We reached Calcutta safely and more or else on schedule. Consider the fact whole ships vanished right off the map during storms that was something to enjoy. Calcutta harbor was as huge as the Docklands of East London. The harbor was a forest of masts and spars bobbing up and down. Huge and small ships filled the harbor. Smaller native boats buzzed around like watery taxi cabs. One might expect the air to smell of spice but it stank god awful. It was also unbelievably hot. It hit you like a fist in the face. And the worse part was it was not yet even the Hot Season!
Calcutta was a helter-skelter sort of town thrown up pell-mell all over the mud flats over nearly three centuries. Bombay was the unloved child because it faced the Arabian Sea and Egypt and until someone could finally figure out how to cut a canal through Suez it was limited according to the dynamics of world trade. Bombay businessmen used the less than ideal harbor to under cut and finally steal away the monopoly of Opium. Now Bombay was the city that Opium built. Calcutta remained the city that World Trade built. It was located closer to Burma and China and the Pearls of the Pacific. It had the Ganges which cut through better real estate. It did not have the Western Ghats , most inconvenient mountains, that Bombay had. And ‘John Company’ had long ago adopted Calcutta as it’s headquarters. For all intensive purposes, Calcutta was the real capital of India.
Dirt streets minus sidewalks cut Calcutta up into a tangle of money making company headquarters, banks, treasuries, insurance houses, brokerages, warehouses, corporations, syndicates, consortiums, and stores alternating with nabob palaces and hotels that looked like palaces. Every street wiggled by hook or crook down to the harbor side with it’s great mass of piers and shipping bastions. Money talks and in Calcutta money talked in every accent and currency.
It was novel to see traffic jams of horses, bullocks, camels, elephants, and human driven rickshaws, not to mention the ambling of cows which was really novel. Jackals raced brazenly in and out of traffic to grab dying carcasses and vultures bobbed about the way robins might back home in Ireland. Monkeys howled and brilliantly colored parrots shrieked. Everything could be found on the streets of Calcutta: vendors selling riches from push carts, palanquins rushing between the elephants carrying some VIP to his business or mistress to her lover, rich courtesans flaunting their assets, cheap whores flaunting their desperation, male whores with their oily painted faces, gamblers, bounders, nautch dancing girls, third sex eunuchs in their gaudy sari and painted faces, nabobs, soldiers, sepoys, servants, runners with messages that might make or break world business stocks half way around the world, ambassadors from around the other half of the world, and untouchables living and loving and fornicating and dying on the street in front of everyone. Indians ran right up to you hawking anything, hustling for any job, selling anything, even themselves. It was all disconcerting and unnerving. The beggars were dreadfully poor, it was shocking, overwhelming, and frightening. Yet I have never seen so many beautiful women with beards. That was to say: so many incredibly beautiful men. As a race, the Indian was far and away more beautiful than your generic Brit.
We griffins were rushed upriver to Fort William to preserve our virtue from the temptations of Calcutta. Fort William was a massive octagon fort designed for cannon siege warfare so it’s walls were low but massive. Inside the fort elegant manicured lawns complemented white arched colonnades that formed the facade of the barracks . It was surprisingly open, spread out, and elegant. I had imagined a huge and massive medieval fort like something in Wales . It was not. The Ancient Romans would have approved. The formal gates were huge. The whole layout was huge. Ironically, it was built after the Black Hole of Calcutta but so far at least had not seen so much as a pistol shot, much less a formal siege. Most of the sepoys and sowars were housed in Barrackpore, an Indian city literally created out of military barracks. So I was pretty much housed among my own for right now.
We were routed to a barrack quickly and our luggage appeared too! Amazing! The barracks was pretty amazing too. It was brick and plaster, between two and three stories depending on the barrack, with very high ceilings festooned with ventilators. The windows had this strange thing call ‘window screens’ which were a very fine wire mesh to keep away the thousands and thousands of flies that filled the air dense as dust. Grass mats hung from the windows during the day, kept sodden wet by Indians whose only job was soaking the mats. I thought the daylight darkness would be suffocating but it was the heat, the dreadful heat. The sodden mats actually did bring the temperature down some degrees. Huge fans adored every ceiling and Indians sat everywhere pulling those curtain like fans back and forth continuously. The size and the place and the unbelievable heat was so amazing, so unlike damp Ireland.
Our commanding officer then gave us a brisk briefing climaxed by a talk on hygiene. It started with the first symptoms and moved progressively up to when your hair fell out, your skin erupted into festering lesions, your joints swelled, your teeth turned black and fell out, you went blind, and finally went mad, your brains literally purified. All of the griffins acted blase. But the climax was sweet. The commander’s aide de camp gestured outside and a doctor brought in a patient suffering from advance syphilis. Then the commander announced the lecture on hygiene was finished and all of the other griffins except myself rushed out on the pretense of needing to use the latrine — preferably with a small hand mirror to look for incoming symptoms of the pox.
I stayed behind and talked with my commanding officer. “Sir. Sir. May I speak with you Sir?”
“And you are?”
“Tad old to be a cadet?”
“You don’t look sixteen.”
“Sweet sixteen Sir.”
“How did you enjoy my lecture in hygiene?”
“Most impressive Sir. The subtitle could be ‘One night with Venus! 6 nights with Mercury! But Sir. Is there a possibility Sir that I could snag a bungalow Sir?”
“What is wrong with the barracks Nicholson?” as the officer wrote down my little bit of sick wit in his notebook.
“I would prefer a bungalow. Noisy. I am plowing though Mahabharata Sir and barracks are noisy. And I will be hiring a munshi Sir.”
“Bungalows are not as cheap as barracks Nicholson and you should be aware that as an officer you will have to buy your own horse and camel, tent, rifle, revolver if you want something more modern, sword if you want something better than standard issue, such as a Wilkinson sword, and supplies to move upcountry. The Mofussil , that is to say, the Frontier is Punjab and that is a 6 month trip upcountry. You are I believe slated for the Frontier. Not a closer hill station or cantonment for fort around Delhi. Here is the list. I was going to hand these out at the next briefing but you can have your list now. You see. That is a lot to buy. And while here you will be required to attend drill and briefings and learn regimental duties. And a bungalow means you would have to provide your own meals.
“Barracks means paying mess fees too Sir.”
“And a bungalow will mean you will have to acquire your mount now to ride back and forth. Why?”
“Sir. I would just prefer more private digs. Sir….”
That night the griffins in my barrack room howled and threw pillows like adolescents on school holiday. They sat up to all hours. They would not go to sleep. The latrines and bath facilities were absolutely open to anyone ogling. And mess was dreadful. It was like being back at school. And at 3:00 AM a voice woke me from a sound slumber. “Sahib! Sahib! Hot coffee Sahib?”
“What?” I groaned as I sat up on bed and fumbled with a match to light a candle.
An all but naked Indian stood there by my bed balancing a hug clay vessel on top of his head and offering little unfired clay cups for hot coffee. “Rupee Sir! Rupee!”
“I ….don’t even like coffee!” I gasped as the perfect stranger thrust a small clay cup at me!
Immediately another Indian materialized by my bed. “Hot chai? Hot chai. One rupee for as much as you want! Try it Sahib!” A dark hand poured out steaming hot tea and held it out. Dazed I fumbled for a rupee and drank the steaming hot tea which was most bizarre. It proved to be equal amounts of milk sweetened with sugar and black tea mixed with clove, mace, orange peel, and ginger. The little unfired clay cup started to melt as I gulped the tea down. “No. Wait! You said as much as I wanted and I want more if you have waken me. I drank a second cup as the Indians pestered the other sleeping griffins as the bugle rang out waking the camp.
In India camp woke in the middle of the night. By dawn a third of the day was suppose to be completed! By afternoon a day’s worth of work was suppose to be done. Why? The heat. The bloody heat. The bloody heat made work from afternoon on utter hell. Between afternoon and sunset the heat was so bloody murderous everyone literally crawled under the beds and endured unless they had access to so-called ‘cool rooms’ which were deep basements under buildings far from the sun. Only well into the evening was it again endurable to move. But because the bugle sounded at 3:00 AM you also had to be in bed at a ridiculous hour to get any sleep.
So as the groggy griffins groaned and as the bugle sounded, I drank as much hot chai as I could I could stomach. It was weird but the combination of hot milk, the blast of sugar, and industrial strength of extra strong black tea, and the kick of pungent spices woke me up. Meanwhile, the Indians circulated the barrack room exchanging rupees for chai or coffee. “Sahib! Sahib! We are not making any money off you Sahib!”
“What do I do with the little clay cups?” I asked as I claimed my 5th cup.
Just toss them Sahib! The first rain melts the clay back to Mother Earth.”
Breakfast was suppose to be cold food you had squirreled away from the mess. I unwrapped a piece of bread. The others stared at me dazed. The other pathetic griffins pretended to shave by candle as I dressed in utter scorn of them. They snarled at me accordingly. “Nicholson! You pompous prig! Standing there with your head so high! As if you are better than us!” Then everyone marched (me) or else staggered (them) out for inspection and drill. I heard a chap wail “But I was up to 1:00 reading Sanscrit” but I could not see who he was. Pity. That meant there was actually one other griffin worth bothering to meet! So my first day as a cadet commenced!