Thomas Merton, the great Roman Catholic poet, contemplative, and social critic, creates one frame for viewing Kolkata. This evocative paragraph about Kolkata comes from his 1967 Asian Journal. “Calcutta, smiling, fecal, detached, tired, inexhaustible, young-old, full of young people who seem old, is the unmasked city. It is the subculture of poverty and overpopulation.” He continues to write these haunting words:
“Calcutta is shocking because it is all of a sudden a totally different kind of madness, the reverse of that other madness, the mad rationality of affluence and overpopulation. America seems to make sense, and is hung up in its madness, now really exploding. Calcutta has the lucidity of despair, of absolute confusion, of vitality helpless to cope with itself. Yet undefeatable, expanding without and beyond reason but with nowhere to go, as if waiting for someone to lead them in an ultimate exodus into reasonableness, into a world that works, yet knowing already beyond contradiction that in the end nothing really works, and that life is all anicca, dukkha, anatta, that each self is the denial of the desires of all the others- and yet somehow a sign to others of some inscrutable hope. And the thing that haunts me: Gandhiji led all these people, exemplified the sense they might make out of their life, for a moment, and then, with him, that sense was extinguished again. ” (Asian Journal, p.28)
Wow! Merton piles together the paradoxes of Kolkata itself, of Kolkata compared to other American cities, of Kolkata with the only temporarily life-giving work of Gandhi. Yet for all its power, what images provoked Merton’s prose? What actual scenes and how prevalent those experiences provided the genesis for Merton’s ideas? Did the stimulus come from Kolkata itself or from Merton’s own imagination?
I want to suggest a different framing of Kolkata, less philosophical and more rooted in actual Kolkata images. I want to frame it through the feminine: Kali, Queen Victoria, Saravada Devi, and Mother Theresa.
I can’t walk a block in Kolkata without seeing a feminization of the divine. While occasionally the representation is of Durga, the most common representation for Bengalis is of Kali. Some scholars say “Kali-kat,” the field of Kali, is a distant source for the name Calcutta, Kolkata.
Kali is the “black one.” Pictured in horrific ways, she holds a sword in one hand and a severed head in another hand; she wears a garland of skulls rather than flowers; she stares at the devotee with wide eyes and a long tongue red with the blood of her victims. Legend has it that at night, Kali can be found residing in the cremation grounds. In most other regions of India, Hindus will display the beautiful figures of Lakshmi or Parvathi. In Kolkata, Indians post pictures of Kali everywhere. In fact, the most famous temple in Kolkata is Kalighat.
In more visual manner and with a link to Bengal’s traditions, Kali personifies Kolkata as dark, as frightening. A traveler can feel this side. One night when driving from the airport to a downtown hotel, the driver weaved through very narrow roads where sleeping bodies (I think) covered with gray, filthy blankets slept on sidewalks. I felt this side when getting lost in the alleyways of north Kolkata not knowing which way to go. I initially felt this side when stumbling upon a truck park filled with hundreds of young and old men staring at the ground and each other while they waited for work.
There is a twist to approaching Kali, however. To outsiders, she appears as a figure to be avoided; to devotees she is the one to be sought. To outsiders, she appears as a force of destruction willing arbitrarily to lop off the head of anybody who opposes her; to devotees, she protects them since she destroys only those and that which is evil. To outsiders, she never will win a beauty contest; to devotees, she expresses the beauty that goes deeper than surface appearances.
Merton’s attitude touches upon Kolkata as “shocking,” as a” different kind of madness,” “as [having] the lucidity of despair.” Kolkata has a frightening side to it. The image of Kali instead suggests that maybe responding to Kolkata depends as much as what the person brings to Kolkata as what the person finds in Kolkata.
Queen Victoria is another powerful figure to frame Kolkata. Besides the 27-foot statue of a young Queen Victoria inside the Victoria Memorial, her more noticeable presence is an older Queen Victoria seated upon her throne in front of the Victoria Memorial. The Victoria Memorial was built from 1906-1921 to honor her reign and life. The architects and builders used the same white marble as was used in the Taj Mahal; there is one central dome paralleling the Taj’s central dome; there are four domes like the four minarets of the Taj. The intention is clear. Just as the Muslims leave the Taj Mahal as a sign of their advanced civilization, we, the British, will leave the Victoria Memorial as a sign of our advanced civilization.
Queen Victoria gazes upon modern Kolkata. Dressed in the robe that she wore when named Empress of the British Empire and the Indian Empire, she appears confident and assured, a substantial presence who has endured past challenges and who will handle any future challenge. She represents a foreign presence in the old land of Kolkata.
I see the evidence of this foreign presence everywhere. Because Kolkata as capital of British India was known as the “Second City of the Empire,” Kolkata has scores of crumbing, paint-peeling, British colonial buildings. Other buildings still function such as St. Paul’s Cathedral and St. John’s Cathedral. One sees the foreign presence when slowly moving through South Park Street Cemetery, probably during the nineteenth century the largest non-church related cemetery for British in all of India. Among other graves, I see the obelisk for William Jones who began the Asiatic Society, the first academic study of India by westerners. I see the change of foreign presence with Siemens, Honda, Citibank. Only a land of potential, a land where expended energy can claim more than simply the necessities of life, brings foreigners.
Merton misses Kolkata’s foreign presence. While I don’t know how or why he missed it, I, like others, know that the tragic imperialism has left its mark and continues to leave its mark. In spite of this legacy of imperialism, Kolkata has moved into an era of globalization. These days it is globalization that shapes and reshapes Kolkata just as it reshapes every town and city in India and the world.
A third figure is Saravada Devi. Her picture adorns the halls of Kolkata’s Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture where I’m staying. She became engaged to Ramakrishna, the Bengali saint and namesake for the Ramakrishna Mission. He was 23; she was 5. When she became his wife when he was 36 and she 18, he had already vowed to live a life as a celibate monk. During a Shodashi Puja, Ramakrishna had Saravada Devi sit in the seat of Kali and worshipped her as the manifestation of Kali. By addressing her as the “Holy Mother,” Ramakrishna established a practice continued by Ramakrishna monks and disciples today.
Although I see her picture at the Institute and at Belur Math, the Ramakrishna Mission’s Headquarters north of Kolkata, Saravada Devi, the “Holy Mother,” is present in more private and hidden ways. Dr. Alok Chatterje, my guide around Belur Math, took me to his house for lunch and a period of rest. In the room where I rested, the family shrine contained a picture of the “Holy Mother.” It was the largest picture on the altar.
Merton writes: “as if waiting for someone to lead them in an ultimate exodus into reasonableness…” Many Bengalis in Kolkata have the “Holy Mother” to lead them, but not necessarily away from Kolkata or into reasonableness. Instead, she leads them during their ordinary daily lives. This hidden presence represents a comforting, a nurturing, a caring presence. Maybe Merton was so disturbed by the public side of Kolkata that he didn’t have access to the more private side of Kolkata, the home, which often is the site of Holy Mother devotion.
The final figure is Mother Theresa. Since her life is well-known, I’ll mention a small snippet of her story. It is in Kolkata that she heard a “call within a call” which led her from the teaching Sisters of Loreto to the forming of the Missionaries of Charity. As a woman, she became a symbol of a caring presence to millions of people.
The likeness of Mother Teresa appears frequently. While her likeness can be found outside various Roman Catholic churches and schools, her face and words appear in other places. There are roadside signs around the Mother House with her picture and the words “God Can’t Be Found Amid Noise.“ In a pottery workshop, artists are working on a large statue of Mother Teresa. She is everywhere!
Others are critical of her. In a conversation with Terry, a French choreographer visiting India, he exclaimed: “I’ve heard that she was very authoritarian. I don’t like authoritarian individuals.” My response: “Okay, but isn’t that simply a part of her legacy if that is true?” Or others have criticized her for creating an impression of Kolkata as consisting of only poverty, sickness, and death. Again, my response: “Kolkata may be more than those terms, but it certainly isn’t less.”
Mother Theresa lived in one aspect of the Kolkata paradox that few would ever choose to inhabit. She exemplifies those of Kolkata who care about Kolkata’s impoverished and the sick.
Merton writes: “lucidity of despair, of absolute confusion, of vitality helpless to cope with itself.” Many of the poor and sick do live lives of despair, of confusion, of helplessness. Yet, in acknowledging those realities, Merton missed the equally incredible response of Mother Teresa and others to those realities. Mother Theresa took the time to live within the world of those realities, and not TO simply ignore or flee those realities.
These four feminine figures frame my sense of Kolkata. You will notice that I’m not suggesting that their connection with actual life leads to any necessary improvement in the roles and status of Kolkata women. Women are both empowered and oppressed in numerous ways in Kolkata. The mere existence of these four figures simply adds another set of variables into thinking about the status of women.
As an occasional observer of Kolkata, I sense a difference here as compared to other Indian locations. Kolkata has never pretended to be a political center in independent India like Delhi; Kolkata has never desired to be a financial powerhouse like Mumbai. Maybe the four feminine figures help explain some of that difference between Kolkata and other Indian cities. I could have chosen to see Kolkata solely with pessimism as Thomas Merton did. I choose to see it differently- as an inscrutable place best represented by four feminine figures.