Twenty Years After
Twenty years ago this month, I set foot in India for the first time. A life changing trip.
I landed at Calcutta on Royal Jordanian airways - my luggage landed at Dharan in Saudi Arabia. It was mid June, sweltering. I took a taxi in from Dum Dum airport, and gagged with disbelief as we passed the stink of Tangra.
The Kenilworth hotel denied any knowledge of my room booking, but had a vacancy in the 'old' wing. A room as big as a ballroom, with lots of fauna - but the lights were so dim you couldn't see the cockroaches. Very thoughtful!
A great trip - met Jyoti Basu, then chief minister, and Mamata Banerjee, who's now in charge.
My task was to make a radio programme about Communism in West Bengal, which much to my amazement and delight attracted the most prestigious award I've ever won. (If you're curious, you can hear the programme on this page - it's the third in the series).
I fell in love with Cal - and I've never fallen out of love with the city.
The photo above is of a street scene in Calcutta, near the CPI(M) headquarters in Alimuddin Street - the flag is of the street hawkers' union. I managed to see a bit of Wet Bengal beyond Cal. The photo below was taken as I was interviewing villagers in Nadia region - I can't remember whether they were CPI(M) supporters, or people complaining about thuggery by party comrades.
I stopped at Delhi on the way back. A year later, I pitched up as BBC correspondent there. And the rest ...
The very first time I set foot in India was at Calcutta airport, back in 1992. I was making a radio documentary about the staying power of West Bengal's communists - you can hear it elsewhere on this site. Back then, Jyoti Basu's CPI(M) has been in power for fifteen unbroken years.
Fast forward another eighteen years to the present, and the Communists still govern West Bengal. Jyoti Basu, who at one stage came within a whisker of becoming India's Prime Minister, is now dead. But his party marches on.
Not for much longer, according to Jason Burke in today's Observer. He reports that the party is being outflanked by a populist split from Congress led by Mamata Banerjee - who I met on that first trip to Calcutta all those years ago. The party's epitaph has been written many times and they have proved remarkably resilient - but this time, the pendulum seems to be swinging away from Alimuddin Street (the CPI(M) headquarters).
Whatever, that first trip to India instilled in me a huge affection for Calcutta, which remains undimmed. A wonderful city with fantastic architecture and a vibrant culture.
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