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The missionary’s mission in Calcutta

It is thanks to the generosity of a lovely lady by the name of Anne Buddle that last week I finally managed to fulfil a long held ambition of visiting Scottish Church College in Calcutta.

I bumped into Anne a few weeks ago while visiting the new Maharajah exhibition at the V&A in London. Anne, who is head of exhibitions at the National Galleries of Scotland, had come down from Edinburgh.

The conversation must have got round to my love for all things connected with Scotland, partly because the Glasgow Herald newspaper had once given me a break by taking me on as its London correspondent and partly because my parents had met as fellow students at Scottish Church College, which had been founded by a Scottish missionary, Rev. Alexander Duff.

At this mention of Duff, Anne said she happened to have two copies of a biography, Alexander Duff of India, by A. A. Millar (published by Canongate Press of Edinburgh in 1992), and if I gave her my address, she would be happy to send me a copy. As I said, Anne is a lovely lady. She was as good as her word.

Clutching the book (and reading it on the flight), I “airdashed” to Calcutta and had an audience with John Abraham, who has been principal of Scottish Church College since 2002.

Alexander Duff (1806-1878) was frank about wanting to convert Indians to Christianity but the biography also said that “he went further, seeing his ultimate goal to be that of advancing the peoples of India so that they could govern themselves and become a country that could take its place in a quickly developing world”.

On his first trip to India in 1829, he took with him 800 volumes, including his college prizes. Sadly, “all were lost in the wreck of the Lady Holland off Dassen Island”.

He formed a second library in Calcutta but this was sold off in his absence. Many years later, “his most valuable papers, manuscripts and correspondence were stolen by a native and sold in a bazaar as waste paper”.

Duff’s legacy has proved more enduring. In 1830, with the support of Raja Rammohan Roy, he founded an educational institution that evolved by 1929 into Scottish Church College.

I loved the place.

Duff’s descendants

Reminders of Alexander Duff are to be found everywhere in Scottish Church College — from his marble bust to the Duff building and Duff’s portrait in the principal’s study.

Abraham, who had left his native Kerala to take up his present post, admits the college is not what it was but under his tenure, a serious effort was underway to recapture the institution’s glory days.

It says much for the college that Kasinath Ghosh, almost a “Goodbye, Mr Chips” figure after 30 years, spends his time tending plants and flowers.

The atmosphere of Scottish Church is relaxed, easy, languid and friendly. I especially liked “the Botany Babes” who run the post grad section — some teachers are former students.

It was an emotional moment finding my father’s name on an honours board but later my uncle, his younger brother, was dismissive: “Your father was no scholar.”

Shell shocked

Puja is almost as quintessentially Bengali as the bandh but what if the conch shell became a banned item? Even as I was buying a small but exquisite Rs 15 conch shell in the market stalls in Dakhineshwar Temple, I knew I would be in trouble if my son found out — having studied biological sciences at university and being passionate about the preservation of everything from coral reefs to all forms of marine life, he believes conch shells belong to nature.

I slipped the conch shell to my wife, hoping my son would not overhear me.

He did — “Dad, I cannot believe you bought this conch shell!”

I promised I would never do such a thing again — and I won’t.

Mauling malls

If only Mamata would take up a campaign against malls, she might yet have my vote. Malls are an American idea which has now been enthusiastically embraced by Indians.

Since my uncle, visiting India for only the second time in 48 years, wanted to buy a few presents for his friends back in the UK, I made my way at my sister’s suggestion to Shoppers Stop.

“The ties here go from Rs 800 to Rs 2,400,” said the girl at Satya Paul. “What’s your budget?”

“About Rs 250,” I replied diffidently.

She was both withering and cheeky: “For that you won’t get even a hanky or a sock.”

Elsewhere in the building, shirts, ties, tee shirts and other garments were often more expensive than either in London or in New York.

In the end, I had a very enjoyable time in New Market where I got everything I wanted.

The UK has many malls but prices tend to be competitive. One of the biggest, Bluewater in Kent, opened in March 1999. In May 2005, Bluewater introduced a code of conduct to ban swearing, clothing that obscures the face (including hoods and baseball caps), and groups of more than five without the intention to shop.

Misery line

When you don’t actually live in Calcutta but know the city reasonably well, you can undertake a slightly dispassionate analysis of what needs to be done.

In London, we have rush hour overcrowding on the Underground, which partly explains why the Northern Line is called “the Misery Line”. But its problems are nothing as compared with those on the Calcutta Metro — trying to get into a train, say at Chandni Chowk between 7 pm and 8 pm, is a daily dehumanising experience for passengers.

The solution is to have more trains and a more frequent service. Also, a first come, first served principle should be adopted by controlling the flow from ground level to prevent overcrowding on the platform — as sometimes happens at Victoria Station in London.

Surely, the people of Calcutta have suffered enough.

Rubbish clearance is also a problem — the dump in Belgachia is typical of thousands around the city. It should be clear by now that Calcutta Corporation is quite incapable of doing the job. This task plus street maintenance should be outsourced to foreign firms. In two years, Calcutta could be spruced up and made to look what it is — one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Maybe the solution, however drastic this may seem, is to say to the British: “Come back, all is forgiven!”

Tittle tattle

Here in London, when someone rings you and you happen not to be in, your secretary or a colleague or a relative will say: “What’s your number? I will get him/her to call you back.”

In Calcutta, they say: “Will you call back in 15 minutes/in an hour/tomorrow?”

I left my number with the secretary to a senior diplomat. He didn’t ring back. Either he has gone native or needs a new secretary — or both.

Next week: the Indian phenomenon of the “missed call” for people who want to talk to you but save on their mobile phone bills by getting you to ring them back.

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