A Final Call in Calcutta

My last bit of work business in Kolkata was accompanying the Consul General on a farewell call. At 4:15pm, I clambered aboard the lightly-armored, black Land Cruiser and we creaked our way 2 miles or so through the Maidan to Raj Bhavan, the office and home of Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi.

Yes, if you’re wondering, that Gandhi. The Mahatma’s youngest grandson, Governor Gandhi has been India’s Ambassador to S. Africa, Sri Lanka, and Norway and Iceland (brrrr!), but also the Director of the Nehru Cultural Center in London.

Raj Bhavan is an immense structure, modeled after Kedleston Hall, the family home of Lord George Curzon, who later became Viceroy of India. Constructed in the shape of a stocky ‘X’ it’s a three story connector of what essentially are four houses. We entered on the bottom floor, and I saw the interior stretch away into darkness. Around us were busts of Roman emperors from the shoulders up. Guided to the oldest elevator in Asia, a narrow birdcage lift that requires the VIP to enter last (to be the first to exit), we went up accompanied by a valet with a red turban and buttoned up uniform from Maharaja times.

Inside the Governor’s office, with vaulted ceilings stretching at least 30 feet high, we sat on simple upholstered furniture. Long blades of evening sunlight slanted into the room, the aging yellow of the rays adding to the feeling that every day in India contains another sunset of the British Empire.

The thing I noticed about the Governor first was that he’s tall. Naturally, I looked for similarities to his grandfather and to me it seemed that they shared the same mouth. Behind his desk hung a painting of the Mahatma, done in ochre and umber hues. The pose of the Mahatma resting, as if on the ground, contrasted markedly withe other portraits of India’s legendary statesmen. Governor Gandhi and the Consul General spoke in formal language that protocol requires — “your Excellency” is for me an odd phrase to hear in today’s world. I suspect this is due to the U.S. cultural view I took from my education –that all people are created equal — the side-effect of which has been a distortion of this idea into the belief that since all people are created equal, no one is better than anyone else. I notice this tone in debates and essays more and more. The internet itself is a great equalizer in its own right, and now so much is about competing sets of facts and increasingly combative voices, resulting in a growing tribalism. Those in ‘privileged’ positions hold on to them dearly and have an incentive to maintain their exclusivity, for if you risk open debate, then you risk an undermining of your authority. Your facts, your rank, your privilege can be diminished more readily these days, and most people in power see no real value in permitting that.

The discussion briefly turned to the growing communalism in India, and I also concentrated on serving myself cashew nuts from an offered tray (harder to do in silence than you think, trust me). I mentioned Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, which the Governor didn’t recognize. Maybe I’ll send him a copy. Much of the conversation concerned pleasant evaluations of West Bengal with little substance attached, and I watched the Governor’s body language and tics, looking for patterns of boredom or interest. I wanted, mostly, to walk the halls of the building like a child, getting lost and tapping upon surfaces for echoes. I wanted a library of my own and thought alternately that life must be quite dull or quite perfect as a Governor of West Bengal. Governor Gandhi looked like a man who writes one letter at a time, making me feel envious.

We stayed only 25 minutes, and after a brief exchange of gifts said our farewells. Earlier in the afternoon, the Kolkata skies had darkened and a lashing of thick-droplets that indicated the arrival of the year’s monsoon had cleared the afternoon smog. The Consul General and I stood outside Raj Bhavan and surveyed the view towards the Victoria Memorial. He recited some of the history of our environment, and we both regretted the unsightly, Soviet-style broadcasting building that blocked the view to the Writers’ Building.

As we drove back to the office, the sun draped the buildings in film, as if the city was being transferred to a fading postcard before my eyes. Honestly, I’d never seen that kind of light in Kolkata in the two years I’d been there. It was the light of nostalgia. The light of the continuing end to all things.

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