It is sometimes said that Britain obtained its empire in a fit of absentmindedness. It wasn’t so much a desire to conquer and rule that motivated the British. Rather, it was more of a slow acquisition of territories by default: a kind of global game of pickup sticks where the sticks were colonies, countries and resources.  At its zenith, the British Empire extended over 25% of the globe and contained within it a similar percentage of the world’s population. In school atlases, the pale pink wash denoting the countries and territories of the Empire was familiar to every pupil for generations. The sun never set on the British Empire and it was always time for a G and T somewhere. And the jewel in the Empire’s crown was India.

The British never set out to conquer India. It was actually a small company, housed in a nondescript building on Leadenhall Street in London, that set in motion the events that would lead to the control of the Empire’s greatest asset. That institution was called The East India Company. 

On the 22nd of February, 1599, a group of merchants and financiers convened in a pub called the Nags Head Inn opposite the church of St. Botolph in Bishopsgate, London. Their aim was to establish a company to trade in spices from the East Indies, a trade dominated at that time by the Dutch and the Portuguese. Armed with a Royal Charter guaranteeing them exclusive access to all the seas and countries east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Straits of Magellan, the East India Company, as it came to be known, began trading with the kings and rulers of Asia.

The risks involved were huge. Many ships were lost, along with their crews and cargoes. Piracy, danger, hardship and violence were the only factors that could be relied upon. But the profits were enormous. As its trading links with the rest of the world expanded, the company began gradually to establish footholds on the continents and territories it traded with. In India, the company’s first trading post, or factory as such outposts came to be called, was established at Surat on an inlet of the Arabian Sea on the western coast of the subcontinent in 1612. Bombay (now Mumbai) was added in 1668 and further factories were established around the entire coastline of India. 

The company’s greatest factory was established on the Hooghly River, an exit tributary of the Ganges, in 1698. There were three villages in the area – Kalikata, Gobindapur and Sutanuti – and the town that grew up around them took its name from one of them: Kolkata. Initially, the company built a fort they named Fort William on the eastern bank of the Hooglhy at Kolkata.

There were frequent skirmishes with the French in the region and the fort and factories were sacked by the Nawab of Bengal, resulting in the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta incident, in 1756. But the town of Kolkata (or Calcutta as the British called it) survived and grew to become the seat of power for the company.     

At the Victoria Monument, a vast domed marble edifice surrounded by fountains and gardens in the centre of Kolkata, I came face to face with the East India Company in the form of a statue. The subject stood resolute on its marble plinth. His eyes, set in a strong face with a rigid jaw and a slight scowl, stared rigidly out into the distance. In his left hand, he held a half-rolled scroll of documents; his right hand rested lightly on his sword. On the square plinth beneath his booted feet was carved one word: CLIVE.

Robert Clive (1725-1774), First Baron Clive, KB, FRS was the man who took the East India Company from a predominantly commercial trading company to a full-fledged military power with suzerainty over the entire Indian subcontinent. Prior to the Battle of Plassey in 1757, in which the company’s forces under the command of Clive defeated the Nawab of Bengal, the East India Company (or John Company, as it was informally known) had concentrated on trade. For one hundred and fifty years the company had been content with buying goods – predominantly spices and cotton – for shipment back to England. But Clive changed all that.

For the next ninety years the East India Company treated India like a cash cow, milking it of resources and establishing the highly dubious trade in opium which gave rise to the mid-century conflicts with China known as the Opium Wars. But all was not well in John Company. Since its zenith in the 18th century, the company’s  profits had steadily declined. Its increasingly patrician (and, in many cases, oppressive) rule of the subcontinent had grown more and more unpopular among Indians.     

By the time of the Battle of Plassey, the EIC already had a substantial army, composed mainly of Indian troops known as Sepoys. The troops were used to enforce the company’s often unpopular regulations, to protect its interests and assets and to generally ensure that what the company wanted, the company got. After Plassey, the company essentially became the rulers of India.

In the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, in which the sepoys rose up against their oppressors, the British Government took over control of the company. By then, the East India Company was in decline. Its assets were nationalised by the British Government. Its army, possessions and all of the machinery for administering and controlling India were ceded to the Crown. 

John Company was finally dissolved on June 1st 1877. In an editorial, The Times commented that:

It accomplished a work such as in the whole history of the human race no other trading Company ever attempted, and such as none, surely, is likely to attempt in the years to come.

In my travels across India I encountered the legacy of John Company, and its successor, the British Raj everywhere I went. In the buildings, the railways, the bureaucracy; in the vast self-indulgent monuments, in the cemeteries, in the layout of towns and in the place names.    

In the 1980s, a group of Indian entrepreneurs bought the rights to the name East India Company and established a clothing brand under that name. The company traded until the early 1990s when it too folded. In 2010, the moribund corporate name was once again acquired as the trading name for a clothing brand. Today, a British company trades under the name The East India Company, London. It sells tea, coffee, chocolates, nuts and spices. John Company still lives. It didn’t set out to create an empire. But it did.

On the square plinth beneath his booted feet was carved one word: CLIVE.


There is a simplicity and decency in a military burial, even in its plainest form…

I am not the first Blakiston in India. My ancestor, Major John Blakiston, served as an officer in both the British Army and with the East India Company from 1802 until 1814. His book Twelve Years Military Adventures in Three Quarters of the Globe gives a fascinating insight of life on the sub-continent as a soldier. Blakiston served under Arthur Wellesley, later to become the Duke of Wellington, during the Second Anglo-Maratha War and the book is dedicated to the Duke with the following words:

My Lord Duke. There is no one to whom I can, with so much propriety, dedicate these memoirs, as your grace; first, as being the most distinguished ornament of the profession to which I belong; and next, because I began and ended my Military career under your grace. 

Blakiston had graduated from the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, London, in 1802. According to his entry in Hart’s Military List (an annual publication that recorded army personnel and their service records) he “proceeded to India as a cadet of the East India Company’s service being then on half-pay as a lieutenant in HM Services.

“ In 1803 he served in the campaign against the Mahrattas [sic] and was engaged in the battles of Assaya [sic] and Argaum, and at the sieges and assaults of Ahmednuggur and Gawilghur. At the suppression of the mutiny at Vellore in 1805 he directed the guns by which the gate was blown open.”  

After his service in India, Blakiston spent almost a decade serving in military campaigns across the British Empire. When he left the army, he wrote several books, became a magistrate and, finally, a politician. He died on June 4th, 1867, aged 82 years (Blakistons are notoriously long-livers!) and is buried in the churchyard of St. Wilfred’s, Mobberly, Cheshire. His headstone bears the inscription:


Walking among the tombs of the Park Street Cemetery I was struck by the tenderness of the inscriptions some of the tombs bore. Many of the graves were those of soldiers, mariners and men of business who had succumbed to disease, were lost at sea or who fell in battle.  As was often the case, a subscription had to be raised among the victim’s peers to pay for his burial and the tomb in which he would rest for eternity.

Many of these men died far from home and from their loved ones. So it was natural that their comrades became their family. In his book, Blakiston describes a scene where a comrade is borne to his last resting-place after succumbing to a disease of some kind.

“Among the victims who fell, a sacrifice to the hardships of this period, was Lieutenant Rowley of the Engineers, a young man of the most admirable qualities and of first-rate talents. He was about six years my elder, and had considerable experience in his profession.

“Poor fellow! He expired in my arms. To one so young as myself, and unaccustomed to such scenes, this could not but be a most painful circumstance; but independently of this, I have always viewed a soldier’s death, on any other than the bed of honour, as a most melancholy event. I could contemplate the havoc of battle with composure, for the field is a soldier’s natural death-bed: but to see that manly frame, the energies of which have been gladly executed in its country’s cause, wasting away by degrees; to see the soldier yielding by inches, and with painful reluctance, that life which he would have willingly surrender in the field of battle; to see death, which he had openly defied perhaps in many a bloody field, stealing upon him unawares, has always been to me a painful sight.

“ I followed my poor friend to the grave as chief mourner. There is a simplicity and decency in a military burial, even in its plainest form… The deceased soldier is borne to his last resting-place on the shoulders of his comrades; the flag, under which he has fought and died, is the pall which covers his remains; the sword and other emblems…speak more than the most eloquent funeral oration…and the last volley seems to announce the entrance of the immortal part into the portals of eternity.”

Shafts on sunlight fall through the screen of palms and peepal trees growing in lush profusion among the tombs. The roar of the city is muted to a low hum. I can hear the ever-present gurgle of crows – the spirit-keepers of India – and the chatter of the women who keep the paths swept. An artisan stone-mason’s hammer keeps up a gentle, staccato tapping somewhere deep among the tombs. As a last resting-place, this garden of stone is perfect.


…their brick bones stripped of stucco skin.

Beyond the pedimented gateway, the roar of traffic on Park Street fades to a low, susurating murmur. The flagstone path is slippery with moss and from the gentle rain tapping on the blue and red umbrella that the gatekeeper has lent me. The path runs directly from the entrance to the back of the cemetery, intersecting at regular intervals with the grid of other paths laid out with geometric British precision.

I am surrounded by a garden of rainforest greenery and stone. Tombs of sandstone and brick stand in tiered rows between the trees. Their minarets and columns, domes and obelisks are rimed with moss and lichen. Acid rain has etched the limestone with black, cancerous stains. Some of the tombs are crumbling, their brick bones stripped of stucco skin. A litter of leaves and palm fronds lies scattered across the ground. 

Yet amid the decay and dampness there is a quiet dignity in these silent memorials. Their plaques of polished marble tell poignant stories of great achievement and lives cut short; of devoted and unswerving service to John Company; of camaraderie and bravery; of love and loss. And even though these memento mori are almost two hundred years old, their stories still seem fresh and vital.

Opened in 1767, the Park Street Cemetery is one of the largest non-church Christian cemeteries in the world. Its tombs and monuments have stood in silent remembrance for more than two hundred years while the world around them changed. It remained in use until the 1830s.         

The tomb of Hindoo Stuart stands beneath a magnolia tree in a back corner of the Park Street Cemetery. It is a smallish domed structure built from a combination of stucco-coated brickwork and black marble decorated with carvings of various Hindu deities. It’s inscription reads:

The tomb of Hindoo Stuart.


Born in Ireland, Stuart was an officer in the East India Company and was well known throughout the Company as being one of the few officers to embrace Hindu culture. Stuart was not only fascinated by Hinduism, he saw it as the most comfortable way in which to live in the torrid, crowded, disease-ridden conditions of the subcontinent. He encouraged the English ladies of the Company to adopt the “elegant, simple, sensible and sensual” saris worn by Indian women instead of the heavy (and heavily engineered) iron busks worn by the white Memsahibs. He described these as “the prodigious structural engineering European women strapped to themselves in order to hold their bellies in, project their breasts out and allow their dresses to balloon grandly up and over towards the floor.”

When Stuart died, on March 31st, 1825, he was buried in the South Park Cemetery in a tomb styled on a Hindu temple. But although he had adopted Hinduism as his religion, ha had not completely abandoned Christianity, describing the deity Krishna to be: “the spirit of God who descends upon Earth for the benefit of mankind.”

Beyond the screen of foliage and branches I can see the glass and steel towers of the city. A pair of rabbits scamper across a patch of green grass inside a quadrangle of tombs. Funereal crows, like black-winged sextons, gurgle and squawk in the trees. I stop beside the middle tomb in a row of three: squat, triangular obelisks. The white marble plaque inset into its base has an intriguing inscription which reads:

Sacred to the memory of 
Elizabeth Jane Barwell
(The celebrated Miss. Sanderson)
Married the 13th September 1776 to

(the friend of Warren Hastings)
Member of the Council of the Hon. East India Co.
Died the 9th November 1778.
Aged about 23 years.

There is no indication as to what Miss Sanderson did to become “celebrated” but in the torpid, breathless, straight-laced (on the surface, at least) world of Kolkata in the early 19th century, I imagine it involved something steamy. As for Warren Hastings, he was the energetic Governor of Bengal who succeeded the psychopathic Clive in 1875. To be a friend of Warren Hastings”, as Miss Sanderson’s husband was, according to their plaque, was to be admitted to the highest echelons of power in the East India Company.

As I walk along the pathways I feel as though I am moving in slow motion, like a voyager returning from a distant galaxy to find that time has slowed down. I have a pocket full of technology and yet I am surrounded by the remains of a world that no longer exists. I stop to rest on the step of a colonnaded tomb surmounted by a graceful sandstone cupola. I take out my communicator and update my social media. I have a story to tell: a story that I discovered back in December while sitting in a café researching my trip…   


But all was not well in the empire.

The Moghuls came from Central Asia. Descended from Genghis Khan and Tamburlaine, they swept down from the steppes in the sixteenth century, conquering all who stood in their way. Adept horsemen, ruthless warriors, they lived in the saddle and took no prisoners. And they founded the greatest empire the world has ever seen.

Zahīr ud-Din Mohammad was from Uzbekistan. He was a direct descendant of Timur (Tamburlaine) and was destined to become the first Moghul Emperor. His forces defeated the Sultan of Delhi at the Battle of Panipat on April 21st, 1556. It was the first time that gunpowder and field artillery (Chinese inventions adopted and perfected by the Moghuls) had been used on the subcontinent. Against such technology, the forces of the Sultan were helpless. After the battle, the victorious Zahīr ud-Din Mohammad took the name Babur, meaning “tiger”, and established himself as Emperor of his new dominion. He married several times and one of his sons, Humayan, would become the next Emperor upon Babur’s death in 1530. But all was not well in the empire.

Humayun was only 22 when he succeeded his father. Inexperienced and unsure of himself, Humayun was deposed by Sher Shah Suri and forced into exile in Persia. The story of Humayun’s escape across the Thar Desert, with his pregnant wife and a small group of faithful servants is one of the great adventure stories of medieval history. Humayun remained in exile for fifteen years but was eventually able to raise an army and defeat Islam Shah (the son of Sher Shar Suri who had died in 1545) at the battle of Sirhind on June 22nd, 1555.

With the Mughal Empire restored, Humayun set about changing its character from its still largely Central Asian focus to one based on the customs and ideas of the Persians. Upon his death in 1556, Humayun was succeeded by his son Abu’l-Fath Jalal-ud-din Mohammad Akbar who consolidated the empire and established a centralised administration, unifying the many different tribes and cultures within the empire into an all-encompassing Indo-Persian culture.  

Akbar was fond of literature and created a library of over 24,000 volumes in Sanskrit, Urdu, persian, Greek, Latin, Arabic and Kashmiri. He did much of the cataloguing himself. He established schools for both boys and girls throughout his empire and consulted with holy men, poets, architects and architects from all over the world. Disillusioned with orthodox Islam, Akbar created a syncretic religion derived from aspects of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. In 1572 he annexed the state of Gujarat which had, until then, been controlled by the Portuguese, thus securing the empire’s access to the Indian Ocean.

Akbar’s son, Jahangir succeeded him as emperor in 1605. Jahangir (whose birth name was Salim) ascended the Peacock Throne eight days after his father’s death. As was customary in the Moghul court, where fratricide and even patricide was common, Jahangir had to defend his right to rule from attacks by his own son, Khusrau Mirza, who had been favored by Akbar as his successor. After being defeated by Jahangir’s forces at Lahore, Khusrau Mirza’s followers were publically impaled in front of him. Khusrau himself was then blinded and in 1622 was killed by his younger brother, Prince Khurram who would later become Shah Jehan.

Historians believe that Jahangir followed no orthodox religion. He had the Sikh Guru Arjan Dev killed and his lands confiscated as punishment for supporting Khusrau Mirza in his bid for the Peacock Throne. The first English ambassador to the Mughal court, Sir Thomas Roe, described Jahangir as an atheist and wrote that the Emperor was “the most impossible man in the world to be converted, or the most easy; for he loves to hear, and hath so little religion yet, that he can well abide to have any derided.”

In 1613 the Portuguese took the Mughal treasure ship Rahimi which was laden with one hundred thousand Rupees and with pilgrims bound for Mecca. In retaliation (the ship and its contents were owned by Jahangir’s mother) Jahangir seized the Portuguese town of Damon and ordered the apprehension of all Portuguese citizens within the empire. This was the beginning of several centuries of wrangling by European powers over control of the subcontinent and its resources. 

Jahangir was fascinated by art and architecture. His court adopted many European influences and paintings created during his reign were carefully dated and curated which has enabled later scholars to find context to each work. Despite this, he is considered by historians to have been a weak and ineffectual ruler. Some attribute his dissolute character to be the result of his addiction to wine and to opium. He died in 1627 from complications resulting from a severe cold. He was succeeded by his son, Khurram, who took the empire to new heights.

The reign of Shahab-ud-din-Mohammad Kurrham, known to the world as Shah Jahan (King of the World), represents the height of Moghul architectural achievement, most notably in the Taj Mahal. Under Jahan, the empire’s military might was also expanded. The Marwari cavalry horse was introduced to his armies and various new types of cannon were mass-produced.

But although he was a successful military commander, it is the architecture of the period that is Jehan’s enduring legacy. The Taj Mahal, built as a tomb and monument to the Shah’s beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, the Delhi Mosque and the exquisite Red Fort are his crowning achievements. 

Jehan became ill in 1658 and his son, Dara Silīoh assumed the role of regent. This incurred the wrath of his siblings, especially Aurangzeb, who raised an army (he was already Commander-in-Chief of the empire’s military) and defeated Dara after a series of battles. Aurangzeb declared his father, who had recovered from his illness, unfit to reign and had him confined to the Agra Fort. Cared for by his daughter Jahanara, the old man lived out his days looking wistfully down the river to the Taj Mahal where Mumtaz Mahal, the love of his life, lay entombed. He died in January 1666 and was buried beside her.

Aurangzeb, the last of the so-called great Moghuls, is widely regarded as the empire’s most effective ruler. During his reign the empire reached its greatest extent, comprising four million square kilometres, a population of 158 million people and an annual revenue ten times that of Europe’s richest ruler, Louis XIV.  The empire’s economy expanded and by 1700 accounted for 25% of the world’s GDP.

Aurangzeb, whose birth name was Muhi-ud-Din Muhammad and whose regal name translated as “Ornament of the Throne”, was noted for his piety. He memorized the Quran and observed the rituals and strictures of Islam. He neither pursued a luxurious lifestyle nor spent extravagantly, seeing himself more as a trustee of the Royal Treasury. His personal expenses and the costs associated with the construction of his mosques and other buildings was covered by his own earnings. These included sewing caps and the sale of his hand-written copies of the Quran.

Aurangzeb’s reign is sometimes regarded by historians as being a period of religious intolerance. Others argue that he employed significantly more Hindus in his Imperial bureaucracy than any previous of subsequent emperors and that he opposed bigotry towards Hindus and Sikhs. However, there is no doubt that by imposing Muslim rule over much of the subcontinent, Aurangzeb set in motion the conditions for the sectarian strife that still exists between Hindus and Muslims today.

Aurangzeb died at the age of 89 in February 1707. He had outlived most of his children. In his pockets he had the paltry sum of 300 Rupees which was given to charity according to his wishes. The last Great Moghul Emperors is buried in a modest open-air tomb at Khuldabad, near the city of Aurangabad. Aurangzeb decreed that his last resting-place should be open to the sky in keeping with the simple life he had led. His only great building, the Bibi Ka Maqbara, resting place of his beloved wife Dilras Banu Begum, is only a few kilometres away.

The emperors that succeeded Aurangzeb were increasingly weak and ineffectual. The Mughal Empire began to shrink and collapse as wars of succession, mismanagement and the inevitable ennui to which all empires eventually succumb, took their toll. Rival empires began to assert their control over the Mughals. The most important of these came from a small, green island far off in the west. It was called The British Empire.


The air is humid and a few spots of rain begin to fall.

Morning at Howrah Station. As the Doon Express pulls into Platform 5, I look out through a scratched and grimy perspex window at the sun, rising pale and wan, through a haze of smoke and mist. Porters shift loads of hessian-wrapped freight along the platform, dodging and weaving among the throng of people disembarking from another train on the opposite side. The train stops with a gentle lurch. I swing up my backpack and stand in the aisle waiting for the doors to open. A steward moves through the carriage collecting rubbish. I shuffle forward with the rest of the passengers and step out onto the platform

The cavernous interior of the concourse is surprisingly clean and uncrowded. This is one of the busiest railway stations in the world yet at this hour – 7am on a Monday morning – the main rush hours are yet to begin. First completed in 1854, Howrah Station is also the oldest railway station complex in India. Two million people pass through the station daily. Its 23 platforms handle more than 600 trains each day. The tracks leaving the station branch out to 1373 other stations all over India.   

As I make my way towards the exit, I remember Paul Theroux’s description of the station when he arrived here in 1978. He described a Dickensian gloom peopled with ragged figures asleep in crepuscular corners. I saw smartphone screens, businessmen and colourful saris. The walls are painted in somewhat garish shades of yellow and purple. There are armed police patrolling. No one bothers me.

Outside the station I thread my own way through the clamorous bustle of the bus station and up onto the steel lattice of the Howrah Bridge. The air is humid and a few spots of rain begin to fall. The wheels of an endless stream of cars and trucks rattle on the deck plates. Pedestrians, many carrying bundles on their heads, line the walkway on the outside of the bridge. A few beggars sit listlessly against the railing, their hands out. I donate a fifty rupee note each to a couple of them and set off across the bridge.

Kolkata is India’s seventh most populous city. The city itself has a population of 4.5 million but with the inclusion of its surrounding metro area that number grows to 14 million. Founded in the late seventeenth century by the East India Company as a fortified trading post, Calcutta (the Anglicized name was used until 2001) was the company’s administrative centre for more than one hundred and fifty years. When the British Government took over the running of India from the company following the Indian Mutiny of 1857, Calcutta became one of the jewels of the British Empire.

On the far side of the bridge I descend the curving abutment path into the decayed chaos of Mahatma Gandhi Road. A swarm of yellow taxis hurtle past, their drives peering out at me in the hope that I might be looking for a lift. I pause on a corner beside a cluster of stalls and order an Ola. While I wait for it to arrive I chat to a stallholder about the cricket. The Second Test between New Zealand and India has just commenced back home. I ask him what the score is and he turns to the sports page of the Times of India which he has spread out before him on the wooden table where his wares will soon be displayed. The Indian team elected to bat first; the score is 20 for nothing.

My Ola arrives – another battered white Hyundai – and I clamber into the back seat. I am sweating and my cold weighs heavily on my head. As the driver threads his way in and out of traffic, dives down narrow back streets, I half doze. On Chowringhee Road we join a flowing river of vehicles then decant into a side street and pull up outside the Peerless Inn Hotel. 

I pay the drive twice the quoted fare for his efficient driving. A footman opens the door for me. Begging children appear as if out of thin air. The hotel towers overhead. Inside it is quiet and warm and busy. My room isn’t ready but the concierge says I can sit in the lobby until it is. I order a latte from a tiny, spotless stall. The girl brings it out and places it on the glass table in front of me. It tastes amazing. The concierge comes over and offers me an early check-in package for an extra R1,000 including a buffet breakfast. 

My suite is a bit extravagant for a solo traveller. It has three rooms. Everything is upholstered with pale green baize. I shower and descend to the Oceanic Room. I am starving. I eat fresh pineapple, bread rolls, two poached eggs, and toast with butter and marmalade. The waiter brings me a pot of English Breakfast tea. 

I sit at a table beside a wide plate glass window. Outside, it is raining. The raindrops splash onto the verdant foliage of palms and ferns planted in a garden.  Inside, I listen to a group of American tourists discussing their day. They don’t seem to know what they will be doing but something has been organised for them. I plan to go out and find a café and maybe visit the Park Street Cemetery. But first, I need to sleep.


Her long dress is bright amid the sea of black dresses…

It is raining on Park Street. Outside the big plate glass window of the Barista Café, the black tarmac of the street gleams beneath the rush of tyres and bright yellow taxis. People hurry past on the pavement beneath undulating waves of umbrellas. The rain drips gently from an opaque sky. Above the street, beyond the spider-web tracery of power and telephone lines, the white facades of Old Calcutta – British Calcutta – loom: parapets, columns, pediments and pilasters. Black-trunked peepal trees grow along the edge of the pavement, their pale green, oblate leaves silver-glazed with rain. 

A flood of cars – original Morris Oxfords, SUVs, bashed-up Hyundai Micros – stop momentarily for pedestrians. The digital clock on the building across the street reads 09:37. Another wave of umbrellas breaks along the strand of Park Street. Maroon 5 is playing on the café sound system: “this city’s made us crazy and we must get out…”

I finish my coffee and step out onto the street. I am immediately caught up in the flowing crowds: business-people on their way to work in the stone and steel towers louring overhead. After the quiet of the Barista Café, the roaring traffic, blaring horns and jostle of people is jarring. But the human current is inexorable; like a swimmer in a rip I have no choice but to go with it.  

Ahead of me, I see the Lady in Red. Her long dress is bright amid the sea of black dresses, dark coats, grey umbrellas and dark jeans. She is walking with a companion. Both of them are talking into their cellphones. 

There are crows on the power lines overhead. The warm rain drips from the trees. The cracked and broken pavement is littered with shimmering puddles. I pass a derelict building, the skeleton of its brickwork protruding from a skin of grimy white plaster tattooed with Arabic graffiti. The roots of a fig tree are entwined around it like a monster from a Ridley Scott sci-fi. The single, glassless eye of its window is choked with debris.   

The crowds thin to a trickle: a Kolkata trickle, that is, with hundreds of people rather than thousands. The lady in red and her friend cross Dr M.L.K. Sarani Street and disappear into the city. As I lose sight of her I feel like a mariner who has lost sight of a beacon. I am in unknown waters here. But I have my chart and my course is plotted. I turn right across Park Street and into the old cemetery.

Lady in Red.


And the dawn comes up like thunder, outta China, ‘crost the bay…
– Rudyard Kipling, Mandalay

Travelling is a series of vignettes and coincidences. As you move through landscapes and cross continents, you see things that remind you of home. You see familiar faces in crowds of complete strangers. Doppelgangers appear and disappear on platforms and street corners. Smells and sounds take you back to places long forgotten. Ironic wording on billboards and signs make you smile or snigger or, occasionally, laugh out loud. And coincidences sideswipe you in the most unexpected of places.

The scrolling sign in the embarkation shed beside the Hoogley read “Howrah to Fairlie.” I was watching it as I walked down the ramp towards a scowling attendant guarding the landing stage beside which a battered river ferry was moored. At first I thought it was a mis-print: common in India where English isn’t so much a second language as an add-on to Hindi, able to be mangled and mashed as required.

But there it was, Howrah to Fairle, scrolling from right to left in crimson neon on a rectangular screen fixed to the grubby wall above the attendant’s chair. Fairlie. The small country town in South Canterbury on New Zealand’s South Island. Fairlie. The place where I’d spent so many of my formative years; the place my wife came from and where her parents still live.  During my fifteen years as a High Country shepherd I had worked on farms and stations all around Fairlie. I’d been drunk in Fairlie. I had done my shopping in Fairlie. The Fairlie vet had treated my sheepdogs; the Fairlie garages had repaired my vehicles. Fairlie. It was a place so far removed in space and time from where I now stood, on the left bank of the Hooghly River in central Kolkata, that it seemed to belong to another world. Yet here I was, in Fairlie, waiting for a ferry to Howrah.

I crossed the river. The ferry was almost empty. I stood on the second deck in the cool breeze. The river shone like a strip of burnished copper in the morning sun. Upstream, the Hoogly Bridge stretched itself from bank to bank like a giant grey Meccano model. Water hyacinths drifted in the current, taking all their support and nourishment from the river. They reminded me of another great river, the Congo, deep in the dark heart of Africa, which Linda and I had floated down years before. 

On the south back the ferry nudged against a steel pontoon jetty. The deckhand moored it with a greasy rope, easing double hitches around the bitts welded inboard of the ferry’s forward fairlead. I stepped ashore. The other passengers climbed a covered ramp and disappeared into the crowds of commuters erupting from Howrah Station. I stayed on the jetty. Brick warehouses towered over the waterline. On a tiny concrete ghat, people washed their clothes and bathed. Slender wooden fishing boats, with ramshackle deck shelters of sticks and plastic arched amidships, lay moored to the muddy shore.     

The steel punts of the jetty clanged and creaked in the current. The river’s opaque water, swirling around the hulls with a sibilant hiss, had its source in the snowfields of the Himalayas: as distant in time and space as I was from those far-off days when I was a shepherd in the hills around Fairlie. Soon, the river would flow out into the Bay of Bengal and its waters would return to the endless cycle of evaporation and precipitation. I sat on a bollard looking across the river to another Fairlie, on the far shore. And the sun came up like thunder.    

‘an the dawn comes up like thunder…

FOOTNOTE: I have a 1908 copy of Barrack-room Ballads by Rudyard Kipling which includes his poem Mandalay.


He anoints my hands with a fragrant oil and bids me welcome…

“Allāhu ‘akbar; lā ‘ilāha ‘illā-llāh…”
(Allah is greater; there is no deity but Allah )
 – Muzzeim’s call to prayer

It is quiet inside the mosque. The roar of traffic out on Chowringhee Road, though still audible, is nothing more than a low murmur. I remove my shoes. A woman shows me where to put them. I climb the steps to the prayer hall. It is a simple open platform with columns supporting a vaulted ceiling. There are carpets on the floor directly outside the mosque’s internal hall. A geometric pattern of black and white tiles covers the rest of the floor.  A digital clock with a red display shows the current time at Mecca.

The mosque is small. Its main hall is surmounted by four slender minarets, one on each corner, topped by pale green cupolas.The roof itself is ornamented with a further ten cupolas, each one the same shape and colour as those of the minarets. Arched windows supported by four pillars, two on each side, allow light and fresh air into the prayer hall. An ablution block and accommodation facilities are located in a squat building of whitewashed plaster adjacent to the mosque.

The mosque takes its name from Tipu Sultan (1750-1799), ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, in south-western India. Deposed by the British after the Anglo-Mysore Wars of 1767-99, Tipu Sultan’s family were exiled to Calcutta (modern-day Kolkata). His youngest son, Prince Ghulam Mohammad, built the mosque as a memorial to his father in 1842. It’s affairs, along with those of an identical mosque built by the prince in Tollygunge, on the southern outskirts of Kolkata, are still administered by his descendants.

I am fascinated by Islam. Ever since I first hear the ghostly cry of a Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer in the darkness of an African dawn, I have been drawn to countries where Islam is one of the principal religions. On this visit to India I had hoped to visit many mosques. However, as is often the case with travel, this hadn’t worked out. My travels had taken me to predominantly Hindu regions of the subcontinent: places where Islam was a minority religion and, indeed, somewhat under siege by the resurgent Hindu Nationalism sweeping India.

And so I am here, briefly, in the Tipu Sultan Mosque, the only mosque I have visited, on my last day in India. There are three men sitting cross-legged in the centre of the prayer hall. In answer to my greeting of “as-salāmu ‘alaykum” (peace be upon you) they reply “wa ‘alayka s-salām” (and unto you peace). I sit on the floor near an outside corner of the prayer hall. I feel like an intruder in this holy place but I know that I am welcome, as are all people who enter a mosque. 

One of the men stands and comes over to me. His hair and beard are orange with henna. His feet are bare. He anoints my hands with a fragrant oil and bids me welcome. I thank him in English. He smiles and rejoins his friends. It is five in the afternoon. I feel a great peace come over me: nothing religious,  just an overwhelming sense of  tranquility. Outside the mosque, a taxi is waiting for me. Soon I will have to put on my shoes and once again submerge myself in the chaos of Kolkata. There is a muted click as a microphone is turned on, then an unseen Mussein begins his call: “Allāhu ‘akbar; lā ‘ilāha ‘illā-llāh…”

The Tipu Sultan Mosque, Kolkata.

The Plains of Madhya Pradesh.

Empty platforms in nameless towns flashing by.

I made these notes in my diary as I crossed the state of Madhya Pradesh on the SC DNR Express from Nagpur to Allahabad. 

07:20 Monday 17/2
Mist over the fields in the cool of dawn vanish in moments as the sun rises.
A man in an orange jacket standing beside a fire, the smoke rising vertically.
Scarecrows and low, rounded hills in the distance. Barley, wheat, canola with bright yellow flowers.¹
Dew dusting the crops with silver-grey.
Two cups of hot, sweet, gingery chai on the dawn-chilled platform at Jabalpur.

The fields encircled with trees.
The little ramshackle shelter shacks: roofs of junk on spindley stick legs.
Quicksilver pools of water in the hollows.
A yellow school bus on a red-dirt road.
Empty platforms in nameless towns flashing by.
A temple in a dappled clearing.
Farm workers, their heads swaddled in scarves against the morning chill, walk briskly towards the fields.
A man in a white dhoti and blue shirt holding a tethered calf.

The train stopped for half an hour in Satna. Leaving town, along the backs of houses I saw shitting dogs, mooching cows, razor-backed pigs, a schoolboy in a bright red sweater and tie. Then the littered outskirts. The word SEX painted in white on a brick wall. Mr Feet², as I’ve named him, noisily eating chaat from a tinfoil bag. Then brick kilns, warehouses, slummy dwellings and the smokestacks of factories steaming in the distance.

A bright yellow square temple on an embankment, surrounded by equally yellow canola flowers.
A battalion of pylons marching across the landscape and disappearing into the brown, smokey haze.    

¹ I discovered later that the bright green crop with yellow flowers was, in fact, mustard.
² One of the other passengers in my 2AC compartment.


Along the sandstone terrace beside the Kali temple and out into the sunlight beside the Ganges…

Dawn on Manikarnika Ghat. A cold breeze blows down the Ganges, chopping the water of the river with tiny wavelets and flapping the orange triangular flags adorning the riverside temples. It eddies around the funeral pyres burning down at the water’s edge, wafting the smell of woodsmoke up into the steep terraces of buildings stepping back and upwards from the river. A few bathers wash themselves in the sluggish water; a few cows mooch in search of breakfast. And in a tiny stall, the chai wallah is preparing his first brew of tea.

The Chai Wallah’s Kitchen.

I have walked down the labyrinth of narrow alleys to the ghat for my morning cup of chai. It’s become a ritual since I arrived in Varanasi. Wake up, check my social media, dress, walk down the six flights of concrete stairs to the alley outside the Shanti Guest House, avoid the cow and monkey shit on the flagstones as I descend to the river: right, left, left, down alleys cut like canyons between the overhanging houses. Down past the piles of firewood stacked up ready for sale to the body-burners. Along the sandstone terrace beside the Kali temple and out into the sunlight beside the Ganges.

The chai wallah has milk boiling in an aluminium pan over a little diesel burner. He stirs in sugar and a handful of tea leaves. He is sitting cross-legged on the worn wooden step of his little stall. He takes a small piece of ginger and grinds it to a paste on a flat stone with a stone pestle. The ginger goes into the milk which is now frothing up as it boils. The chai wallah tidies his work area and arranges five little cups made from fired Ganges mud: the ultimate disposable containers. 

The tea boils for a minute or two. I chat to the four other patrons, all local men, waiting for their chai. One man speaks a little English and I tell him that I will pay for their chai. A small boy arrives, a collection of coins jingling in his hand. I tell the man that I’ll buy his chai as well and that he can keep his change for pocket money.

The chai wallah pours the milky tea through a sieve into another aluminium pot then pours it into the five cups. I hand him a hundred Rupee note. The tea is hot and sweet and spicy, just the thing for a cold Varanasi morning. The chai wallah begins brewing his next batch of tea. Out on the river, the sun comes up through the fog. Another day begins on Manikarnika Ghat.

The Chai Wallah at work.