Sunday, 29 April 2007

Cruising in Calcutta

Five days ago our Library staff were invited to lunch in the Tiffin Room at Raffles. I had been to Raffles once before, but only to wander around and visit the coffee shop.

This time we were treated to the full splendour of the grand old building. The Tiffin Room features Indian cuisine from the days of the Raj in the form of the Tiffin Curry Buffet.

It's about now that I have to confess that Indian food is not high on my preferred list. Apart from the fact that it is often very rich and full of gee, there is another reason to my losing any real interest in Indian food - namely a visit to India a few years ago.

As I have recounted this story verbally many times since, I thought it wise to record the detail for posterity!

I was once an executive member of the International Council of Museums Marketing and Public Relations Committee (ICOM MPR). It was our habit to meet in various far flung parts of the globe on an annual basis and one year we received and accepted an invitation to hold our meeting in Calcutta, or Kolkata as it is now known.

When the British decided to move their capital to Delhi in 1911 it was all down-hill for the infrastructure of Calcutta from that historic moment . Indeed, I have it on good authority that town planners from as far a field as New York come to Calcutta to study what happens to a major city after 80 years of amenity neglect.

It was into this environment that our happy band of museologists went. Things did not start well as the deposit money for the hotel, sent in advance via the local Museum for payment, had "disappeared". It miraculously re-appeared after much ranting and threatening from our then President.

It got progressively worse after the third powercut in the hotel, experiencing the theft of some personal items from my conference bag and a minor traffic accident in a taxi. In the latter case, both the drivers of our vehicle and the car that we 'rear-ended', had adopted the practice of driving around the streets at night without their lights to save their battery power. They only flicked the beam on when they saw another vehicle approaching on their side of the road.

The 'highlight' of our weeks stay was to be the Hooghly Dinner Cruise, hosted by a senior member of the Indian Museum profession. The date duly arrived and we traipsed on board the vessel. There was a near mutiny when it was discovered that our sailing date was a "dry day" in Bengal and so no liquor could be served - not even a glass of wine with the meal.

The River Hooghly at dusk has all the charm of a slow moving cess pit. As we surged into the current the factories on either bank belched out purple and green smoke reminiscent of a scene from Dante's Inferno. The dinner was a buffet and pre-prepared. It was presented in covered silver tureens with small spluttering candles underneath that were doing their best to keep the food warm.

A light wind got up cooling both the ambient temperature and the food we were about to consume. The light wind became a small zephyr and the candles went out.

The locals were inordinately proud of a new structure called the New Hoorah Bridge and the structure was pointed out to us many times and from many different angles. This should not be confused with the Old Hoorah Bridge of which more will shortly be said. The New Bridge can be seen in the top photograph and looks more aesthetic in the photo than it did in the flesh.

I made the mistake of looking over the edge of the second deck where we were seated, down to the deck below. There were three beaming waiters looking up at me as they squatted below with our evening's silver cutlery strewn on the wooden planking (picture above). This was to be the very silverware we were expected to use for the buffet and one look at the dirty deck convinced me that I had better polish my own provided set with a clean tissue and bottled water before partaking of any food.

The air got thicker and people reached for their handkerchiefs (see photo of my colleague Barbara with masked face).

Up ahead the atmosphere was really hazy and we could just discern the outlines of what appeared to be a bridge, its outline almost obscured by the a heavy mist.

We were approaching the Old Howrah Bridge which is reputed to be the busiest in the world with more than 100,000 vehicles and 1 million pedestrians crossing it each day. This figure does not include the livestock that accompanies them. Even in 1946 (shortly after it opened) there were 3,000 cattle moving across it.

The mist we had observed was in fact a steady stream of dirt and debris from the bridge and we were about to sail under it.

With immaculate timing and just as we passed under the first span, the waiters removed the protective silver covers of the buffet service.

All aboard lost their appetite at that point in time which was hardly surprising.

Travel in India is to be experienced but is seldom enjoyed in its entirety. Endless meals of chick peas, dhal and undercooked chicken took their toll on even the strongest constitution and after a week in Calcutta we were ready to leave and see other parts of the country.

You will understand then that I brought to the Indian Curry Buffet at Raffles a certain prejudice, which I am pleased to record was ill -founded. The food was delicious and to a standard that would I am sure have pleased the likes of former guests, Kipling and Somerset Maugham.

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