Calcutta, The Pride of Bengal

Mauritius Times – 60 Years

By Satcam Boolell

I was looking forward to my visit to Calcutta. The place was of sentimental importance to me. It was from the port of Calcutta that my grandparents had sailed on their adventurous voyage which landed them in Mauritius as indentured labourers. They were in fact enticed into this place as virtual slaves, but to suit the usage of the time slavery was camouflaged under the euphemistic term of indentured labour. It was therefore not without a thrill that I set foot in the old metropolis of India.

The first thing I inquired about was the route the Indian emigrants had taken to travel all the way from Arrah District in Bihar to reach Calcutta. It was a long, long way. What a cruel destiny was theirs, I thought. What woeful tales Calcutta conjured up in my mind! Arrah is still a god-forsaken place, I am told. The waters of the Hughli are still running under the Howrah Bridge, but without bringing in as in days of yore its boatloads of miseries from the Gangetic Valley to let them loose into the wide cruel sea to be washed into the coasts of the East Indies, South Africa and Mauritius.

Calcutta, which has suffered so much humiliation and known so many dark days, has remained nevertheless the pride of Bengal. When the Bengalis speak about the old metropolis, there is an undertone of reproach in their speech. Calcutta will never forgive Delhi for having supplanted it as the Capital of India. Before the turn of the present century the city was the main seat of the British empire in Asia. Raffle, the founder of Singapore, was taking orders from the steps of the Governor General’s House in Calcutta. It was also in that city that Warren Hastings achieved bad eminence.

There is much to be seen and learnt in Calcutta. The University is still the largest and most famous in South East Asia. Students from all over the world come to study there.

The Botanical Garden, the National Library and the Calcutta Museum are the finest in India. The Howrah Bridge, which spans the river Hughli, is one of the greatest feats of modern engineering.

But besides those things which we normally expect to find in any large city, Calcutta has the unique privilege of being the Capital of West Bengal. That means that the population of the City is Bengali. Draped in his large shawl like the ancient Roman in his toga, the small delicate looking and dark Bengali is a most interesting person to talk to. If you ask him to take you round the city, he will take you first to the Kali temple, and if you feel so inclined he will even arrange for a puja in the temple.

If you talk to him about Tagore he will hold his head high and assuming the air of a professor will threaten you with a lecture as though you were a mere student. If you tell him that Bombay has solved its cattle problem by driving the whole herd from its streets into the Aarey Milk Colony some 25 miles away from the city, he will retort that the cow holding up the traffic  in Calcutta is a tourist attraction.

Next to the South Indian, he is the most talkative individual with a high sense of humour and an easy quip that can disarm the cleverest interlocutor. His speech remains always suave no matter how heated the discussion. The suavity, I am told, is more in the language than in the character. This probably explains why Bengal is still resisting the adoption of Hindi as the national language. But is Hindi less sweet than Bengali?

Bengalis are sometimes accused of being proud and a bit exclusive. My own experience is that there is some substance in it. It is not difficult, I believe, to find out the reasons. The Indian Renaissance movement started in Bengal. Bengali literature is still the richest in Modern India. The greatest poet of the century was a Bengali. The Bengalis are the best painters and best musicians. They are in fact the torch bearers of Indian culture. Their contribution to the freedom movement is one of the most brilliant episodes in Indian History. Their leaders who gave their lives for their country have already found a place in legend.

With such a rich background, it is but human that the average Bengali should develop a feeling of superiority vis-a-vis the other Indians. The only reproach that can be made to him is that at times he exaggerates that feeling to a degree verging on parochialism.

As Calcutta is the home of the Vedanta movement, I went one afternoon to visit the Belur Math in the outskirts of the city. Situated on the bank of the Hughli, the Math with its monasteries and temples is a place where pervades a peaceful and serene atmosphere.

The head of the Mission, a tall handsome monk, took us round the premises. We were shown the spot where Ramakrishna, the Master, and his wife, the Mother, as she is called, were cremated. Small temples have been built on the cremation spot. Then we were taken to the room occupied by Swami Vivekananda. Some of his belongings, his walking stick, umbrella, chair, table and bed are preserved as sacred relics. Over the bed neatly made up, was an electric fan in full motion and on the bed a framed picture of Swami Vivekananda.

As there was no soul stirring in the room, I asked the monk why the fan was on. He explained that according to the Vedanta the philosophy of Swami Vivekananda was not dead and the fan was put on to keep down the heat as the Swami was resting in his bed.

5th Year – No 186
Friday 7th March 1958


* Published in ePaper 25 March 2022

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