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Source global Wall Street Journal     time 2022-01-14 21:15:22
Typefacelarge in Small
The Everlasting Future—that their merit

The huts now gave place to houses very tall and spacious and very dark. But for the narrowness of the streets we might have stumbled upon Chouringhi in the dark. An hour and a half has passed, and up to this time we have not crossed our trail once. “You might knock about the city for a night and never cross the same line. Recollect Calcutta isn’t one of your poky up-country cities of a lakh and a half of people.” “How long does it take to know it then?” “About a lifetime, and even then some of the streets puzzle you.” “How much has the head of a ward to know?” “Every house in his ward if he can, who owns it, what sort of character the inhabitants are, who are their friends, who go out and in, who loaf about the place at night, and so on and so on.” “And he knows all this by night as well as by day?” “Of course. Why shouldn’t he?” “No reason in the world. Only it’s pitchy black just now, and I’d like to see where this alley is going to end.” “Round the corner beyond that dead wall. There’s a lamp there. Then you’ll be able to see.” A shadow flits out of a gully and disappears. “Who’s that?” “Sergeant of Police just to see where we’re going in case of accidents.” Another shadow staggers into the darkness. “Who’s that?” “Man from the fort or a sailor from the ships. I couldn’t quite see.” The Police open a shut door in a high wall, and stumble unceremoniously among a gang of women cooking their food. The floor is of beaten earth, the steps that lead into the upper stories are unspeakably grimy, and the heat is the heat of April. The women rise hastily, and the light of the bull’s eye—for the Police have now lighted a lantern in regular “rounds of London” fashion—shows six bleared faces—one a half native, half Chinese one, and the others Bengali. “There are no men here!” they cry. “The house is empty.” Then they grin and jabber and chew pan and spit, and hurry up the steps into the darkness. A range of three big rooms has been knocked into one here, and there is some sort of arrangement of mats. But an average country-bred is more sumptuously accommodated in an Englishman’s stable. A home horse would snort at the accommodation.

Then a distinctly wicked idea takes possession of the mind: “What a divine—what a heavenly place to loot!” This gives place to a much worse devil—that of Conservatism. It seems not only a wrong but a criminal thing to allow natives to have any voice in the control of such a city—adorned, docked, wharfed, fronted and reclaimed by Englishmen, existing only because England lives, and dependent for its life on England. All India knows of the Calcutta Municipality; but has any one thoroughly investigated the Big Calcutta Stink? There is only one. Benares is fouler in point of concentrated, pent-up muck, and there are local stenches in Peshawur which are stronger than the B.C.S.; but, for diffused, soul-sickening expansiveness, the reek of Calcutta beats both Benares and Peshawur. Bombay cloaks her stenches with a veneer of assafœtida and huqa-tobacco; Calcutta is above pretence. There is no tracing back the Calcutta plague to any one source. It is faint, it is sickly, and it is indescribable; but Americans at the Great Eastern Hotel say that it is something like the smell of the Chinese quarter in San Francisco. It is certainly not an Indian smell. It resembles the essence of corruption that has rotted for the second time—the clammy odor of blue slime. And there is no escape from it. It blows across the maidan; it comes in gusts into the corridors of the Great Eastern Hotel; what they are pleased to call the “Palaces of Chouringhi” carry it; it swirls round the Bengal Club; it pours out of by-streets with sickening intensity, and the breeze of the morning is laden with it. It is first found, in spite of the fume of the engines, in Howrah Station. It seems to be worst in the little lanes at the back of Lal Bazar where the drinking-shops are, but it is nearly as bad opposite Government House and in the Public Offices. The thing is intermittent. Six moderately pure mouthfuls of air may be drawn without offence. Then comes the seventh wave and the queasiness of an uncultured stomach. If you live long enough in Calcutta you grow used to it. The regular residents admit the disgrace, but their answer is: “Wait till the wind blows off the Salt Lakes where all the sewage goes, and then you’ll smell something.” That is their defence! Small wonder that they consider Calcutta is a fit place for a permanent Viceroy. Englishmen who can calmly extenuate one shame by another are capable of asking for anything—and expecting to get it.

Close to the Port Offices is the Shipping Office, where the captains engage their crews. The men must produce their discharges from their last ships in the presence of the shipping master, or, as they call him, “The Deputy Shipping.” He passes them as correct after having satisfied himself that they are not deserters from other ships, and they then sign articles for the voyage. This is the ceremony, beginning with the “dearly beloved” of the crew-hunting captain down to the “amazement” of the identified deserter. There is a dingy building, next door to the Sailors’ Home, at whose gate stand the cast-ups of all the seas in all manner of raiment. There are Seedee boys, Bombay serangs and Madras fishermen of the salt villages, Malays who insist upon marrying native women, grow jealous and run amok: Malay-Hindus, Hindu-Malay-whites, Burmese, Burma-whites, Burma-native-whites, Italians with gold earrings and a thirst for gambling, Yankees of all the States, with Mulattoes and pure buck-niggers, red and rough Danes, Cingalese, Cornish boys who seem fresh taken from the plough-tail, “corn-stalks” from colonial ships where they got four pound ten a month as seamen, tun-bellied Germans, Cockney mates keeping a little aloof from the crowd and talking in knots together, unmistakable “Tommies” who have tumbled into seafaring life by some mistake, cockatoo-tufted Welshmen spitting and swearing like cats, broken-down loafers, gray-headed, penniless, and pitiful, swaggering boys, and very quiet men with gashes and cuts on their faces. It is an ethnological museum where all the specimens are playing comedies and tragedies. The head of it all is the “Deputy Shipping,” and he sits, supported by an English policeman whose fists are knobby, in a great Chair of State. The “Deputy Shipping” knows all the iniquity of the river-side, all the ships, all the captains, and a fair amount of the men. He is fenced off from the crowd by a strong wooden railing, behind which are gathered those who “stand and wait,” the unemployed of the mercantile marine. They have had their spree—poor devils—and now they will go to sea again on as low a wage as three pound ten a month, to fetch up at the end in some Shanghai stew or San Francisco hell. They have turned their backs on the seductions of the Howrah boarding-houses and the delights of Colootolla. If Fate will, “Nightingales” will know them no more for a season, and their successors may paint Collinga Bazar vermillion. But what captain will take some of these battered, shattered wrecks whose hands shake and whose eyes are red?

We are all backwoodsmen and barbarians together—we others dwelling beyond the Ditch, in the outer darkness of the Mofussil. There are no such things as commissioners and heads of departments in the world, and there is only one city in India. Bombay is too green, too pretty, and too stragglesome; and Madras died ever so long ago. Let us take off our hats to Calcutta, the many-sided, the smoky, the magnificent, as we drive in over the Hugli Bridge in the dawn of a still February morning. We have left India behind us at Howrah Station, and now we enter foreign parts. No, not wholly foreign. Say rather too familiar.


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