Chowringhee, Calcutta

The Ritz-Oberoi Grand Hotel (now: The Oberoi Grand) in Calcutta is my favourite luxury hotel in India. Wanna know why? Because of the stark contrast between inside and outside! The colonial-era complex is on Chowringhee Road (now: Jawaharlal Nehru Road), the ‘boulevard’ of the metropolis. However, in the 70s and 80s the splendor had dwindled somewhat: a huge army of beggars, cripples and street children lived there, who approached their target groups (preferably tourists) quite rigorously. The saying of a wise man came to my mind: “I thought I was poor because I had no shoes – until I saw a man who had no feet!”. And above all the misery there are huge billboards on which fat children advertise biscuits (‘The butter thief strikes again!’). Walking in the midst of this you’d see fat Indians with their even fatter wives. In silk saris with a super tight bodice that always gave me the impression that their gluteal fold continues up to the shoulder blades …

The mysterious stoneman murders ...

Apparently, the beggars and cripples were not only getting on my nerves. A mysterious killer named ‘Stoneman’  was on the loose in the Bengali metropolis at the end of the 80s. He murdered homeless people at night by crushing their heads with big rocks – he claimed thirteen lifes and they never found the killer. Of course that’s not the way to deal with the problem of homeless people. In fact, I strongly object to this! But back to Chowringhee: the scenery is enriched by street dogs and holy cows in a pitiful state, who piss and shit all over the place. Once pristine white walls are marred by betel sputum, it’s unbearably hot and the smell of piss is all-pervasive. Then there are the hawkers, open-air-shop owners and not to forget the touts (“Excuse me, Sar … .!”) who want to sell tailor-made suits to hippies – HELP! Polite requests to leave you alone will be ignored. Less polite to physical approaches won’t help you either. These guys are fighting for their lives and Chowringhee is their arena! Get me outta here!


And then you see an inconspicuous entrance guarded by two burly, spear-armed Sikhs in gorgeous fantasy uniforms. They even command the respect of the rabble outside: you’ve reached the entrance of the Ritz Oberoi – and the end of your suffering! You walk through an air-conditioned corridor and arrive in a huge hall with a swanky chandelier hanging from the ceiling! The overused notion of ‘another world’ that one enters cannot describe this adequately.  Another planet? Much better! Different universe? Yes, that fits! It is pleasantly cool and rich Indians and loads of tourists are sitting in the lobby. The best place to recover from the all-out attack on your senses is the coffee shop, where cakes and other delicacies await visitors. Even better is high tea by the pool. So I sit down to have my well-deserved high tea. Immediately a waiter comes running. “How can I help you, Sar?” – “The menu, please!”. – “Certainly, Sar!”.

Before he leaves, he fills me in on the rules of the house. Next to the table there is a five feet high flagpole with a flag on it which is presently flown at half-mast. The waiter explains to me in detail that I don’t have to call him: Just hoist the flag, that’s enough! He pulls the flag up, I nod benevolently and consider the whole thing a joke. Shortly afterwards he comes back with the menu and I order a high tea cover! The waiter takes down the flag and sets off. Shit, I forgot that I wanted a Limca, too. Since he is within shouting distance, I call out to him: “Waiter!”. When he arrives, he looks at me reproachfully, hoists the flag and asks me what I want: “Yes, Sar?” – “Uh, one Limca, please!”. With an indignant air he lowers the flag  and heads towards the exit. And there you are, sitting next to the pool in a well-tended garden with traveler trees, eating scones and twenty meters away people are dying on the street – that’s Calcutta! And on the way out don’t forget to take along all the toilet paper you can get from their loo – with a little luck its value is higher than the bill you’ve just settled … 

The lobby, Oberoi Grand
Poolside, Oberoi Grand