Why Spend a Month in Kolkata?

As a baby for a while, I was placed in a Catholic orphanage in a German village. Fifty years later, as a U.S. citizen and tourist in India, I stopped by Mother Teresa’s, Missionaries of Charity orphanage in Kolkata and spent the afternoon with a group of toddlers. Sitting comfortably, I picked one up, placed him on my lap, and rocked back and forth as I sang a German song. The moment I put the child down, the next jumped into my lap. Upon leaving, I saw a small-framed nun in the hallway. Recognition dawning, flustered, flabbergasted, I stammered, “Mother Teresa, how wonderful to meet you. I’ve read about the great thing you’re doing.” She stopped to look at me, and calmly, and serenely replied, “All of us here are just doing God’s work” and then continued walking. At that moment, I decided to do volunteer work, but got in the way. 

A year ago, I visited the Mother Teresa’s Museum, a 45-minute drive from Naples, Florida and was inspired to read key books about her life. During this process, there was more I wanted to know, but these books didn’t answer my questions. As author, historian, and traveler, I bet I could write a book that would add new insight to what exists. 

In January to follow up, I flew to Kolkata, where Mother Teresa was based, checked into a hotel, was on the doorsteps of the Motherhouse the following morning, and soon volunteered at a Missionaries of Charity children’s home. At the same time, I explored Kolkata, which had been the capital of the British Indian empire until 1911. 

Between 1840 and 1920, Kolkata was an intellectual mecca where the arts, literature, science, and religion flourished. Today, Bengali gentry can still be found at the Bengal Club, the racetrack, and golf course. In contrast, poverty is visible almost everywhere. For first-timers to India, this teeming city would be bewildering, but not for me as this was my eighth trip to India. 

Since something always leads to something else - At Kolkata’s Literary Festival, I picked up a new bio of Subhas Chandra Bose’s written by his nephew. For Indians he was hero, but to the British, a traitor. During WWII, allied with the Japanese, he formed an army to attack the Raj, the British rulers of India. Visiting Bose’s home, more about his actions as a freedom fighter became clear… I canvased bookstands on College Street for Rabindranath Tagore’s bio, another huge historical figure. He was an essayist, poet, activist, painter, and well-known world figure. He began painting in his sixties and produced thousands of pieces. I saw some at his family mansion and more at the Indian Museum… While on College Street, I climbed the stairs to a coffee house that once was the meeting place of freedom fighters. Jammed with students, while drinking a cup, I tried to visualize this place in its heyday. 

Visiting the Mullik Ghat Flower Market at 6 a.m. by the Howrah Bridge, I saw tin shacks where people lived and men carrying huge bundles on their heads, a clue how tough life was for some. In the area, I also spotted men bathing in the river and wrestlers practicing their art. Wherever I walked, unexpected scenes unfolded. I never got bored, only hot, and tired. 

Digging into history, I visited St. John’s Church, where Job Charock, a seventeenth century English sea captain and father of Calcutta, was interned. In the back, stood the Black Hole Memorial commemorating the time when in 1756 a Muslim prince captured the city and imprisoned high-level British, many of whom died. I was the only visitor to the church. Most unusual, for everywhere else there were crowds. Not to be missed was The Victoria Monument, a marble building designed to mark Queen Victoria’s 1901 diamond Jubilee. I dodged merchants in teeming Barabazar to visit an Armenian Church, the oldest Christian one in the city, and the Moghan David Synagogue, which once thrived, but was now abandoned. I located the Muslim caretaker who gave me a tour. A huge diversity of religions and practices are found in India. The majority of Kolkatans are Hindu, a minority are Muslims, and a smaller number are Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains. Using my Lonely Planet India guidebook, I visited many of their sites. 

On a side trip, I flew to the Andaman Islands, known for their legendary beaches and fabulous diving, but for me it was another historic eye opener… From 1857 on, the Raj exiled political prisoners to this remote island, housed them in the Cellular Jail where many died due to cruel treatment. During WWII, islanders greeted the invading Japanese as liberators and Bose raised a flag to Indian independence. I visited the old Catham Saw Mill, still in operation, Ross Island, from which the British ruled, Japanese bunkers at the Hotel Sinclair, and spent a night in Havelock, which had beautiful beaches. On my next trip to Kolkata, I plan on going on an excursion to the Sunderbans, a mangrove area with much wildlife, and revisiting Dhaka and Grameen Bank’s headquarters. 

For the first week of my trip, I stayed at the four-star Kenilworth Hotel, located in the central part of the city. Its rooms were comfortable, food was excellent, and staff helpful. Since it was wedding season, I witnessed a number of wedding receptions at the hotel and got a glimpse of the colorful silk and brocade garments worm by both men and women. I didn’t want to leave this hotel, but I desperately wanted to stay at the historic, Elgin Fairfield, a 235-year old building. When a room became available, I grabbed it. Located on Sudder Street, where many backpackers stay, it was run by the eccentric Violet Smith until her death in 2014. Violet’s parents fled Armenia after the Turkish invasion in 1915. They landed in Kolkata and bought the hotel in 1936. Photos of the many who’s who that stayed at this high-end British Grande Dame flank its walls. On the balcony at 5 p.m., happy hour, I met some of its current guests. They were my kind of people - Older hippies, writers, photographers, and artists. Many had stayed at this hotel in the 60s and 70s and returned year after year. I loved hearing their many stories. I told my granddaughter, Amanda, that I met Kathy, my new BFF, at the hotel. She laughed. 

My trip was a huge successful. I did research on Mother Teresa, explored the city, and made new friends. I loved my time in Kolkata and plan to return for another month in November.