It was one of those experiences that you have when you visit a country familiar through books and films. Everyone knows that cattle rule Indian roads, but somehow you don't believe it until you've seen it for yourself.
I was on the way from the airport to the centre of Calcutta. The 45- minute journey threw up so many thrilling and disturbing sights that my mind raced in utter confusion. Women and children working on the road, barefoot and with no protection from the sun, painting railings as they dodged the traffic; rickshaws and bicycles and crowded buses and gaudily- painted trucks; a donkey crossing alone at a busy junction; a woman walking a skinny goat on one lead and a monkey on another.
We crossed a bridge where families of Bangladeshi refugees - there are 3 million in this city of 10 million - live in tiny pavement hovels beneath roofs of hessian sacks. Then, suddenly, I was in the Taj Bengal Hotel and a lady in an elegant sari was showing me to my room.
A wedding-cake stand contained fresh fruit, pastries, pistachios, almonds, sultanas, cumin seeds, chocolates, and there was a bowl of scented rosewater for me to wash my hands. There was headed notepaper printed with my name, and copies of the Bhagavadgita and the Bible beside the bed. I looked out of the window and saw the Maidan, the green space at the heart of the city. I took a shower and a bellboy appeared, as if on cue, to change the towel.
That night I had dinner at the Saturday Club, one of dozens of clubs in Calcutta "proud to keep British traditions going", according to a member, Amar Mehrotra, who handed me a whisky and soda. "We have a 14-year waiting list, all Indians," he said, pointing out the black and white balls which are still used in time-honoured ritual whenever a new member is proposed. He took me to see the snooker room, the squash courts, the swimming-pool, the bridge tables, the oak-panelled bar with hunting trophies on the walls, the cane chairs on the lawn where members were enjoying pre-dinner cocktails.
Sooner or later, every visitor to Calcutta is struck by pangs of guilt. I knew that it was lazy to contrast the wealth and the poverty as if there were a simple solution; that middle-class Indians had few such qualms; and that visitors to London, too, are struck by social divisions. But in Calcutta the extremes are so extreme - and by the time I reached my fourth Johnny Walker the nagging thought occurred to me that each one of these drinks would have kept a refugee family in food for a week.
The next day I took a tour of the city. St Paul's Cathedral, brilliantly whitewashed, smelt inside of a mixture of disinfectant, polish and incense; memorial stones paid tribute to missionaries and Empire-builders who had succumbed to malaria or drowned in the Hooghly river. The "great and good" Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence "taught how kindly subject races should be ruled" before falling in the defence of Lucknow. Now prayers are said in the cathedral each week for our indifference to the plight of the homeless and the refugee.
The nearby Victoria Memorial is the great monument to Empire, a marble palace built to rival the Taj Mahal. Victoria still sits on her throne outside. Inside you see her piano, and her message on becoming Empress of India in 1877: "We trust that the present occasion may unite in bonds of yet closer affection ourselves and our subjects; that from the highest to the humblest all may feel that under our rule the principles of liberty, equity and justice are secured; and that to promote their happiness, add to their prosperity and advance their welfare are the ever-present objects of our Empire."
"Anybody can make money in Calcutta," said Anup, my guide, as we joined the endless tide of humanity crossing the Howrah Bridge across the Ganges. "You just turn up at the station, offer to carry bags or pull a rickshaw, and you can make 100 rupees [pounds 2] a day. You won't live well, but you'll survive. There's no shortage of work." He seemed to be right. Women in rags carried baskets of bricks on their heads; men were bent double beneath ridiculous loads of plastic buckets; boys repaired taxis beside the road.
At a flower market beneath the bridge, traders sold garlands of orange and yellow marigolds beautifully knotted on to strips of cane. Pilgrims bathed and washed clothes at ghats beside the sacred river; ferries brought commuters from the station, and a Chinese fishing boat cast its nets.
At another street market on Chowringhee Road, I bought poppadums made from potato flour and drank my first tea - tea leaves, milk, sugar, boiled up together and served in a disposable earthenware cup for l1/2 rupees (3p). I didn't have the heart to sling the cup to the ground.
For all its poverty, Calcutta bursts with life and poetry. Its pain and exuberance are extraordinary. The squalor is unimaginable until you have been there - and, of course, I will never forget it; but I remember even more clearly the touches of beauty and colour in its midst: the marigolds, the temples, the artists, the saris, the painted buses and trucks and, yes, the sacred cows.
Getting there: Welcome Travel (0171-439 3627) has return flights to Calcutta on Air India in August for pounds 481. Flightbookers (0171-757 2000) has a cheaper fare of pounds 425 including tax on KLM, for travel after 11 August. Quest Worldwide (0181-547 3322) offers an even lower fare fare of pounds 413 return including tax on Royal Jordanian via Amman.
Visas: British visitors need visas for India. Apply to the Visa Section of the Indian High Commission, India House, Aldwych, London WC2B 4NA (0171- 836 8484) or the Indian Consulate in Birmingham, 86 New Street (0121-212 2782). You need three passport-size photos. A six-month multiple-entry visa costs pounds 26. Postal applications can take up to two months but applications in person can usually be collected the same day. Note that visas start when stamped - not the date of arrival in India.
More information: Government of India Tourist Office, 7 Cork Street, London W1X 2LN (0171-437 3677).Reuse content