24 hours in Calcutta
Sean Thomas is shocked by the reality of life – and death – in the former capital of the British Raj
Drive into Calcutta from the airport. On the way learn that Winston Churchill said of this city: "I am glad I have now been to Calcutta, because it means I never have to go there again".
22:30 During the drive, nearly crash twice due to cars ignoring lights, trucks barrelling up wrong side of road. Horns create a mind-numbing cacophony.
22:35 Pass aftermath of road accident with taxi completely overturned, in a narrow street: blood is splashed across the asphalt.
23:45 Go to bed at hotel with large gin and tonic.
09:30 Visit Futurehope, a charity that works with Calcutta's thousands of streetchildren: abandoned, homeless and feral kids.
09:40 Meet nine-year-old Jamal. Hear how he was found lying in the railway station, where he slept with a razor blade under his tongue. He used the blade to defend himself from attackers.
10:10 Meet 12-year-old Kesar, who was burned hideously when his mosquito net caught fire: a fire that killed his mother who was lying next to him. He was found in the station sniffing glue and smoking heroin. He plays football with us.
10:50 Meet 15-year-old Ravit who was found aged seven living on street having been continuously raped for years by predatory homosexuals: his syphilis was so bad he had to sit on a bucket of potassium permanganate for six weeks.
10:55 See the wooden sculptures that Ravit now carves. He is a charming and friendly boy.
11:00 Just about manage not to cry.
11:40 Go for tour of Calcutta, 'the city of joy'.
11:50 On way through suburbs pass a begging leper, with no fingers; see people living in plastic shacks by side of the road.
12:00 Learn that we are in 'the posh part of town'.
13:00 Visit flower and spice market where peasant girls in gorgeous saris sell beautiful garlands of orange marigold.
14:15 Crawl through traffic and have minor crash: driver ignores incident.
14:16 See angry taxi driver continuously punching a smaller guy, in the middle of the street.
14:30 Go to the shores of the great river Hooghly, a tributary of the Ganges. Thousands of men are washing in the filthy water. An albino child, apparently abandoned, stares wistfully at the banyan trees.
16:00 Cross the river on the world's busiest bridge - a mighty steel arch erected by the British - and take the slum road to the 'burning ghat'.
17:00 Three corpses are being cremated in the open air, on great pyres of wood. A new corpse is being prepared for its immolation. The relatives stand around chatting as they watch the corpse attenders anoint the head with dark brown clarified butter.
17:30 Watch as the fire is lit; the scent of burning human flesh fills the air.
17:45 Step back from the heat and smoke as a previous pyre is stoked by the corpse attenders; the half-burned corpse rolls out of the embers: the skull is still intact but the legs are burned to blackened stalks.
17:50 See that behind me is a man naked from the waist down, in the process of soiling himself; his loins are a mass of scarlet sores and his wounds are seething with flies. Realise the man is dying.
18:45 Climb back in Futurehope van to visit street kids who live under the platforms of the vast Howrah railway station.
19:15 See a teenage boy lying across tracks (previous page), with a green flannel draped over his face: the flannel is soaked in glue. His body spasms as he inhales.
19:50 Fight enormous urge to get taxi straight to airport.
21:00 Instead go to visit Sonagachi, the red light district of Calcutta, where 12-year-old Nepalese girls grab every man by the arm.
21:15 Decide as a group to head directly and instantly to the hotel and get drunk.
22:30 Have dinner in hotel restaurant of softshell crab in brandy sauce, accompanied by Chilean shiraz.
0:05 Go to bed.
0:25 Take Valium. ·
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