Some of you may have seen this news report already. As the BBC says “India’s Calcutta to be painted blue“.
I was born there. Lived there for 23 years unbroken. And still consider myself a Calcuttan. [Enough to have named this blog after it]. So the story mattered to me.
Yet my first instinct was to avoid this topic altogether. I left Calcutta over 31 years ago. I don’t live there any more. I’ve only been there five times in the last 20 years. So I don’t have a right to say anything. And that is that.
And then I thought about it, and felt it would be strange if I didn’t cover the event, especially given my origins and association with the city. I don’t have a vote. But I can still have an opinion. [Readers in Kolkata: you live there, your opinions count far more than mine, so please treat my comments with as much disdain as you think they deserve.].
So here goes.
My first reaction was straight out of the book of McEnroe. You cannot be serious. And then I thought about it for a while, went and read the coverage across a bunch of sites, both local as well as international. Slowly I began to feel an odd sense of familiarity with the colours.
Soon I realised why I had the sense of familiarity. When I think of Calcutta, one of the first things I think of is my school. I went to a Jesuit school and college there, spent a wonderful fifteen years with them. St Xavier’s Collegiate School. St Xavier’s College. Institutions which had flags and uniforms and colours. Here’s a photograph of the flag being carried at the ceremonies to mark the 150th anniversary of the school:
Yup, blue and white.
And here’s a photo of the women’s hockey team, wearing what I remember to be the traditional Xaverian sports team colours:
Again, blue and white.
And there was something else. You would expect someone like me to think of the school first and everything else later. But what about someone like you? What images are conjured up in your brain? My guess would be that the first thing that enters your mind when you hear “Calcutta” is … Mother Teresa. [I suspect that if I’d asked the question fifty years earlier the answer would have been something else, but that’s another matter]. When Mother Teresa came to Calcutta, one of the first things she’s meant to have done is to have given up her classic nun’s habit to wear a simple, Indianised version, part habit part sari, as shown below.
Yes. Blue and white again.
An aside. The bulwark of my 15-year existence at St Xavier’s was Fr Camille Bouche, who was the “Prefect of Discipline” throughout my time there. A wonderful man, it was a privilege to have been taught, nurtured and discipled by him. I made a point of visiting him every time I went to Calcutta until he passed away. I last saw him at St Lawrence’s shortly before he died, and it was only in speaking to him that I realised just how close he’d been to Mother Teresa: I was aware of an association, but not its closeness, as briefly described here.
So now you can understand why I felt a sense of familiarity in imagining Calcutta in blue and white.
Other emotions stirred in me as well, more positive than I expected, more positive than I intended, still underpinned by my childhood experiences. I’d been brought up to dress smartly for school, to dress particularly smartly for sports matches, and to dress as smartly as possible for the “National Cadet Corps’. Crisply ironed clothes. Starched shining whites. Blancoed belts and webbing. Brassoed bits of metal everywhere. And shoes you could use as shaving mirrors. I must have been about 14 when I was preparing for what I considered to be an inconsequential cricket match, and my shoes were not particularly clean. Fr Bouche noticed them and asked me to go get them cleaned properly before I was allowed on the field of play. Some time later, I asked him why he’d done that. And all he said was “Baba, it’s an important discipline, you will think better and play better if you dress properly”. Later I heard him say something similar to a cadet in the NCC, how important it was for soldiers in terms of morale and discipline.
Those ideas have stuck with me. Deeply. So deeply that I know I will stop watching cricket the day Test matches are played by people in coloured pajamas. They can wear what they like for the limited overs games, they can wear shorts and t-shirts if they want for the 20/20, but when it comes to Test matches, there is no alternative. Whites.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve used the power of dressing up as a panacea for many things, all designed to lift up my mood and to help me focus. Depressed? Haircut and shave. Tired, exhausted? Best suit on. A day full of challenges? Dressed up to the nines. Every time with Fr Bouche standing beside me. Think better. Play better. Work better.
When I came to England, many of these ideas were reinforced during my early days in Liverpool, in Kew and in Richmond. I’ve never driven, and so I tended to travel often on buses. Every Saturday morning, as I went about my chores as a young man, I’d marvel at how the retired and the elderly would insist on shaving and on putting on a jacket and tie, even if only to go for a walk to get the paper. As I walked around the town in the afternoon (all the shops in town used to shut at 1pm those days) I’d notice just how many people were washing and cleaning window sills and windows, polishing doorknobs, trimming hedges, mowing lawns. Keeping things spick and span.
I marvelled at the discipline that they showed, at their age, and often despite the infirmities that age brought. Today I live in a different England, some of those disciplines just aren’t there any more.
When I left Calcutta I lost the right to vote on the subject. That is the prerogative of the people who live there today. And they are the only ones with that right. Again, if you’re reading this and you’re a Calcuttan, dismiss all of this with disdain if you disagree.
Of course there are a million reasons why not. The money can be used for so many other, important, perhaps even life-saving, activities and acquisitions. Painting the town blue sounds like a superficial, wasteful engagement.
But a little part of me is listening to Fr Bouche. And thinking. Hmmm.