A gem from 1945 - a pocket-sized, 96 page guide for American troops about how to behave in Calcutta. It covers everything from getting post to getting condoms - and offers wise words about where to go in the city (and where's out of bounds - which seems to be most of the place), booze, dancing, Bengalis, girls, food - the lot.
There are of course part of this guide which make you wince. But for a booklet written seventy years ago, in a time of war, and for soldiers in the mighty American army who probably didn't rate Calcutta as their most favoured destination, it's a surprisingly engaging and at times sensitive document.
The tone of The Calcutta Key is folksy, at times rather patronising, but a lot better than the over formal, hugely prescriptive regulations that many other armies would have resorted to. It breaks the news to GIs that in Calcutta they are 'Europeans' - so much for the war of independence!
Rather impressively, US soldiers are advised: '... after the war, in any permanent plan for peace that includes (and must include) Southest Asia, India must and will assume a prominent role. You are a practical person from a practical nation. You can see that it makes sense for anyone to cultivate a lasting friendship with India. Go to it, then. YOU - you're the one who is going to do it. It is a part of YOUR JOB.'
And the list of 'do's' (and so by implication 'don'ts') looks fairly sensible - no one imagines that all American soldiers heeded this advice, but they should have done:
Perhaps inevitably, it's the section about women and prostitutes which jars most: 'Studies show that professional prostitutes are 150% infected [with VD] (half have one and the other half have two). Even in the native population the rate is well over 50%.' Inaccurate, disrespectful, and very probably ineffective in dissuading the troops from paying for sex.
The guide contains a map of Calcutta which demonstrates that most of the city was out-of-bounds for US soldiers - though it would have been quite a task policing that restriction.
The entire text, along with illustrations, has been posted online. It is one of my better eBay purchases. And of course you wonder about whose copy this was, and what use they made of the advice - whether they survived the war and took this home as a keepsake.
Loosely folded into the pages of the booklet was this slip - the cyclostyled words of a wartime drinking song. I can't imagine this was official US Army issue - but who knows. It does, though, personalise the booklet and those who made use of it, and give a sense of the human experience of war and its privations.
Of course, for many Bengalis, the privations of war were much more intense - the province succumbed to a dreadful famine in which huge numbers perished. The guide makes reference to that in such a matter-of-fact way that it comes across as distinctly callous.Not inaccurate, not impersonal, but simply descriptive about an immense tragedy for which the colonial authorities (Brits not Americans, of course) were widely held to be culpable.
LATER: many thanks for all the interest in this posting. Suchetana in Calcutta has been in touch to mention an online album of photographs taken in Calcutta in 1945-46 by an American military photographer, Clyde Waddell. I am sure it will be of much wider interest - and here's the link. Thanks, Suchetana!
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