Calcutta, Thursday 22-3-73
The trip from Rangoon was delightful. It lasted 1½ hours - only long enough to consume a Manhattan Martini apéritif; Mixed Green Salad; Braised Turkey Chipolata; Noisette Potatoes; Buttered Green Peas; 3 glasses of red wine; Linzer Pie; Roll, Butter, Crackers and Cheese; Coffee and Liqueur. I felt the whole thing should be rounded out with a can of Carlsberg Lager. Thai International are very free with their drinks. I figured I must have paid through the nose for the whole thing and I was determined to get my money's worth. Had to go flat out!
The pilot reported the temperature in Calcutta at 35°C/95°F and I'm sure it was all of that, though the heat here seems to be drier than in SEA. Formalities at the airport were very perfunctory. Nobody gives me any trouble when I'm dressed up in my border-crossing clothes (except beggars)! The bottom has fallen out of the $US market. Official exchange rate is Rupees 7.42/$US 1. Best black market rate around town is Rp. 8.75. A couple of months ago it was c. Rp 13. Devaluation was only about 10% but has obviously undermined confidence.
I took a taxi from the airport with a Rhodesian I had previously met in a Chinese hotel in Singapore. It's quite amusing how often one runs across old acquaintances. The trouble is, I've met so many people I have trouble remembering where I've seen them before. We came down to earth literally and figuratively and put up in the original Black Hole for Rp. 7 each/night. It can't be all that bad, I suppose, since the room has an electric light and fan.
It is very difficult to record first impressions of India - Calcutta is such a kaleidoscope of new experiences, such a mélange of new sights and sounds and smells, I don't know where to start. In size, with nearly 8 million inhabitants, Greater Calcutta is second only in Asia to Shanghai, though I think the Chinese recently released some new figures. Though there are millions of people about, we haven't really experienced the milling throngs I expected, and the streets, though dirty, are rather cleaner than I expected. I think the cows, which roam the streets at will, must be nature's vacuum cleaners. I'm sure the humans would never bother.
Calcutta has real rickshaws, real trams, real steamrollers, real stagecoaches, real steam trains, and lots and lots of very real beggars, an array quite impossible to describe. Calcutta is a soulless, barren (??) megalopolis with very little, other than its people, to interest the visitor. The lung of the city is a large park, close to where we are staying, used for recreational purposes during the day and as a public lavatory at night (on second thoughts, during the day too). At one end of this "maidan" is a very imposing marble edifice, apparently influenced by the Taj Mahal, and known as the Victoria Memorial. The plump old dear (first Queen-Empress of India) is sitting on her throne out the front and inside are relics of a whole era of British-Indian history. I found it all most interesting, though I'm surprised the Indians, in their new nationalistic and socialistic fervour, have not torn down the statues of Clive, portraits of Lords and Ladies, Kings and Queens etc. It was a relief to visit, anyway, in the heart of dreary Calcutta.
I received a letter from you yesterday - two only one week apart is a bit of a luxury. The newspapers they have at Australian "missions" are all pretty old, so I was surprised to hear you've had a political shake-up. I remember the last one quite well. Hope the place is still standing when I get back.
The reason we've stayed here a second night is that we couldn't book 3rd-class sleepers to the Nepalese border on yesterday's train. We leave today at 1630 and reach Raxaul at 1513 tomorrow. The trouble we had to go through to buy tickets worth Rp. 16.30 and the sinful waste of human resources we saw tell eloquently why India has come so little distance in 25 years of independence. I suppose they are just creating clerical jobs. What a frightful mess!
We should reach Kathmandu some time on Saturday. At present, plans are to spend 1-2 weeks in Nepal, come back down to Benares (Varanasi), across to Agra and New Delhi, hopefully up to Kashmir, then rapidly through Pakistan, spend one to two weeks in Afghanistan (which, I'm told, is very interesting) and thence to Iran. My Postes Restantes will be at New Delhi (yet a while), Islamabad, Tehran. Will give you a better idea of the time-frame when I have one myself.