It was our last day in Kolkata (known to the rest of the world as Calcutta), and it was hot as hell. We had struggled out of bed, our morning sleep interrupted by the call to prayer from the tiny mosque tucked next to our hotel. It had apparently poured its entire budget into the quality of the minaret’s speakers. The weather was overcast and muggy, and the air pressed around us like an unwelcome blanket. We had half a day left in Kolkata, and over a somewhat lethargic breakfast we discussed what we wanted to see. “Discussed” is a generous term–I mostly took hesitant sips from an intensely hot glass of ginger lemon tea (good for nausea), while Deborah pushed the remains of her banana “pancake” around her plate. The guidebook we had borrowed from her roommate lay open between us.
“I guess we could stop by the Victoria Memorial,” I said eventually.
“We keep passing by it.”
“And it’s near Saint James’ Cathedral and the Academy of Fine Arts. We could walk to them from the memorial.”
She stared at her pancake for a while.
We packed our bags and asked the concierge if we could leave them at the hotel while we explored, even though we had already checked out. He was used to travelers like us–young, Western, and relatively thrifty–and agreed. We avoided the street women who, at this point, knew our faces and would follow us around, asking for money for rice and daal no matter how much we gave them. We mercifully found a taxi before the women found us. The Victoria Memorial is one of the stranger remnants of India’s history as a British colony. As the name suggests, it was built as a tribute to the Queen Victoria, also called “The Empress of India,” and despite its palatial size, I don’t think anyone has ever actually lived in it. It’s built of white marble and combines neoclassical architecture with a hodgepodge of other European and Mughal influences I don’t know the names of. It is, no doubt, an architectural wonder for those that understand that sort of thing.
For me, who doesn’t, I couldn’t shake the feeling of a mausoleum, a curiously preserved tomb to the British Empire as it only briefly existed. Is “preserved” the right word? “Embalmed” seems closer. The vibe I received was of something dead and yet, eerily, not decayed in the slightest. According to our guidebook, it’s one of the very few monuments left by the British Raj that is still maintained. Its very chronology seems slightly grotesque in its own way–built as a tribute to the golden age of the Raj, just as the Raj was entering its twilight. Less than thirty years after the memorial’s completion, the British left India forever, leaving far more lasting memorials behind than white marble busts of dignitaries with long forgotten names.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The admission to walk around inside and view the museum was ten rupees for Indian nationals and 250 for foreigners, so we decided to skip the interior and, instead, explore the lavish gardens for five rupees. Like a lot of parks in India, the gardens surrounding the Victoria Memorial were unofficially a place for young lovers to meet without their guardians present; sometimes public spaces afford more privacy than homes.
Under nearly every tree and sitting on every bench was a couple entwined, which in its own way, was awkward. It was more or less impossible to take any pictures of the gardens without including one couple or another. We earned more than a few dirty looks, particularly from one man who apparently was trying to coax the woman to kiss him. Those trees or benches free from young lovers were occupied by single men lounging by themselves, apparently waiting to lure a girl of their own. More than a few looked at Deborah and me, wondering if we’d take the bait. We didn’t.
After an hour or so, we hovered over the guidebook again, trying to puzzle out the rough street map it provided, and set off for St. Paul’s Cathedral. The cathedral was set back from the main road. We could barely hear the traffic through the trees.
As we tried to enter, a man stopped us.
“Excuse me, it is not visiting hours for another hour.”
He pointed to the sign saying so. I don’t know how exactly it happened. He apologized, we told him he didn’t need to apologize, he asked where we were from, and somehow, we ended up talking with him for a long time. His name was George, and he wasn’t from Kolkata but Goa, located on the other side of the country where the Portuguese had lived and intermingled with the Indians generations before the British arrived. He was over seventy and had been working as a groundskeeper for the cathedral for over ten years.
“Not for much longer, though,” he told us.
He had two daughters, both older than us and through with graduate school. One of them had recently fallen very ill.
“The money I make here, it is not enough to pay for her medicines,” he said.
She was staying at a remote clinic instead of the hospital because it was that much cheaper. Despite his tenure, the cathedral refused to raise his salary.
“So, soon I will be going, finding something new.”
It was still a good 45 minutes before cathedral visiting hours. On a whim, I asked if I could take his picture. I had been trying to document the people that we had met, from the other young, poor foreigners bumbling around Kolkata to our tour guides. He agreed, graciously, so long as either Deborah or I were in the picture as well. I took two–one of each of us with him. I showed him the picture on my digital camera, and he called us beautiful.
“But why take a picture of an old man?” he asked.
“You’ve been kind to us,” I said.
“I want to remember everything.”
He asked us if we would like some chai. We followed him down the road, in turn followed by the stares of the street vendors bewildered by the sight of an old Indian man, thinning hair and aging scalp dyed deep black, followed by two white American girls. Once we had settled down in the plastic booths, the noisy metal fans doing their best to fend off the Kolkata heat, he delicately poured our tea for us. He refused when I offered milk (“It makes my stomach poorly”), and he asked us why we wanted to visit the cathedral. Deborah shrugged; she was Jewish and appreciated churches on more of a cultural level than anything else. I fumbled with my answer, if only because it’s an answer I always fumble with. It’s not so much that I believe in anything in particular as much as being fascinated by the existence of belief. Christianity in India has always interested me because of how different it is from the West. In India, based on the Christians I have met, it’s not just a practice, but a matter of passion, of conscious and daily devotion, despite the frequent (and sometimes valid) criticism of Christianity as an extension of imperialism.
This truly struck me when George asked us if we knew a quote from the Bible. He was talking about how he did not worry so much for his material future as for his daughters’ happiness: “There is a saying, do you know it? The priest says it before burial.”
“Dust to dust,” I said, without really thinking about it. He looked at me surprised, and I clarified. “From dust you came, to dust you shall return.”
“Exactly,” he said, and pressed his hand over his heart, looking at me. ”You know it.”
“It’s nothing,” I said, embarrassed. “I remember a lot of things.”
We talked more, about what we had seen of Kolkata and what we thought, of how he had met his wife (she had fallen in love with the way he danced; they still danced together, he swore), his daughters, his faith. He talked about what life was like before the British left, saying that he actually preferred it.
“People were polite, hospitable. Always a cup of chai ready, always.”
He asked when we would be returning home and seeing our parents again, saying how brave they had been to let us go so far away for so long. He asked for our addresses, which we wrote in large clear letters “for my old eyes,” and he promised to write us the day we returned to the states. We promised, in turn, that we would send the pictures of us, and he promised us further that he would hang them next to the pictures of his own daughters.
He spoke frankly about his daughter’s suffering and about how, more than anything, he wanted her to have the freedom to choose the rest of her life. Neither of his daughters were married, which, unlike most Indian men, did not worry him.
“Life is a struggle and a journey,” he said. “A mountain, like purgatory. You know that too?”
I struggled to recall Dante. “Purgatory is a seven-story mountain that you climb to get to heaven. You remember your sins and work through them and, as you do, you climb closer to God.”
“Very good,” he said. “Why do you know it if you do not believe in it?”
“I don’t know,” I said, without really thinking. “Because people like you do. And that’s what I believe in.”
I don’t know if he understood. I don’t know if I understood either.
The chai was gone at this point and, as he made no move to pay, Deborah put down the twenty rupees.
We went out into the street preparing to return to the cathedral. George said that his shift was over and asked if we knew the way back. We assured him that we could make the two blocks back safely. I think he felt protective of us, and, in retrospect, I can see why. We didn’t struggle while we were traveling, but nothing we could do–from the way we dressed, to what we ate, to how much Hindi we spoke (very little, and for the most part no one in Kolkata speaks Hindi anyway)–could change the fact that we were young women traveling alone in a country that was entirely foreign in almost every way: culturally, ethnically, and linguistically.
We managed to achieve what we did completely dependent on the men who shouted after us, sometimes not taking themselves up on their words, on large crowds allowing us to slip away from those who followed us uncomfortably around the markets, and on strangers, like George, who, despite all of the cultural barriers, found compassion for us. We were so vulnerable, and we didn’t even know it. If the city had swallowed us, who could have saved us? No one that I had ever known, or trusted, except such strangers.
But nothing comes for free and maybe it shouldn’t.
George stood there awkwardly for a moment or two, and then said, “Please, do not be angry, but I must ask something of you. My daughter, she needs medicine. Is there anything that you can give to help us?”
“Of course,” I answered, and we each gave him two hundred rupees. He thanked us, and he walked away into the heat and the crowd. There isn’t really an epilogue to this story. We visited the cathedral, which was full of memorials to British soldiers killed in various battles I hadn’t learned in World History, and the graves of various religious figures who had spent their lives establishing the church and keeping it alive. Deborah and I left Kolkata for Darjeeling, where the tea we had drunk had been grown, and then we returned to Delhi a few days later to finish the term.
We didn’t travel together again.
I’ve been back in the States for over a month and have yet to receive a letter from George. With no address, there’s no way to send him the photo of us. And maybe that’s all right.