Calcutta, my love

“Calcutta’s situation is so bad by nature that there is little more that man could do to make it worse, but that little has been faithfully and assiduously done.”

The quotation is from Oskar Hermann Khristian Spate, whose standard geography of the Indian subcontinent (1954 edition) was once the most inconveniently heavy item in a rucksack I was trying to keep light. A beautiful man, judging from his works, and the frivolity that often impaired his career. As one may guess from his name, he was only pretending to be English, or Australian, or however he wound up on his own open road. Reaching for his book just now, a piece of paper fell out, at the page from which I quoted (p. 597). It is written in pencil in my own hand, on lined paper shorn from a pocket notebook. It describes a scene that comes back to me, indelible. I was tramping Calcutta streets; exploring. The triple structure of the note strikes me now: that I wrote a spontaneous Kyrie. I transcribe it below the asterisk.


A little man came by me in the shadows of the early morning light. It was raining. He came by, through the slime, under the dissolving colonnade of an old Raj building. He was less than 5 feet high, a wisp maybe 80 pounds, maybe 60. And his wife was thinner & much shorter. I think less than 4 feet high. He was holding her hand, she was slightly behind him, her head was turned away in a cloth; she is blind, I realized. Only he looked at me: human eyes.

O God have mercy.

He was leading her along the street. Their children are all dead — somehow I knew this. The depth of experience in those eyes; it is a perfect love. They live out here in the open, in the rain, in the slime, in the gutters, with the rats. They eat what they can find.

O Christ have mercy.

He is leading her by the hand, his bride; he loves the mother of the dead children. O how did they die? He loves this filthy little woman, who has no eyes! He is Jesus, I think. Surely he is Jesus. He is leading his bride through the streets by the hand!

O God have mercy.