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CALCUTTA
An aggressive capital! Palaces of concrete and stucco washed with yellow stand cheek by jowl with commission agencies and hovels, and all without a suspicion of style, not even giving one the impression of a southern city. In the streets, thick with dust, an all-prevailing turmoil as of a fair is prolonged to the latest hours of night. Red uniforms and "young England" tourist suits ending their career in rags on half-breed coolies—a wearisome staleness and total effacement of local colour, worse than commonplace; and then, above all, a very strong and nauseating smell of lotus and tallow, with an after-gust of something peppery and acrid.

In the street of native shops the possible purchaser is attacked by storm, every voice yelps out prices. The dealers scrambled into my carriage with a whole catalogue of bargains poured out in a mixed lingo, and with such overpowering insistence that I had to fly. An electric tram-car, provided with a loud bell that rings without ceasing, runs through the suburbs, a dirty swarming quarter[Pg 140] where the streets are alive with naked children, fowls and pigs wallowing in heaps of filth and the mud made by watering the road.

Past a magnificent railway station, and through a manufacturing district of tall furnaces, we came to the quiet country and the Ganges, bordered with gardens, where creepers in flower hang over the muddy stream stained with iridescent grease and soot.

Round the railway station crowds the village of Chandernagore, the huts close together, with no land to spare, and at length we were in the city of houses, with broad terraces in front in a classic style, with colonnades and decorations in relief, and broad eaves overhanging for shade. And beautiful gardens, bougainvilleas, and almond trees, white-blossomed faintly touched with pink, hedge in streets with foreign-sounding names. The air was full of the fresh scent of water and greenery and of the blessed peace of silence—so rare in India.

The cathedral, embowered in shrubs and tall banyans, stands on a square, where a pedestal awaits the bust of Dupleix.

A stone parapet runs along the river road, and below it the grassy bank slopes gently to the clear and limpid stream of the Ganges. On the shores[Pg 141] of the sacred river fine trees overshadow many idols, and fresh flowers are constantly laid at their feet.

In the city, which is swept and cleaned till it is hard to believe oneself among Hindoos, there are six hundred tanks, for the most part stagnant, in which the natives wash themselves and their clothes. Round others, which are gradually being appropriated to the use of the residents, and all about the houses, bamboos are planted and "flame of the forest," covered with enormous red star-shaped blossoms as solid as fruit, and trees curtained with creepers of fragile growth—one long garden extending almost to the bazaar.

At night the sound of a remote tom-tom attracted me to a large square shaded by giant trees. In a very tiny hut made of matting, a misshapen statue of Kali, bedizened with a diadem, a belt, nanparas, and bangles made of beads and gold tinsel, stood over a prostrate image in clay of Siva, lying on his back. In front of this divinity, under an awning stretched beneath the boughs of a banyan tree, two nautch-girls in transparent sarees were dancing a very smooth sliding step to the accompaniment of two bagpipes and some drums. The Hindoo spectators sat in a circle on the ground—a white mass[Pg 142] dimly lighted by a few lanterns—and sang to the music a soft, monotonous chant.

Then a man rose, and standing on the bayadères' carpet, he recited, in verses of equal measure, a sort of heroic legend, making his voice big, and emphasizing his words with grand gesticulation. One of the dancers spoke the antistrophe, and this went on interminably, till their voices gradually sank to mere hollow and expressionless intoning, while they swayed their bodies to and fro like children who do not know their lesson.

Then the dancing began again, interrupted for a minute by the call of the night-watchman as he went past carrying a long bamboo. He paused for a moment to watch the performance, and then was lost in the darkness.

At last, when it was very late, the reciter lifted the heavy idol on to his head. A few worshippers followed him, carrying the flowers, the little jars and the baskets offered to the goddess, and the procession marched off towards the Ganges; while the nautch-girls went on with their performance, giving loud, sharp shrieks out of all time with the shrill but somnolent music.

The bearer of Kali walked into the sacred river up to his knees, and then dropped the idol. The[Pg 143] Hindoos who had followed him fell prostrate in fervent prayer, hiding their face in their hands, and then flung after the goddess, now lost in the waters, all the baskets, jars, and flowers, to be carried down the stream. For a moment the silver paper crown which had floated up spun on the water that was spangled by the moon, and then it sank in an eddy.

The people came back to the dancing, which went on till daylight. The music could be heard in the distance, drowned from time to time by the yelling of the jackals or the watchman's call, and it was not till daybreak that the drumming ceased.

In the little white church, all open windows, mass was performed by a priest with a strong Breton accent. During the sermon, to an accompaniment of parrots' screaming and kites' whistling, there was a constant rustle of fans, which were left on each seat till the following Sunday. The church was white and very plain; French was spoken, and little native boys showed us to our places on benches. Old women in sarees were on their knees, waving their arms to make large signs of the cross. A worthy Sister presided at the harmonium, and the little schoolgirls sang in their sweet young voices[Pg 144] airs of the most insipid type; but after the incessant hubbub of bagpipes and tom-toms their music seemed to me quite delicious, raising visions in my mind of masterpieces of harmony and grace.

In the afternoon—calm and almost cool—I went to call on the Resident, who talked to me of India in the days of Dupleix, of its departed glory, and the poor old fort of Chandernagore, once impregnable and now demolished under the provisions of treaties; and as we walked on through the town, between gardens that look like the great parks of the French kings, all the past seemed to live again on this forgotten spot of earth, and every moment, in the silence of the purple dusk, I could have fancied that I saw in the avenues, under the tall ph?nix palms, the shades of powdered marquises in skirts with full farthingales, and of gallant knights of St. Louis; then from a far distance came the sound of a piano—some simple melody quavering in the air that was so full of memories.


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