The idea for the trip goes back to my maternal grandfather, James Robertson, who came from Dundee, worked his way up in the jute industry and ultimately ran a jute mill in Calcutta, over a hundred years ago. The objective is, in a way, to retrace his footsteps.
We arrived in Calcutta late in the evening, to be met at the airport by our guide Paras Nath Dwevedi, our man from Royal India Holidays. They, in the shape of the boss Newton Singh, are Jane's (our friend and agent) local agents. Indeed, Newton was on the phone to me from Delhi as we drove into town to make sure all was well.
We all have our preconceptions about Calcutta -- the crowds and the poverty. As soon as we left the airport, mine started to be challenged. We sped along a six-lane dual carriageway. But when we got to the centre, or near it, the real Calcutta showed itself: dense traffic, composed of buses, taxis, rickshaws, tuktuks and, needless to say, hordes of people -- though, interestingly, in contrast to my previous experience in India, no cows.
One of our objectives in Calcutta was to visit the prestigious Tollygunge Club, known to all as "the Tolly". It's a private club with, apparently, a 20-year waiting list for membership. My reasons were partly a fascination for these relics of colonial times, now taken over enthusiastically by well-off Indians; and partly having heard about the club from friends. It seems to be predominantly a golf club, but actually it has tennis courts, riding facilities and even a racecourse. It was apparently originally owned by the family of Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore in the south of India, who was defeated by the British (with help from his neighbouring enemies) and whose family landed up in Calcutta. The main clubhouse is in fine English classical style, but is at the moment being heavily refurbished, so it's a little difficult to appreciate the studied calm that doubtless normally prevails.
On the way back into more central Calcutta, we made a discovery, which, I apologise, involves more exploration of my grandfather's history. I had dug out a photograph of a large house that was presumably where he and his family lived in the first decade of the 20th century. Under it is written in, I think, my grandmother's handwriting "Judges Court Road". Santosh and Paras both knew where Judges Court Road was and that it was, sort of, on our way. We drove down the road, with some difficulty and, lo and behold, there, behind iron gates, at number 11A, was a very similar house. It was difficult to see because of the gates, but I managed to convince myself that it might well have been the very house.
Christmas was the day we planned to explore the jute industry. I had tried, over the months before our visit, to make contact with -- ideally -- the jute mill that my grandfather had managed or been involved with. It seemed impossible to get any replies, let alone any guidance that might help identifying which mill it was. One of the names I knew from my childhood was, as already mentioned, Titagarh, but this turned out to be the name of the whole area.
The best we came up with was through Jane's local agent. Newton and Paras between them had contacted one of the mills that was still operating and had secured an invitation to visit. The mill was Kelvin Jute.
We were met at the gate by the General Manager, no less, Om Prakash Parikh. He is a somewhat lugubrious figure who smiles seldom and speaks little, but was wholly welcoming and happily showed us round. We followed the journey the material makes from its raw state until it gets turned into the heavy, course, tough cloth that gets sold for sacks and the like.
The factory looks as though it has been unchanged for all the hundred years since my grandfather or, more likely, his contemporaries worked there. Many hundred machines crank away, making a deafening, throbbing racket that must be hard to endure during a long working day.
Kelvin employs about 3,000 workers. It operates all day and all night, every day of the year, certainly including Christmas. Working conditions seem fairly dire. There are no apparent safety precautions: each machine is manned by one or two men using bare hands and wearing no protective clothing. Needless to say, there were no women.
We were ushered up to the spartan office of the General Manager and were joined by the head of Human Resources. She, Deepika Tripathi, is a young attractive 25-year old who speaks excellent English and was much more communicative than her boss.
Before we left, we saw the 11am change of shift take place. The departing workers were intrigued to see who these curious foreigners were. Much photography took place and our hosts were keen to get copies of the photos. We had the warm feeling that they enjoyed meeting us and showing us around. The gang of workers were also much amused by it all. I guess they don't get descendents of Dundee jute wallahs turning up every day of the week.
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