Pratidwandi (1970)

Pratidwandi (1970)
Jayshree Ray fixes her gaze on Central Calcutta in Satyajit Ray's Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970)

Monday, September 1, 2014

'You have a date with Calcutta; treat her like a lady and you will find her to be one': A G.I.'s guide to wartime Calcutta

Imagine yourself as an American soldier in the early 1940s. The war is on, and you have just been assigned to the India-Burma-Japan front. Your station will be Calcutta.

Jittery? Thinking how to get by on unfamiliar terrain? Worry not, G.I.! The Information and Education Branch of the US Army has just what you need. The perfect guide book, meant for none other than you!

Let's take a peek then, shall we? You are confused at the queer customs of the 'natives, are you? Well, here you go then:
THE LOCAL MANBeing a Bengal he usually has no headdress. Of the Bengalis only the Muslim wears a fez, and even he does not wear one all the time. The Bengali is that chap who wears a sheet-like cloth which you will see draped about his waist and legs, with the ends of the cloth tucked between the legs - sometimes winding up in a flowing, folded end that hangs in front. The shirt-like garment is worn outside the lower one. (Remember those jitterbugs back home who thought they were starting a new fad by allowing their shirttails to hang outside their trousers?)

YOU LOOK AT THE INDIAN:You look at the Indian daily, you pass him on the streets, his life touches yours constantly. But do you actually see him, do you get a picture of what makes him tick, or do you brush him off in your mind as "That darn native who... ?" (He is an Indian, not a native, by the way - and you, being a non-Asiatic in a country where all such visitors are for convenience classed as Europeans, you are a 'European.') You do see that the Indian is different from yourself. Granted. But - do you see that that difference between the two of you does not give you a reason to criticize the Indian? Do you try to realize that the Indian's dress is not strange for India? Rather, it fits the climate here. The Indian thinks his turban to be sacred and does not want it touched. Is that silly to you? Okay, soldier, how'd you like to be back in the States sporting a new light-gray, snap-brim felt and have some stranger come along and casually reach up to finger it? When the stranger had picked himself up ... ! Many Indian women object to their hands being touched even in a friendly handshake. Perhaps you may feel the same way about the French custom of kissing you on both cheeks. Kissing you, the nerve of the guy! Everywhere, in streams, ponds, or under public fountains, you will see Indians taking baths by pouring water on themselves; although they have their own standards and their own instincts for cleanliness, a great number of Indians consider a bathtub to be dirty. Queer of them, isn't it? Ha ha! Some of our own States once outlawed the use of bathtubs as being immoral. To repeat, yes, the Indian is different. But instead of merely noticing that difference and judging it hastily, suppose we take a good long second look and attempt to understand the fellow's customs and ways of living. Remember, it is an age-old failure to laugh at things that you do not understand.

Yes, Calcutta is a great place to shop cheap, as you would notice. But what to buy? And where from? How would you get the best price? Well, let's talk about that then: 

There are two ways to buy in Calcutta (if buy you must); you can buy at FIXED PRICES or you can BARGAIN for merchandise. Certain reliable, well-established stores in the city have a fixed-price scale, which simply means that there is no lookout posted to watch for your arrival. In all the other stores and in the markets or bazars a deliberately high price is quoted you for an article, and it is then up to you to argue the price down to somewhere within reason - without in the process losing your reason. You seldom win. If you leave any shop in India confident that you out-smarted the salesman, then be sure of this: YOU DIDN'T! You can profit by the experience (paid for) of other American soldiers. Buy sound products in reliable stores at fixed prices.' 

Your number one buy in the Calcutta area. They're made in this vicinity, for one thing. Buy sarees, for instance. Sarees are the Indian woman's outer garment, a strip of cotton or silk some 54 inches wide and 6 to 8 yards long. Your girl can make them into dresses, coats or hangings. Or buy linens, lingerie, brocades - look over the shop's complete textile line for something that appeals to you.

Did you say you want to have some fun? Some drinkin' and dancin' may be? Well there you go then:

Calcutta has some fairly glamorous looking and tasting dishes, but, naturally, the present food is not up to its pre-war standards. You will want to sample some Indian food and some Chinese items - and then you will be quite ready to hurry back to that good old American style of cooking. eat only at in-bounds restaurants. Even these you will find none too clean.

Bad news. You won't be too happy about the liquor situation in Calcutta; and yet the place hasn't reached the desert stage as yet. Good whisky is available on the black market, but you'd be a fool to pay the prices. Indian whisky, rum, and gin aren't too bad; but in the long run you will probably do both your mind and stomach a large-sized favor if you stick to that beer ration from the P.X. In the cabarets and restaurants you won't find the brandy-and-soda too hard to take; and you might like the gimlets (gin, lime juice & water) - or the John Collins. Some beer is available at Firpo's Services Restaurant on Old Court House St., if you get there between 1900-1930. It's a here-it-is, there-it-was proposition. For bottled goods try the Army & Navy Stores at 41 Chowringhee Rd., or Mookerjee, O. N. & Sons, 3,4,5 Lindsay St.

In Calcutta you will not find night clubs of the type you knew back home. In fact - no night clubs. However, there are a number of places where you can dance.   For E.M. there are regularly scheduled dances at the ARC Burra and Cosmos Clubs on Dalhousie Square, at the Continental Service Club at 12 Chowringhee Rd., at the Y.M.C.A. on Corporation St. Gals will be on deck. You can have fun. Check at any club for scheduled nights.   Other spots where a G.I. can go - but where he should bring his own partner - are the Winter Garden and the Princes Room in the Grand Hotel (some real jive music in the Winter Gardens), Firpo's in the block above the Grand, and the Great Eastern Hotel (Wed. & Sat. only).   For officers there are weekly or nightly dances scheduled in most of the private clubs. Members and their guests only.   Firpo's, the Winter Garden, and the Great Eastern Hotel are open to officers, too.


Wondering what all this is about? It's is a guide from 1945 to wartime Calcutta for the American soldiers who were being dispatched to be stationed here. With a slightly patronising, yet surprisingly liberal tone, this guide discusses in details whatever these soldiers would be looking to negotiate, starting from the local climate, manners and customs of the people of the city, to places to go for dining, drinking and other entertainments. The guide to what to shop and how is especially detailed, with a separate section for buying souvenirs. Expecting that the soldiers would want to send mails regularly back home, it also discusses issues about postage. There is also a list of shops for purchasing dresses, films, jewellery, musical instruments, radios, shoes, sporting goods, as well as a range of dry cleaners, hairdressers, opticians, pharmacists, stationers and so on. Expectedly, it also has a map of the city:

Here is the complete book: The Calcutta Key. I will leave you with the opening note of the book then, from none other than Brigadier General R.R. Neyland, signed in Calcutta, 1945: 

  Once I knew a man who grew up in Philadelphia but never visited Independence Hall located there. I know several New Yorkers who though they live in its shadow, have never visited the Statue of Liberty.   I hope it can never be said that you were in Calcutta and didn't visit the Burning Ghats, the Kalighat Temple, and some of the other - equally famous - sights which Calcutta affords.  If you come here with an open mind you will find Calcutta is "Teek-Hai" (Okay). Of course, it's just like visiting any big city back home: you can have a good time, or a bad time, depending on how well you take care of yourself.   Incidentally, the people here like us. They think we're all right. Thanks to the good behavior of the American soldiers who preceded you, a friendly welcome from these folks awaits you. If you behave equally as well, a similar welcome will await your buddies who follow you in here. 
  "Teek-hai ?"

P.S.: While we are on the topic of the G.I.-s going to 'exotic' locations during the World War II, listen to this beautiful number, recorded by the Andrews Sisters. It's called Rum and Coca Cola and is about US soldiers in the West IndiesIt stayed on top of Billboard's U.S. pop singles chart for ten weeks in 1945.

No comments:

Post a Comment