Saturday, January 10, 2015


I've spent the past week in Kolkata (formally Calcutta), my first time in India. The most memorable things:
  1. walking around the New Market a boy wrapped his arms and legs around my leg, clinging to it even as I walked and coming back to do it again whenever I (or anyone else) prised him off. He was dirty and wearing dirty clothes, and he wouldn't go away. He wanted money, of course, but never said anything. But you don't give to beggars, especially not begging children (who ought to be in school). Eventually a man intervened telling me I should just give the boy 10 rupees. I had nothing smaller than 500 rupees, though, so he gave me the money to give to the boy and it worked. After this I visited the Mother (Teresa) House. She was more generous, and I wonder whether I'm some kind of sociopath not to have had more sympathy for the boy. Really I felt none at all. But I can imagine (someone else) feeling unable to leave Kolkata and its poor. Outside the Mother House is a sign telling you not to encourage people who ask for money there (one immediately did and I said No--my guide, who didn't believe in giving to the boy, gave her something).   
  2. the most beautiful non-human sight I have ever seen is the Ganga (Hooghly) in the early morning at Belur Math. The sky is milky with smog, and the river, which is very wide, reflects this and the low sun, making it white, though dotted with black-looking clumps of floating vegetation that you know are really green. It's like a Rothko in landscape format, dusty green at the bottom, then white, with a band of dark grey where the opposite bank is, then white again, turning blue as you go up. A few people are washing in the river, and occasional ships move by. Also an armed man in uniform will angrily shout "hello" at anyone taking pictures. 
  3. the most metal or Lovecraftian place I've ever been is Kalighat Kali Temple, rather different from the modern, peaceful, sensible Belur Math (which only sounds Lovecraftian, and maybe looks it a little from the outside). At Kalighat they sacrifice goats, there are lots of beggars, and movement at times is through narrow spaces crowded with devotees. There is loud drumming from an invisible source and bells struck loudly, repeatedly. Of course there is incense and smoke. The climax is being pushed, pulled, or moved by force of shouting right in front of the image of Kali, which is famous but barely visible because of the distractions of movement, noise, and people demanding ever larger donations. If you give enough you get a blessing, an orange daub on your forehead and a flower to take with you. Mostly what you leave with is the question, "What was that?" 
  4. a cross between Belur Math and Kalighat is Dakshineswar, where you can walk down steps to paddle or wash in the Ganga and then worship Kali or Shiva. Washing your right hand in this water cleans away your sins supposedly. If you pay the right person you are blessed with a colorful wristband and then have a clotted white liquid poured in your hand, which you have to drink. It turns out to be a mixture of butter, milk, and water from the sacred but famously unhygienic Ganga. 
  5. at Dakshineswar lived Ramakrishna, who inspired the building of Belur Math. My first night in Kolkata is to be spent, I find out when I get there, at the Ramakrishna Mission. It's an impressive building enclosing a lovely garden, but the wifi shuts off at ten (just before I arrive) and my room is the closest thing to a cell I've ever slept in. It's not safe to drink the water, and bottled water is not provided. Nor could I get hot water from the shower. The noise of traffic and fear of cockroaches kept me awake, but my fears were unfounded. Another man in another cell had to have a scorpion removed from his though. 
  6. the traffic. Rural Bengal is very much like Cambodia but there are more people here and the centre of the city is packed with traffic almost all day. People drive fast, but only in short bursts before they get stuck again in the jam. While driving, if anyone else is around, which they always are, you honk to warn them you are coming. It's noisy but effective. There surely must be crashes, but not as many as you would expect. Old, yellow Ambassador taxis fight it out with tuk-tuks, motorcycles, cars, pedestrians, and rickshaws, both bicycle-powered and (illegal) hand-pulled. 
  7. the dogs. As in Cambodia these are all the same kind, but it's a bigger breed than I think you get there. There are stray cows, too, but far more dogs.
  8. the Hijras. In the Indian episode of Extreme Pilgrim Peter Owen-Jones encounters a group of singing eunuchs who are paid to go away. Stuck in Kolkata traffic, a familiar-looking kind of person goes from car to car asking for money in return for the inevitable blessing (not to go away). My guide asks what we call such people in English--they are boys when they are children but have women's bodies when they become adults. It sounds as though he means they change sex naturally, but perhaps he meant that they are eunuchs or transgender. I don't think we have a word, or the same respect, for them.. 
  9. Kumartuli. This was completely unexpected. I was on a guided tour but there had been no mention of this place on the itinerary. It's the neighborhood where idols are made for worship (then thrown in the river) from straw and mud, as well as others from polystyrene. The streets are filled with workshops and half-made gods. Surreal.          
  10. the Indian Museum. Like the British Museum, this is a general collection, not one devoted to Indian artifacts only. In fact it covers natural history as well as art, and I think other things like coins and rocks that I didn't look at. I wouldn't have bothered with the natural history either, but you have to go through the fish exhibit to get to the decorative arts (which are definitely worth seeing). The natural history collection is extremely old school. A good photographer could do great things there. It's full of stuffed animals and the occasional animal head (a giraffe's, for instance, mounted like a trophy) and a few curiosities (two-headed goat embryos and a fully-formed human fetus in a jar, e.g.). The stuff of nightmares. The Hindu and Buddhist sculptures, though, are superb. 


  1. one of my old profs
    knew M.Theresa and told us how when she was given a cadillac by a patron she sold it and bought up all the condoms in her area to destroy them, he once teased her by saying how wonderful that the locals had so embraced Jesus and her response was that as they still kept their other gods they hadn't truly accepted Jesus in their hearts...

    1. That's not so good. Her flaws are not highlighted at the Mother House, funnily enough.

    2. I'm sure she thought she was doing the right thing, not really interested in character assassination here but more with the philosophical questions of the limits of expectations/habits as they relate to moral/social correctness and our attempts to be more or less cosmopolitan in this ever more connected world.

    3. Yes, I'm sure she did. It's odd (to my mind) that she sometimes seems to have thought very good things about the poor (e.g. that we should respect, not pity, them) and sometimes to have thought that the best help we could give them is converting them to Christianity. Not so strange really that a Christian would think that, but it's a long way from what I think.

      The question of the limits of expectations is an important one. The consequentialist idea that not removing suffering that one could remove is as bad as causing that much suffering is an impossible one to live by, I think, at least if we continue to think that (i.e., live as if) causing suffering is a terrible thing. The bearable view is that people like Mother Teresa are saints, not simply people who do the minimum (if that) required of all of us. What we are required to do (according to this view) is more like doing no harm, always helping in emergencies when we can, and sometimes helping out at other times. In places where there is a lot of poverty this means being pretty callous at times. That could be bad, but I don't think avoiding the situation is morally superior.

      (I don't know how much sense this makes. I'm very jet-lagged right now. A few hours ago I could have sworn I was in India, and I denied on the phone that I was at my home address. I think I'm more lucid now, but probably not 100%)

    4. not sure that formal logics like consequentialism can really replace socialization, in some sense I think that work after Wittgenstein is more anthropological, more about developmental psychology and such, less like manufacturing a universal grammar.

    5. I hope consequentialism doesn't replace socialization, although perhaps we get socialized into consequentialism, at least to some extent. There's a lot of consequentialism around, after all. But I don't think it's a good (kind of) way to think about life.

  2. Dear Duncan, that was a great read, especially the Ganges Rothko overlay, Extreme clarity. Thank you.