TRAVEL / A DISCRETE CHARM

Dire poverty is what most Westerners expect of Calcutta. But India's old colonial capital can show another face, says Steve McClarence
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MICHAEL is out of sorts over breakfast. Things are not going according to plan. He has come to Calcutta to find poverty - and, like so many travellers to India, to find himself. Both are proving elusive. Sure, there are beggars, he says. Sure, there are people sleeping rough. But, quite frankly, it's not real poverty, is it? It's not - he toys thoughtfully with his poached egg - it's not swollen-bellied poverty.

Michael, a personable 28-year-old, is taking three months out of his New York finance business to explore "the real India". Inevitably, he has headed for Calcutta, the ultimate reality. It has the image of the most desperate city on earth, a place seething with humanity and inhumanity, where you have to pick your way over the dead and dying. A place approached with trepidation, a human jungle where people have been predicting catastrophe for half a century. A dying city, said Rajiv Gandhi - and 10 million Calcuttans have never forgiven him.

There's some truth in the image. Beggars squat every few yards, waving their leprous limbs at passers-by, scuttling crab-like across the pavement at the first hint of a Western money-belt. Six-year-old children cluster round cars at traffic lights and mouth piteously: "Hello, uncle, I have no mother or father." Women with tiny kohl-eyed babies slumped on their breasts fix Westerners with stares designed to blackmail into charity. Thousands sleep rough on the streets - on sacking, on sheets of plastic, on newspaper, under grubby awnings. Whole shanty towns sprawl under flyovers. Crowds surge down every street. The traffic is regularly gridlocked, the pollution choking.

Calcutta is fascinating and appall-ing, exhilarating and alarming, to the few tourists who risk it - and the city's ever-resourceful taxi-drivers haven't been slow to cash in. For a hundred rupees (about pounds 2) they will give you a voyeurs' tour of the slums of Howrah. And to finish? Well, a visit to Mother Teresa's hospice is high on many an itinerary - not to help, just to stare.

But there is another Calcutta, and Mr Nirupam Haldar is keen to show it. Mr Haldar, son of a man who fought for freedom from Britain, is a businessman with great respect for the British sense of "fair play". We meet him at the Tollygunge Club, an exclusive country club to the south of the city. "No ayahs please" instructs a sign near the entrance. In India's old colonial capital, "the Tolly" is more imperial than the Empire. But most of the Brits have gone now - the last of the Fifties tea planters who wore dinner jackets to the cinema and hoped to get elected to the Vingt-et-Un Club, for the city's 21 most eligible bachelors. Since the early Sixties, the club presidents have tended to be Guptas and Bajorias and Singhs rather than Sims and Wilmers and Mitchell-Innes. The New Raj of Indian wealth has eased itself in.

Mr Haldar says he collects Calcutta clubs like other people collect stamps. He meets us in his Ambassador car, the sturdy pocket tank of India's roads, and takes us on an alternative tour of Calcutta. Yes, he says, there are slums here - but it's not the full story. There are also vigour and warmth and resilience.

So we see the luxury Taj Bengal Hotel and the Calcutta Club, where plaques record the sterling service given by Sir Babington Bennett Newbould. We see dozens of games of cricket being played on the maidan, the great park at the centre of the city. And we lunch at the Bengal Club, where an Indian nuclear physicist is entertaining his family with stories told in the most Harrovian accent. A doctor puts down his mobile phone, greets Mr Haldar in Bengali and turns to us. "Hiya," he says. In a room hung with garish copies of Reynolds portraits, Mr Haldar remembers his trips to the Lake District in the footsteps of Wordsworth and Coleridge.

"Go to the Writers' Building," he says, as he drops us at our hotel. "Not a single writer in it, some people say. Just talkers." Around 12,000 people work in this palace of pen-pushing, once the offices of the British East India Company, now housing the West Bengal government. It is just across the road from a well-hidden memorial to the Black Hole, which Calcutta is happy to forget. Behind crimson-painted columns, under stately statues of Agriculture, Commerce and Justice, the building is a teetering tenement of dark offices. Tightly-packed desks are stacked high with pillars of dusty documents trussed together with string. Several clerks rest their heads on their desk-tops, in perfect simulation of sleep. "They say: 'You pay us to attend the office'," says a British businessman later. "'If you want us to work, you must pay us more'."

We walk along galleries of offices with nameplates hung like pub signs outside: AK Chatterjee, Deputy Director of Agriculture (Oil Seed); SK Biswas, Subject Matter Specialist (Pulses). We pass the Scheduled Castes and Tribes Welfare Depart-ment and the Deputy Director of Small Savings, and at the top of this cobweb of bureaucracy pause beside a carved Victorian lion. A clerk comes out of the Taxation Office and invites us in for a cup of tea. We shake hands with two dozen men, who pause from apparently doing nothing to talk for half an hour. Most are wearing sleeveless pullovers. It's cool today, they say. Only 85F. Warm for us, I say - and the chief officer signals for the fans to be switched on. The papers rustle like autumn leaves.

The decaying Britishness of Cal-cutta is part of its wholly unexpected charm. Everywhere the buildings crumble around shuttered windows and dark staircases. In the Victoria Memorial, a Raj Mahal to Empire, life-sized portraits of Mountbatten and Edwina are streaked with pigeon droppings. Indian visitors gaze in awe at a wall-sized painting of Edward VII sweating in full ermine-trimmed regalia as he thunders into Jaipur on an elephant. Pageantry by Cecil B de Mille; music by Elgar. A crocodile of schoolgirls with white-ribboned pigtails files neatly past the Queen Empress. In the late 18th century, they learn, a Calcutta household of four British men employed 110 servants. They included four "ironing men" and a full-time "pork man".

The Brits were buried in Park Street Cemetery. Their deaths were generally early and often spectacular: struck by lightning, drowned in floods, savaged by bears. Their relatives erected plaques to them in Calcutta's St Paul's Cathedral, a ghostly white recreation of Canter-bury Cathedral that looms like a mirage over the city's brown traffic smog. The Sunday Eucharist is sung by a choir in white surplices; the sermon delivered by a perspiring canon from Sussex. With sparrows chirping on the ceiling fans, he beams down on a largely Indian congregation in saris and shirtsleeves.

The vicar of St Paul's, James Stevens, has lived in India for 27 years. He came for two months and is now part of a dwindling British community of 100. They get together for the Queen's birthday or when the High Commissioner hands one of them an OBE. Today, he is saying good-bye to a young man he rescued from an Indian Fagin. He had run away from home when he was eight and been taught to steal on Howrah station. Now, as an engineer, he is moving to the Middle East.

When he's gone, Mr Stevens picks up a straw hat from the hat stand. His garden is full of snapdragons, dahlias and stocks. Yes, he says, he once thought he might end up in a nice country parish in the Cotswolds.

It's a nostalgia for an old England shared by Ted Smith at the Fairlawn Hotel, one of the great Calcutta institutions. Outside its gates, Sudder Street is notorious for drugs and prostitution. Scrawny rickshaw drivers tout for custom. Inside, behind the potted palms, the world - of 1950s Blackpool or Brighton - has stood still. The rooms are crammed with red plastic pouffes, framed tea towels of the Tower of London and a full wall of photographs of the Royal Family. A gong summons guests to luncheon and dinner: mulligatawny soup and fish bakes, roasts and rice puddings, served by waiters in white gloves and scarlet cummerbunds.

Ted is a Northamptonshire man who served in the Indian Army and stayed on after independence. He wears a cravat and potters purposefully around with Fifi, a white French poodle with a diamante collar. The carefully fostered legend is that Fifi has three servants of her own: one walks her, one baths her and the third talks to her. Ted's wife, Vi, is the Duchess of Sudder Street, a woman of fierce opinions and silk blouses who, in the film of the hotel, would be played by Hylda Baker.

Early evening they sit on their private balcony with its garlands of fairy lights and talk about the old days. "You see, dear," says Vi as a bearer pours the gins, "it's not like it used to be. Ted, do you remember Dixie-Wixie Smurthwaite?"

In the dining room, Michael from New York is a changed man. After breakfast, he told a taxi-driver to find him real poverty. After half-an-hour they found it. Real squalor. Real swollen bellies. Michael beams over the mulligatawny. He is well on the way to finding himself. !

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