How the beguiling city of Kolkata remembers Queen Victoria

Stephen McClarence
The imposing Victoria Memorial in Kolkata - @Abir's (@Abir's (Photographer) - [None]

A dozen selfie-obsessed 20-somethings are out in force, brandishing their smartphones. Jostling around an imposing statue in the heart of Kolkata – still called “Calcutta” by many of its citizens – they raise their phones at arm’s length, smile and pout with self-adoration. A few more images to tweet.

The statue commemorates an unlikely selfie star – Queen Victoria, who was born 200 years ago this coming Friday. Grandly enthroned and clutching orb and sceptre, she gazes broodily down, clearly “not amused”. For a quarter of a century, Victoria was Empress of India, though she actually never set foot in the country. There are plenty of reminders of her and the Raj she headed, however, particularly here in India’s old British capital – as I recently rediscovered over four busy days in the city.

Founded in 1690, it became the home of the East India Company, which controlled British trade in this lucrative corner of Asia. Though captured by Bengali forces in 1756, it was retaken by Robert Clive, and in 1772 it became the capital of British India. The great days – reflected in the city’s imposing colonial architecture – lasted until 1911, when George V travelled to India for a grand Durbar and declared that the capital would be transferred to Delhi.

To explore this past as well as the city’s present, I packed an 1892 copy of Murray’s A Handbook for Travellers in India and Ceylon. It guided readers to Whiteway & Laidlaw (drapers), Thacker, Spink & Co (booksellers), and “lady doctors” including Miss Staley, Miss Hamilton and Miss Morice. And there was plenty of useful practical advice.

“A good travelling servant, a native who can speak English, is indispensable... to wait on his master at hotels,” it noted, “and an India-rubber hot-water bottle takes up very little room and will often be found very handy.”

The spot has become heaven for selfies Credit: istock

In the event, I didn’t need either a servant or a hot-water bottle. My visit a fortnight ago coincided with a heatwave that sent temperatures soaring to 107F (42C). I wilted like a true Brit in the Tropics. As Mark Twain wrote about the city’s climate four years before Victoria’s death, it was “weather which will melt a brass doorknob”.

Scorching heat apart, Kolkata sometimes suffers from a negative image. “The Black Hole of Calcutta” is a phrase that comes all too readily to westerners’ lips, and Kipling didn’t help by branding it “The City of Dreadful Night”. When I first visited more than 20 years ago, genned up on the missionary work of Mother Teresa, I thought I’d be facing hell on earth. It turned out very differently.

True, the infrastructure can be ramshackle, with too many crumbling buildings, a relentless lava flow of traffic and the disconcerting sight of scrawny men hand-pulling rickshaws loaded down with wobblingly fat passengers. But there’s also a real vibrancy, an exhilaration – and plenty has changed in the 10 years since I was last here. The city looks noticeably cleaner and there are ever more skyscrapers and glitzy shopping malls (selling Swarowski, Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss, Burberry…).

Kolkata never pauses for breath Credit: istock

Never pausing for breath, it’s a friendly, engaging place with a rare vibrancy and beguiling spirit. It deserves as many tourists as the more marketable Delhi and Mumbai. Delhi may be the country’s administrative capital, but Kolkata is arguably its cultural and intellectual one.

To sample that, I headed for the celebrated Indian Coffee House. It’s off College Street, the traditional home of the city’s book trade, where some 4,000 stalls are piled high with stalagmites of books – The Jeeves Omnibus, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Alex Ferguson’s autobiography, 50 Shades of Grey, Walter Scott’s novels, The Ultimate Guide to Hotel Management. The lofty Coffee House is up a dark, grubby staircase. Waiters in white uniforms with cockaded hats patrol dozens of tables where students, academics and writers are generally deep in debate, often about politics. There’s a great hubbub and much waving of arms as customers settle down for long afternoons of adda, an amalgam of high-flown philosophising and low-flying gossip.

I found half a dozen middle-aged men – including a gynaecologist, an economics professor and a homeopath – huddled around a table in the centre. “We come here to clear our brains and our tensions,” said businessman Shibaji Chatterjee, a man with a deep love of his city. “I’m born in Calcutta,” he added. “I am Calcutta!”

From there, I drove south past the Maidan, a huge “village green” where boys play cricket and herds of goats graze, to the Victoria Memorial, a vast, echoing museum whose grounds house Victoria’s selfie statue. Behind gates guarded by two imperious stone lions, it was created by Lord Curzon, India’s greatest Viceroy, as a tribute to the monarch he revered: a sort of Raj Mahal.

This domed white marble treasure house of Kolkata’s British history (with nods to the growth of Indian nationalism) is full of fascinating, if not always helpfully displayed, images of the city. Here are the evocative, romanticised watercolours of Thomas and William Daniell, showing a late 18th-century Calcutta rather less seething than it is today. Here are haunting photographs by the Victorian Samuel Bourne, who travelled across India – including the Himalayas – with 50 porters carrying a portable darkroom. And here’s a marble statue of a younger Victoria, looking demurely reflective but still with orb and sceptre. Ironically, the memorial was finished in 1921, by which time the Raj had long been dwindling.

I was visiting on a public holiday, so the memorial was packed. More selfies – with me this time. “One picture, sir...” Over the course of an hour, I posed around 30 times. Victoria herself could hardly have hoped for more.

Kolkata’s churches and cemeteries offer a more reflective British legacy. St Paul’s Cathedral, its dazzling white tower inspired by Canterbury’s, was completed 10 years after Victoria’s accession and has a fine window by Burne-Jones. Murray’s handbook was unimpressed, however. “Hindu-Gothic,” it sniffed. “Or spurious Gothic modified to suit the climate of India.”

On a day of debilitating heat, the overhead fans whirred like helicopter blades. The building – and the earlier St John’s Church – is packed with memorials to Indian Mutiny victims and Brits who died young and often suddenly – “two monsoons” was sometimes as long as they could hope to survive here.

St Paul's Cathedral was inspired by Canterbury's Credit: istock

They were “full of high hopes, rare talents and the promise of future usefulness”; blessed with “manly rectitude, a gentle disposition and noble qualities”; or achieved careers “of rare success, breeding no envy”. The stonemasons of Calcutta made a good living from British virtue and piety.

Even more evocative of the hardships of colonial life is South Park Street Cemetery. Giant 18th- and 19th-century obelisks, pyramids and urns are tightly packed into a sort of botanical garden of ferns, palms and potted plants. Lines of drying washing are strung between some of the monuments. One particularly poignant inscription recalls Robert Atkins from the Bengal Pilot Service, who died in 1813, aged 51; he was buried with “six of his infant children”. Crows caw, squirrels scurry and young couples canoodle. A teenage student was gazing intently at the inscriptions. Why, I asked. “Sir, I study India’s living history at college,” he said. “I come here to study India’s sleeping history.”

I drove further south to the celebrated Tollygunge, the city’s plushest, most exclusive club, with 350 staff, 4,000 members and a 15-year waiting list. Its glorious 108-acre parkland setting belies the hectic city beyond its gates. Founded in the last years of Victoria’s reign and now boasting a largely Indian membership, it’s preparing to celebrate its 125th anniversary. “We have constantly preserved the colonial environment of our club house,” said Anil Mukerji, the debonair chief executive. “We don’t see any problem in nurturing our legacy. We still bring in the new year with Auld Lang Syne, though we start the evening with Hindi pop music.”

Giant obelisks in South Park Street Cemetery Credit: AWL Images RM

One of the city’s great living reminders of British days is the legendary Fairlawn Hotel, run for 50 years by Ted and Violet Smith, a collector’s item of a couple who put on a good show for guests. Ted, who died in 2002, was an upright ex-army major in blazer and cravat who often talked wistfully of his native Northamptonshire, and led Fifi, a white poodle with a diamanté collar, around on a lead. He was as reserved as his Armenian wife Vi, who died five years ago, was flamboyant. With her awesome coiffure and crimson-painted fingernails, the Duchess of Sudder Street, as she was sometimes called, had more than a whiff of the theatre about her, more than a hint of the grande dame, particularly when she held court in the hotel foyer.

The old ways were preserved in aspic, half-museum, half-music hall with the air of an eccentric Blackpool or Brighton boarding house from the Fifties. Every available surface was painted bright green, waiters with white gloves and cummerbunds served roast chicken and rice pudding, and there were potted palms, fairy lights (“It’s the ambience, darling,” said Vi. “I love ambience”), framed London tea towels and Spitting Image dolls.

A Kolkata market Credit: GETTY

Happily, much of this has been preserved now that the Fairlawn has been bought and refurbished by the Elgin group of hotels. The staircase is still lined by dozens of framed press cuttings about the hotel and the Smiths and there’s still any amount of bric-a-brac and knick-knackery (plastic model gondolas, plaques of the Queen Mother, a small Buddha apparently moulded in raspberry jelly). A wall of signed photographs testifies to famous guests – Julie Christie, Sting, Tom Stoppard, Michael Palin, Shashi Kapoor and Günter Grass (an intriguing thought).

“They’ve kept the same sort of atmosphere,” said the Smiths’ daughter Jennifer, visiting Kolkata from her home in England. “But it’s not as haphazard as it was.” As for Kolkata: “It’s vibrant and colourful, but it’s tough.”

Or, as Anil Mukerji at the Tollygunge Club said as he showed me around, “I don’t know what Queen Victoria would mean to the younger generation, but she’s part of our history.”

The General Post Office Credit: GETTY

Getting there

Stephen McClarence travelled as a guest of Cox & Kings (020 3642 0861; coxandkings.co.uk) whose 15-day The Taj, Lucknow & The Sacred Ganges tour includes three nights in Kolkata and visits to Delhi, Jaipur, Ranthambore National Park, Agra, Lucknow and Varanasi. It costs from £2,695 pp (two sharing), including 13 nights’ B&B accommodation, return flights from London, train journeys, all air-conditioned transfers, excursions, experienced guides and some other meals. 

Staying there

The impeccably elegant Oberoi Grand, Kolkata (oberoihotels.com) offers calm luxury, engaging staff and superb food with lavish breakfasts. It has double rooms from about £303, room only. For a full review and to book, follow this link.

The Elgin Fairlawn (elginhotels.com) has doubles from about £67, including breakfast.