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FROM TREASURES TO BANALITY

Like everyone in India with any sort of platform for ‘opinionating’, and we all know how many forums exist for that urban colloquial term these days, I have a view on the Think/Tejpal debacle. I was at Think in Goa, enjoyed most of it enormously, aside from some earsplitting evening music sessions, and took the whole performance in the same good faith as others there — plenty to think and talk about, lots of snapshots of subjects that, in many cases, one had barely even heard of, the most interesting ones often the most obscure, and a particular focus on India’s important issue du jour — let’s not kid ourselves, it is an everlasting global issue if often too low on the list — violence against women in each and every form and variety.

Now the whole Think dreamhouse of cards, not to mention the Tehelka dream and reality of enforcing probity in public office and public life by graphic exposure of power’s septic underbelly, has collapsed. All because a middle-aged man behaved just like other stupid, heedless middle-aged men before him, allowing their last rush of testosterone before blue pill time to run away with their brains on the back of a personal power trip that persuades them they are desirable, invincible and infallible. What a hideous waste, let alone the personal pain involved for those most nearly concerned. That Tehelka dares where others stand by gives it extraordinary public importance. As for all of us who bought into Think, we must now feel deeply disappointed if not somehow besmirched by our participation in an event the founder of which has been seen, in the end, only to be paying lip service to his much applauded headline cause. As for the brave women who told their own stories of hard lives and abuse from the Think platform... well, enough said.

Moving swiftly on, as I did last week, from Goa to Calcutta and the splendour of the Bengal Club with its ballroom-sized bedrooms and public rooms redolent with history and memory. Not redolent at all either with the ringing of cell phones unlike almost anywhere else in the rest of the world apart perhaps from one or two equally historic London clubs. They are rare oases in a constantly and often loudly connected world. I have been reading about electronic retreats, weekend breaks, connection free holidays, internet sabbaticals lately — the club doesn’t go that far, what you do in private is your own affair but quiet face-to-face conversation, reading or reflection, maintain the public peace.

My mother came with me on this trip to do the sights of Calcutta as one does and of which neither of us ever tire. In her 80th year she is an indefatigable culture junkie and we duly paid homage to the Victoria Memorial art collection, the great edifices of Dalhousie Square, St John’s Church, the Marble Palace and so on. A visit to the glorious Nakhoda mosque was followed by a good deal of shopping and bargaining in its friendly surrounding bazar streets and then out to Alipore to look at the presently deserted Belvedere, in the throes of a serious renovation from the look of things, as an introduction to the magnificent houses and palaces of various national origins that hide away in the provincial towns of the Hooghly and, it seems, are little visited these days by other than occasional independent tourists.

I love to travel in the forgotten places of the world and it always seems a privilege to be alone in any great historical site. At the same time, it is a shame that tourists to India tramp the same circuit round Rajasthan, Kerala, Goa, with dashes of Mumbai, Delhi and, more occasionally, areas of Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and perhaps a summer trip to Himachal Pradesh or Ladakh for those who crave mountains. West Bengal, starting with Calcutta of course, is packed with unique pleasures, as indeed is neighbouring Bihar, albeit of very different and more ancient forms in the main. Darjeeling gets a sprinkling of visitors but Eastern India has staggering cultural wealth that is largely ignored by foreign tourists when there are few obvious hotels, roads and communications are pretty chaotic, and, as a result, journeys take longer than most brief holidays allow. It is a serious waste as ignored palaces that have great heritage value crumble quietly away.

In Murshidabad, our ultimate goal on far too short a trip, there is a certain amount of ongoing renovation on major buildings — naturally that meant depressing ‘No entry’ signs, but the beautifully maintained ruins and grounds of the gigantic Katra mosque are cause for some optimism for the rest, likewise the restoration work on the vast imambara by the Hazarduari. Sadly the neo-classical houses that remain in private ownership are suffering the worst as families have presumably disappeared down the rough road to the great cities, seldom to rattle back to deal with horrendous maintenance issues and bills in old family homes.

For a British visitor, Murshidabad is a bizarre treasure trove with a house/ palace round every corner looking like smaller or not so small at all versions of Blenheim or Buckingham Palace. Well, really perhaps like Raj Bhavan in Calcutta or Belvedere but they amount to the same thing too, and we were the only foreign tourists in the whole town, actually almost the only tourists apart from a handful of small groups of very local visitors. In Serampore and Chandernagore en route we saw Danish and French versions of the same neo-classical style. In Serampore, the old Danish trading settlement, the large mansion that is now Serampore College was built by British Baptist missionaries in the days when missionaries still thought broad education was at least as important as stuffing any form of Christianity down other people’s throats. It must be said that the theology professor who caught us loitering in the grounds appeared to take a rather different view but she was kind enough to make sure we took in every detail of the college.

Few people were as disposed to friendliness and we felt unusually alien in Murshidabad where we were clearly curiosities but not in any way ones to be encouraged. We were lucky enough to meet a group of women who took us on a forbidden tour of the interior of one great house with apparently no wish for any more gain than to show us a secret world that was in their purview. With them we felt we had hit real gold. This is beginning to sound like a moan but the truth is I can’t wait to get back to see more of West Bengal and its hidden places. Let’s hope that the new road being built north of Calcutta parallel to the Hooghly opens up the area for the enrichment of its people and future tourists and that all the other required appurtenances of tourism are developed there for it to become another important destination on the map of India. I hope that would be a good thing for all concerned.

Now that I have finished telling The Telegraph’s readers what they already know about their own lands, I suppose I should offer up news from Westminster or thereabouts, but really there isn’t much to tell since I got back and all recent news has been from Geneva about Iran. Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition, was on our longstanding radio programme, Desert Island Discs, yesterday and offered a perfectly straightforward, somewhat hackneyed taste in music choices to take to his hypothetical desert island that included the South African National anthem, the hymn, “Jerusalem”, the anthem of the United Kingdom Women’s Institute and just the thing for a good atheist, and a series of quite cheesy pop songs. He ended up with the staple choice of all DID guests who can’t think of anything else, Edith Piaf and “Je Ne Regrette Rien”, which he, no doubt, sings to his brother, David, at family gatherings. His luxury — a luxury is allowed on your desert island that mustn’t be useful enough to help you get off it — was a regular takeaway of chicken tikka masala. Do we know more about Miliband as a result of his choices? I don’t think so.