England, of course, is notorious for its damp climate. Whilst it does rain most days, rarely is the rainfall above a few millimetres per day. Occasionally, a weather forecaster will talk dreamily of tropical showers hitting London’s rooftops. So we thought we’d seen it all. Till Friday the 22nd, that is.
We left The Telegraph office during a relatively dry spell, naively leaving Mr Benitz’s umbrella behind. When we spotted a traffic cop dressed in a mortician’s gown, Wellington boots and an umbrella, we swiftly realised we had blundered appallingly.
Mr Benitz certainly won prizes for sporting the most wildly inappropriate shoes for the weather conditions imaginable. Brown leather brogues may be okay on Fleet Street but they fail all tests on Prafulla Sarkar Street in September.
After rolling up our trousers to reveal gloriously pasty firangi legs, we set forth.
First we headed south to the flyover next to the Maidan, which was proving popular with those sheltering from the rain, including many a wild character more usually found strutting in the open. The Maidan itself was transformed from a giant green into a giant lake that only the young seemed to appreciate. Many an excited youth flapped about ecstatically in a field that had resembled a mud-wrestling pit in parts and a waterpolo pool in others.
We decided to head north by taxi, rather idiotically believing that this would be the most efficient way to College Street. We could almost hear taxi-drivers cackling with delight as they spotted two near amphibious creatures with their arms outstretched begging for a lift. Naturally the meter wasn’t working in the monsoon and we were propositioned prices that could have probably taken us to Delhi and back! Following some advice from some sensible souls, we decided to take the Metro.
Ten minutes later, we found ourselves marooned at Mahatma Gandhi Road Metro Station, standing next to a man who rather forlornly explained that he had “stopped selling umbrellas to branch into the sari trade”.
Remarkably, the most flooded area of the city continued to function — albeit in an improvised manner — in conditions that would leave London truly washed out. We spurned a ride on the back of a cycle-rickshaw, and foolishly decided to depend on our own legs to get from A to B.
The only genuinely disconcerting aspect of the whole affair was not being able to see the pavement through the water. Mr Benitz removed his shoes, declaring that he found the prospect of mangled brown leather brogues too much to bear. To which Mr Pringle sternly replied that surely it was better to own a pair of mangled brown leather brogues, than a pair of mangled, soft firangi feet.
As we waded through the canal formerly known as MG Road, we ended up getting hopelessly ambushed by another fit of lashing rain, accompanied by thunder that genuinely merited the word ‘apocalyptic’ and lightning that felt too close for comfort.
We soon thought it prudent to get out of this deluge. This time we were offered shelter under the tarpaulin of a chaiwallah who looked both amused and bemused at offering his bench to two thoroughly drowned-out English rats.
“How do you find Calcutta'” asked a student, also relying on the chaiwallah’s hospitality.
“Very nice,” we replied.
“Very nice!” snorted a rather damp gentleman behind us in a sarcastic tone as he hitched up his trousers and considered the best moment to make a dash for the next dry spot.
We sort of saw his point, wading towards College Street in knee-high, filthy water.
‘Was that a plastic bag' Is that a chicken carcass' Will it ever stop raining'’
A pair of Westerners who looked like they had had a dip in the Hooghly before groping about with all the elegance of a pair of drunken orang-utans naturally attracted considerable attention of the inquisitive Calcuttan.
“Ooops, it drops off a bit here… Good Lord, I think that was a manhole” was the gist of the conversation for this particularly precipitous stretch.
Luckily we stumbled upon a colleague in a “press” car who kindly took pity on us and whisked us to Howrah station.
Even the car didn’t offer total protection, especially from the buses which sloshed up Central Avenue leaving the sort of waves that one might expect only on Baywatch.
Crossing Howrah bridge we were surprised not to see the Hooghly bursting her banks under the day’s strain. While the river stayed under control, the human traffic at Howrah seemed to have broken the station’s back, with many a disgruntled commuter facing astonishing delays and cancellations as broken by announcers who appeared to be making it up as they went along. The ‘public grievance redressal booth’ was more crowded than a local train.
By now it was getting dark and we decided to head back to office, the streets still resolutely washed out, and little respite in sight.
The darkness presented even greater difficulties. The unknown became the unfathomable, as we slopped our way down Russell Street.
Walking towards Middleton Street was reminiscent of an ankle-deep version of the opening scene from Jaws, with all manner of sinister movement emanating from the depths.
The occasional glare of headlights from passing cars briefly illuminated the somewhat disturbing scene. The true colours of many a motorist were exposed after a particularly brutal splashing. We were both left shaking our fists impotently after one SUV driver who seemed to take a sadistic thrill in watching sludge get liberally sprinkled from his outsized tyres, making our progress even more fraught. What should have been a five-minute walk turned into a test of character and patience.
Pizza and Puja
In need of some stodge, we went for a pizza. The anxious waiters soon made it clear that they had homes to get to, and that the restaurant would be closed by 9.30.
Everywhere the story was the same. Deserted streets and abandoned establishments. The city seemed to have run out of patience with the floods.
Finally, we found a pub, only to discover that it too had been washed out and was closed. After a day of near drowning, we were unable to drown our sorrows. We gave up and luckily found an honest cabbie who only quoted a reasonably inflated price.
Driving past abandoned cars and a Victoria Memorial that seemed to be floating, we found one aspect of Calcutta life that had not ceased. Through the night, the weary Puja artisans continued to work frantically, both repairing and preparing their pandals for the big days ahead. After a long shower, Calcutta is bound to look her best this Puja.
Bag and brolly
We both now completely and unerringly subscribe to Calcutta’s monsoon look, that we had previously found a little unconventional. For instance, we will both be sporting the ever-popular ‘plastic bag as hat’ look when the next downpour descends on us.
Furthermore, Mr Benitz will retire the traumatised brown leather brogues in favour of some flip-flops. We now both have the utmost respect for the Calcuttan’s dedication to the umbrella. Initially, we were both taken aback at this, for in England the umbrella is seldom used anymore. Some Englishmen now consider the carrying of the umbrella arcane and almost effete.
Clearly, they have never been to Calcutta in September.