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Robert Hirschfield roams Calcutta at dawn where for once he finds himself almost alone.
THE BOY gets up to groan open the hotel gate for me. The same boy works at every hotel I ever stayed at in India. Thin, brown, silent, his smile besieged by a muscular frown.
I lean into the 5:30 darkness of a Calcutta morning. A rickshaw driver says, “Mother House.” A second rickshaw driver says, “Mother House.” I think of two clocks announcing the hour.
Inside their metal pull bars on Sudder Street, they want to take me to Mother Teresa’s Missionary Sisters of Charity House. My Jewish face, nose pointing towards leveled ghettos, is no impediment.
My face is linked to a pocket of warm rupees. Their empty bellies are beginning to turn in my pocket. Mother Teresa and the goddess Kali are the two female power spots of this city. The face of the old nun looks down at you from rotting walls, restaurants, the entrance to her home for the dying by the Kali Temple in Kalighat.
I once watched as some visiting American priests rolled out of their taxi, bodies low to the ground, running as if they had come under rocket fire. They were spooked by the mob of Hindu pilgrims with their blood-red flowers for Kali.
I will sometimes stand by the Howrah Bridge and notice how quickly every spare inch of space gets covered with people. I am sure if I don’t move fast enough, I will drown beneath Indian footsteps. In my mind, I write the lead for The Telegraph: Elderly journalist trampled to death. He was just too slow.
Which brings me back to 5:30AM outside the Diplomat Hotel. Between travel shops and biscuit and drink shops, shuttered, there is empty space. A phenomena as amazing as a Calcutta snowfall. Light-headed, I visit the awful plaster bust of Tagore. It seems he wrote some of his poetry at number 10 Sudder, my address.
The rickshaw drivers wait like well-mannered ghosts for me to finish up with Tagore. Then, maybe, I will be ready to rouse the nuns at Mother House from their chaste beds.
For more on India, please see a recent photo essay on Holi, the Festival of Colors.