms begged for money. In this respect the city is not as depressing as it was last year when the terrible famine was on, conditions then do not bear description.

As far as planning is concerned, this street, Chowringhee, reminded me of Princes Street, Edinburgh, but with its crowds of people, consisting of so many different Eastern nationalities with their own peculiar habits, it is vastly different. There are shops on one side of the street and the other side is open to a large park in which the cities recreation grounds are situated.

As I walked along the pavement, all sorts of things were thrust in front of me in the hope that I would buy, including razor blades, old English and American periodicals and little coloured birds that would sit one one’s finger. What I wanted to buy most of all was an iced drink, as it was very hot by this time, so I went into a café and cooled off. I had no trouble finding one, for there is an abundance of canteens and restaurants many of which are Chinese.

As I sat in the café there I wondered what I should do to make the most of the day. There is always so much to see in a strange city, but in this country the heat is against walking far, so I decided to go along to the end of Chowringhee to where the Cathedral is situated and have a look at that, so I boarded a tram and was soon there.

Naturally I discovered that it is not as ancient as most of our Cathedrals in England in fact the tower is fairly recent. On entering I discovered that it was one of the best Cathedrals I had seen, being very spacious, with no stone pillars to obstruct the view. English churches would do well to follow the method of seating used in all or at least most of the churches and chapels out here. They do not use pews but chairs with arms on, which are backed onto a permanent rail and so held in position, this rail forming the book rest for the row behind. I asked what appear to be the head caretaker, if it would be possible to go up on to the roof of the tower, so he detailed an Indian to show me the way. We wound up and up a spiral staircase till we reached the clock and as it was near the quarter hour we stopped and watched the hundred and one wheels and levers spring into action.

We finished our ascent by an iron spiral staircase and after opening a narrow door, popped out into the blazing sun again. The first thing I noticed was the gloriously cool breeze which tried to rob me of my topee when I stepped to the parapet. The land is so flat around here that the horizon looked almost like the sea. Calcutta looked like a very beautiful city with green parks, lovely avenues and imposing buildings, so different to looking at it close up.

In the afternoon I decided to visit the large covered-in market and I found that anything could be bought there, though certain things have disappeared recently. There used to be a lot of fountain pens and watches on show, but as soon as the prices became controlled, they suddenly went out of sight. In amongst the clothing shops the assistants were busy chasing after servicemen trying to sell them everything from footwear to headwear. I noticed a meat market adjoining, but I did not visit that for one can imagine that it might not have been too pleasant in a climate like this.

Transport in Calcutta is no difficulty for there is an abundance of rickshaws and taxis, in fact as I stood on the edge of the pavement in Chowringhee for a few minutes three or four rickshaw men offered their services and about as many taxi drivers sounded their horns and beckoned to me. These rickshaws seat two people and are pulled by one man.

The cinemas in such a city as this are an even greater attraction to the troops than those at home, owing to the fact that they are air-conditioned, and walking into them out of a hot street feels like walking into a refrigerator. Actually the temperature is about the same as that in English cinemas.

Well after having some tea I decided to get back to camp as it is not very pleasant in the city after dark and the later trains are hopelessly crowded, so I made my way to the tram stop and after watching two or three full ones go by I managed to get one foot on the step of one, but soon got pushed aside by more people getting on. The station was just as crowded as ever with people going and coming, but the majority were just sitting or lying around. Of course the train stopped at every little station, bit I was glad that I had left early because I had a seat.

Heavy black clouds were gathering on one side and I could see distant flashes of lightning so I began to wonder if I could race it to camp. There was no thunder when I left the train, but by the time I reached camp it seemed to be crashing all around me, and I managed to get in with a few minutes to spare, before it seemed that the black sky above opened up and let us have all it contained.