Calcutta Cemetery

Tales from a Calcutta Cemetery

“Temple? Go to temple? Science centre?”

“No, no thank you.” We wanted to see the remnants of the Empire. We wanted to see what was left of the chequered past of the colonialists and we had seen plenty of religious architecture after 9 days. Some were unassuming buildings with giant statues of the Buddha, some had massive brick towers and imposing steps echoing the beckoning call to prayer, some had brightly painted elephants and bells and flags. One was set to a backdrop of the Himalaya. Although each one was amazing, I wanted to see ghosts.

“Park Street Cemetery” were the only words I understood in a barrage of Hindi as our cab driver repeatedly asked for directions. With good humour and many sideways head nods which never ceased to make my stomach drop as each time I interpreted it as a shake of the head, “no”. No one said no though. Just pointed us back the way we came and then back again. We had a mere 24 hours in Calcutta and finally gave in and hired a driver with a ruthlessly pared down hit list of sights: Mother Teresa’s convent, Victoria Memorial, The Writers’ Building, Park Street Cemetery.

Finally, we found a gap in the wall with a large gate and through it an overgrown path, shady in the afternoon sun. We were led to a guest book and shown a booklet of the Society that protects the stones, grounds and history. It’s based just down the road, a few streets over from our flat in London. There is a nice circularity in that and the older man who offered me a seat was pleased with the connection and pleased I had seen the cemetery on TV and ecstatic with his list of celebrities whom he had welcomed.

Dutifully signed in, booklet in hand, we explored in the way that an overgrown old cemetery particularly invites. It was quiet. There were only a few people walking down the paths surrounded by the tall walls with shanties on one side, while we read names.

“There’s a lot of Scots.” He would say that; it’s always the Scots. The great adventurers, achievers, inventors of the modern world. “He was from Dundee.” We set off to look for the mausoleum of another Dundonian. I stomped in the leaf litter, afraid of snakes.

We circled round the walls in the heat and meandered through the exotic trees. I was bitten by mosquitos and worried about malaria. We read more names and I wondered what their story is. Why were they here? Tea plantations? The money? The adventure and the tropical weather that’s so different from Scotland? Did they know they would die so young?

Near to the entrance gate, we kept looking for that Dundonian tomb and I heard some scratching, scuffling behind me. I turned around. I was joking about the ghosts, but it was my first thought. Well, ghosts or an anaconda which I know isn’t native to India, but one’s reaction to noises from behind aren’t always rational. It was just a crow. One of those large ones with a gray stripe, nearly familiar to ones I see in London, but not our croaking city crows, all in black. I consult my booklet and the sciiffhh sciffhhf continues behind me. It’s like the crow is following us.

“I bet it’s trying to tell us something. It could be that Dundonian reincarnated and he wants to give us a message to take back home” says the Scot, unaware that I believed him. In fact, as the crow came up to us and squawked directly into my face from a nearby headstone, I became convinced of it.

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