Meltdown at the Fairlawn

Worshipers bathing in the Hoogly River, Calcutta

Probably, I ought to caption the photograph as being in Kolkata, but when it was taken the city was still known as Calcutta….

When we left Pakistan on November 14th, I had mixed feelings. There was relief, but from what exactly?

The discomfort of being a woman in a Moslem country, presumably, but I couldn’t say that anyone had said or done anything to make me aware of it.

Of course, I dressed respectfuly, although I did not cover my head or face.

The people we met were all very friendly and honest and it sticks in my mind that they were dignified.

At the time, I couldn’t account for my discomfort, putting it down to the awfulness of the squalor and poverty and pollution, but I don’t think is was that. It was all the shootings, murders and even the incredibly awful accidents that were daily reported in the newspapers.

The bombing in Peshawar had actually been 3 bombs, in the Bazaar, but no details were given as no-one was killed.! There was a spectacular accident reported the next day, however, which wiped out almost the entire population of a village, with 20 deaths.

They had all been riding in a truck, along with 40 goats and a cow, for a marriage perhaps? (There was no report on the welfare of the animals.)

The unease I felt was probably something I had made up in my head. It was the same feeling I remembered from my childhood in SE Asia as war gradually escalated around us. A sense of really not wanting to be there is the best way I can think to describe it.

We were now “safely” in India. I wrote to my mother:

“What a lovely country India is!” I was impressed by the fact that on arrival you were able to make duty-free purchases, before clearing customs.

Given that we had come from a Moslem country, we had been unable to make such purchases there and we fell upon this opportunity with enthusiasm, seizing the largest bottle of vodka available. We had some serious drinking time to make up! In those days I enjoyed a sun downer or two.

We made tracks to our hotel, where we divested ourselves of dirty clothes, torn bags and shoes needing repair, all of which the staff obligingly removed to be sorted out for a ludicrously small charge.

Smiling all the while as if for toothpaste ads.

Dignity? Not so much. To me, India was more of a football scrum. But it was so cheerful. Maybe Pakistan had seemed too stiff and serious?

We were really here only “in transit”, but Tim took me to visit Humayan’s Tomb, which dates to 1569. I had not seen it before.

We went also to the Red Fort where I had a malfunction of my camera and therefore no photographs. 🙁

One thing was certain, we were back on the “tourist” route.

And the air pollution was still with us.

However, Tim had a special treat in store for me. No, he didn’t take me to the Calcutta Railway, mercifully.

Because we were headed to Dhaka, we had to route through Calcutta, now Kolkata. It wasn’t a place I had ever expected or wished to visit, but Tim had been there many years before and was keen to revisit what was then called “Mrs Smith’s” Fairlawn Hotel.

These days it has “gone upmarket” and is known as The Elgin Fairlawn Hotel”.

Funny how many places I stayed in used to be tatty dives and now they are all posh. I must talk to Tim about that.

The Fairlawn was quite survivable, though. It had been a private house that was made into a hotel, a cheap and cheerful, old-world British kind of thing. A bit faded.

Meals were at set times and you had better be there when the gong was rung. That sort of thing. It was fun and it attracted unusual, interesting people. (Like us?)

Since we were there, of course, Tim had to go for a walk “to see life on the streets.”Aie!

Not knowing where else to go and having only so much time before the dinner gong (thank God), we set off to cross the Hoogly River via the Howrah Bridge.

It was late afternoon which, like most places, means getting on for rush hour.

– Don’t walk across the Howrah River bridge during rush hour. Everybody else in Kolkata will be there too.

Having got to the other side, we wondered why we had bothered and as we had a dinner appointment, we set off to walk back. I can’t tell you how excited I was about that. And it was getting dark.

So we got lost.

Having made a double crossing of the Hoogly River, we trudged our way back to the Fairlawn , witnessing everything about Calcutta I had hoped never to see.

Begging in India was a profession. There were those whose lot in life was to have their legs removed, in order to become more pathetic, for example. These people are given a small wooden platform with wheels and they spend their lives at ground level, propelling themselves around with their hands.

They live, literally, in the gutter.

Then, there are the children who are placed in charge of smaller children that they carry around on their hips, snot oozing from their noses, flies crawling over their faces, around their eyes. Just like in Sudan and hundreds of places around the globe.

Not to forget the garbage pickers, who spend each day grovelling through all the waste of those higher up on the social scale. The so-called “untouchables”. I was rather hoping that in 2020 there was no such thing any longer, as a caste such as this, but I decided to look it up. Bad mistake.

In India, today, there are reportedly no less that 160 Million “Dalits”, otherwise known as “untouchables”. The caste system apparently thrives.

Photographs in these circumstances would be inappropriate. The pictures, in any case, were etched in my head. I said nothing as beggars clutched at my clothes. I don’t recall that I had anything to give to anyone and if you do, it tends to cause a stampede, so it is recommended to look ahead and keep walking. It is one of the hardest things to do.

Safe behind the wall at the Fairlawn, I remained silent and went to take a shower. As the water cascaded over my head, it mixed with all the tears so far unshed, from ten days of such profound sadness. Here I was, washing off the filth and the grime, climbing into fresh clothes so that I could join Tim for a nice big drink before dinner while, just there, behind a conveniently high wall, life continued in the gutter, as before. No drinks for them, no dinner, no fresh clothes or soft place to sleep. No safe place for them, ever.

And what of Covid for those people? Perhaps they will regard it as a mercy to succumb. Maybe that is what Nature intends, to rid the World of the surplus. But why them? Why do the people in high towers matter more? They are no better, and who will they go to for all the unsavoury tasks the poor perform, for the sake of a meal for their child, or a place to sleep, all those luxuries most of us take for granted every day?

Tim knows me well and he tried to cheer me as I wailed to him about how wrong it was. That we had so much and the thickness of a wall “protected us” from seeing how little they had. I should have gone outside and sat in the gutter with them. But what would that accomplish? We had our drink, probably more than one, that night, and when the gong sounded we joined the other 18-odd guests in the dining room.

Tim had been there 12 years prior, during the India-Pakistan war that caused him to be stranded, until he “escaped” on a flight bound for Moscow. As we sat through our very British dinner, he nudged me indicating one of the servers. “I’m sure he was here before and he looked 100 then!”

The server was a very upright gentleman in a traditional Nehru jacket, wearing a turban and a splendid mustache. He did indeed look quite ancient, as did the rest of the staff. One felt they had been there from the start in 1783! It was very “Jewel in the Crown”, if anyone remembers that.

Would I be any happier if I had not seen the streets of Calcutta? Does not seeing something make it not exist? Of course not. But seeing and imagining are not the same. I had already seen the same thing, elsewhere. It’s something I could not forget, in a lifetime.

And there are so many other ways the poor of India and other countries suffer, particularly sex slavery and child labor. How many ways can the Human Race disgrace itself?

Leave a Reply