Kolkata (Calcutta) was me and my Dad’s seventh and final stop together.
We arrived into Howrah Station in the morning, and took an Ambassador taxi to our hotel. I’ve done a lot of travelling now, but I still don’t think I’ve ever seen traffic like in Calcutta! We were merging with a queue of traffic and a tram came round the corner and whacked into the side of us!
Going to Calcutta was part of the purpose of our trip to India. You see, his Dad is buried there.
Rewind to the time of the British occupancy in India. My grandfather (Dad’s father) was in the army in Calcutta, and waiting to go and fight in Burma. My Granny was living in Lahore in the west (now Pakistan) and was pregnant with my Dad, so when she was contacted to say her husband (my grandfather) had contracted polio and was seriously ill she couldn’t travel the hundreds of miles across northern India to see him. It was just too difficult at the time of the war to travel that distance – it wouldn’t have been safe either. Of course she didn’t know that by the time she heard of his illness he was very close to dying, if not passed already. She couldn’t travel to Calcutta for the funeral, or to see the grave. It must have been horrible for her – twenty three, pregnant and widowed at the other side of the country.
She has never made it to the grave which I think is really sad, but Dad has been quite a few times and now was my turn to go.
We took a taxi to the graveyard which had civilian graves in it as well as the war graves. The corner of the graveyard that has the war graves is shady, green and peaceful. The groundskeeper (if that’s the right word for him) had been told to expect us and was very smily, friendly and helpful. He picked some flowers for us to lay beside the grave. Coincidentally, my Dad had found some shells from Barra (a special place for his Dad’s family, and now ours) in his backpack, and so we put those in front of the grave too. We took some photos at the grave – I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to smile in them or not, but because it’s been something we’ve talked about visiting for years I think it was.
The hotel we were staying in was quite bizarre. It was an old colonial era hotel with the walls covered in old family photos. Unfortunately the menu was clearly last updated with the decor and so we didn’t really enjoy anything on it – especially when you ask for something not spicy and it blows your head off, and when you ask if something has no meat in it and they say ‘no meat, just vegetables and egg’ and then it has chicken and prawns right through it!
The following morning we made a decision that it was time for me to find a doctor. There was one recommended in the guide book, which we cross checked with the hotel manager and she agreed it was a good one. At the doctors we waited for fifteen or twenty minutes until I was seen. Once I was in the consultation room the doctor spent at least five minutes on the phone before talking to me. Apparently he has studies in London at at hospital in Hammersmith. He made a quick diagnosis of an abdominal infection, and was shocked that I’d waited for six days before seeking help. He prescribed me a list of drugs and sent me on my way.
In the afternoon of that day we visited a fantastic NGO called Future Hope. Future Hope takes street children, gives them a home, an education and a life. Some children travel from nearby slums to attend the school there, and others live there as they have nowhere else. It was started in 1987 by a guy (Tim) then working for HSBC, and we heard from one of the volunteers that it began by children breaking into his car. He saw how unwell they were so offered to get them medical help, and let them stay in his nice flat. It grew from there – the next day kids turned up at his flat asking to see a doctor. Now they have over 300 children, seven different homes for the children across the city, and one school from the age of five, though many of the children don’t know how old they are because of their backgrounds. Children can start at the right level for them, meaning a ten year old coming in from living in the street can end up in the lowest grade having had no education before. It also goes the other way too. Children in India do not tend to leave home until they’re married, and so man come back after university to help within the school and the homes. Future Hope will pay for them to attend university, and also aims to start some vocational courses too, for the non academic children. It was such an honour to see round this place briefly and meet the guy who started it all. If we’d had more time I would have stayed and volunteered, though they have a huge waiting list for volunteers so it may not have been possible.
We met one guy, Jehangir, who works at Future Hope now. He was interested in how we knew about it, and where we were staying. When we told him our hotel was on Sudder Street he said he feels different each time he goes there as he began life in the Salvation Army right on that street. We also met two guys who were best friends, and home from their jobs in London and Mumbai for just a few days. They had grown up together in the home there and look at Tim like their own Dad. They seemed such well rounded happy guys, and it’s so hard to think of the many other children who just don’t get the chance to develop into people like this.
Click here to look at the website for Future Hope for more details about fundraising and donations.
Unfortunately my Dad got sick the next day, and so the final two days of our three weeks together were very low key and relaxed.
We did, however, make it over to the Botanical Gardens where we saw The Giant Banyan Tree. It’s a type of a fig tree that climbs on other trees and wraps around them until the suffocate, and so they die. The Banyan Tree then hangs down roots which then turn into trunks. This one tree now has 3618 trunks, and covers 450 square metres. The original tree died off 250 years ago.
And that was our last day of our journey together! Three weeks, seven places, buses, trains, taxis and planes, it all came to an end the following morning at Calcutta airport.
We had used a lovely taxi driver called Hari for the past couple of days. He was desperate for his son to go to Canada. As soon as he heard that we were from the UK he wanted us to tell him all about Canada. Yes, we were just as confused as you are right now!
He took us to the airport early the final morning where we checked in for our different flights, Dad, to Bangalore, to see an old colleague from the Botanics, and me to Kochi, via Mumbai, to join a tour of the South!