On Hollywood Road

Calcutta, revisited

Posted in Uncategorized by Alex Daye on June 2, 2010

It’s now been one full year since we hatched the idea for Moustache; coincidentally it’s also been a year now since we’ve left this island nation we call home. While this has forced us to go looking for the sustenance that travel provides right here at home, revealing many sites and wonders of Hong Kong we might have glossed over were we forever hopping on planes to Bali, Vietnam and the like, there is no denying that it has also been a struggle, especially given that one of our primary considerations when moving to Hong Kong was all the different possibilities for travel. Rather than moan about it, though, I have spent the past week engaging in a bit of armchair traveling, which is surprisingly pleasurable, though obviously on a different level than the real thing. The catalyst for this journey was a wonderful story in World of Interiors about the Fairlawn Hotel in Calcutta. Regular readers might recall one of my very first entries here was about the fantastically musty Victorian- era Indian Museum there. We had just returned from a textile hunting mission, coupled with a long weekend in the old field station at Darjeeling. I’ll admit that my initial reaction to Calcutta itself was not entirely a positive one. I found it a very tiring city: hot, smoggy, and crowded in that way peculiar to Indian cities. Of course, I also found it incredibly interesting, but compared to our stay in Darjeeling, which was that all too elusive perfect mix of relaxing and stimulating, it was a business trip. So it’s a bit surprising to me how thoroughly Calcutta has seized on my imagination over a year later. This is largely the doing of those few snapshots of the Fairlawn, a hotel I did not even stay in on my actual visit to Calcutta. Housed in an 18th century boarding house, the hotel was opened in 1936 by the Sarkies, an Armenian couple that acquired several properties in Calcutta- home to a very old Armenian population. The hotel today belongs to the Sarkies’ 88 year old daughter, Violet Smith, who gave the hotel it’s chintzy, anglophile decor in the 1970s, though most of the furnishings predate her reign.

This and the following three photos courtesy of World of Interiors;

On his first trip to Calcutta, Ellis stayed in the Fairlawn and was keen to try out the equally historic Oberoi Grand; though it has far less character than the Fairlawn, it is by far the poshest place in town, and this being Calcutta, not terribly expensive. And despite the decor and the story, the Fairlawn, as even World of Interiors notes, is a basic hotel: small, somewhat stuffy rooms, shared bathrooms, etc. But since this is an imaginary journey, the Fairlawn will do just fine…

Posing in front of the Fairlawn.

Putting aside World of Interiors, I next reached for Geoffrey Moorhouse’s Calcutta: The City Revealed, first published in 1971, who has this to say about the city: “At any time, it is a perfect breeding ground for malaria and any other disease that thrives on moisture; some of Charnock’s sailors found it so unhealthy that they christened their landing place Golgotha. Yet on this bog the British created their capital in India. Nothing but commercial greed could possibly have led to such an idiotic decision.” Mr. Moorhouse spends a great deal of time describing the character, or lack thereof, of the colony’s original expats- young English men, making up for the doleful salary they earned in their various trading companies with all sorts of illicit side businesses. Not surprisingly, they also died in droves, usually before reaching 30 years old; amazingly, especially coming from Hong Kong, where the few reminders of the past are so swallowed up by highrises, overpasses and landfill that they are all but invisible, the city is still filled with reminders of their short lives, lived centuries ago.

Victorian headstones abound, primarily in The Park Street Cemetery, rivaled only by Pere Lachaise in terms of  overgrown spookiness.

Lots of great old signs, too- almost always handpainted.

A giant old godown on the Hooghly River, completely abandoned.

Probably the weirdest and most spectacular sight in Calcutta is the Marble Palace. Located down the most improbable, narrow, crowded street sits this ghost of a mansion on an acre of garden with statues and fountains and more statues and then more fountains and then a menagerie with peacocks and pelicans. Inside, covered with decades if not centuries of dust and stillness are walls covered with paintings by Titian and Rubens, giant ballrooms with rolled up carpets stacked off to one side and courtyards with giant gilt birdcages. Mr. Morehouse, visiting almost forty years ago describes it: “There is marble everywhere, in ninety different varieties it is said, transported across the seas by the ton to provide floors and wall panels and table tops. There are great swaths of satin hanging around windows and enormous follies of crystal glass hanging in chandeliers from ceilings. There are mirrors from Venice and vases from Sevres and goblets from Bohemia and stags’ heads from the Trossachs and figures from Dresden and swords from Toledo and ormolu clocks from Paris and carvings from Bavaria and vast quantities of Victorian bric-a-brac that look as if they were scavenged in job lots from the Portabello Road on a series of damp Saturday afternoons in October…” Sadly, photography is forbidden here, or perhaps not, as the wonder and surreality of the palace only enlarges in one’s memory without the aid of visual reminders, to which we have become so accustomed to now that we are rarely if ever called upon to actually remember a place. It is also very much a metaphor of the city as a whole, which, though obviously a sprawling megalopolis of 20 some million people, and despite how thoroughly assimilated into the fabric of life there these relics are, as if there were nothing very remarkable about them at all, at times seems strangely empty, as if there were another parallel city that exists only in one’s imagination.


6 Responses

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  1. jen said, on June 2, 2010 at 11:32 am

    such an enchanting look at a city i also expect to be quite maddening! sean and i were in delhi and rajasthan earlier this year so my curiosity about the rest of india is very heightened. thanks for the armchair visit, it’s better than nothing 🙂

  2. jadaye said, on June 3, 2010 at 4:17 am

    Hia Jen! Glad you enjoyed it- I don’t often actually go back and look at the photos taken from various trips and it really is like going there again… Love your website and raeburn ink by the way! can’t say I’m surprised by how well done it all is, but I’ll say it anyway- well done! love the photo of your grandparents too… you have to let us know if you go back to India or Japan or come anywhere within spitting distance of Hong kong again- we’ll gladly break our no-fly rule for you.

  3. Suzy said, on June 3, 2010 at 6:11 am

    Sadly, the Marble Palace was closed for a holiday when I was there, so I only saw the outside. Shame, maybe next time. Funnily, I loved Calcutta, but was only there 2 days and I think deliberately kept away from the bad bits…Am really looking forward to going back. Oh, and I saw the feature in WoI and thought it looked like quite a cute place to stay.

  4. jadaye said, on June 3, 2010 at 6:53 am

    Hi Suzy- technically you’re meant to book an appointment to see it through the tourism office, I think- but when we were there we paid the guard outside to let us in. In retrospect, I’m not really even sure he worked there…

  5. Eliza Ball said, on June 6, 2010 at 11:04 pm

    Thanks so much for your wonderful blog. We are heading to HK on Friday and you have really inspired us to explore all the back streets and hopefully get a little taste of what is left of ‘old Hong Kong’. We will be coming into the store in Central sometime between the 12-16 June. Look forward to meeting you if you are there.

    Kindest regards and thanks again,

    Eliza & Mitch Ball

    • jadaye said, on June 7, 2010 at 3:27 am

      thanks for the nice comment Eliza- we’ll look forward to meeting you in the shop. I’m there everyday except Monday and Thursday evening. Safe travels! Alex

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