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A long trip home.

October 17, 2009

Kolkata in the breaking dawn is everything you would imagine and more.   The light is so much softer than during the day, with a sky that has variations of colour which will eventually be wiped out by the heat.   At every road side there is movement – bodies stretching or washing or hunkered over small fires – and whilst the traffic has not yet acquired the ear splitting, horn blowing chaos that it will there are the first signs that engines are revving and pedesstrians flexing their ability to dodge almost certain death.

Kolkata Street Scene

Kolkata Street Scene

The shops that appear in the unlikeliest of places are still shuttered , the piles of rubbish are at peace , awaiting being swept ineffectively from one place to another, and the stagnant ditches and small ponds do not yet have children standing by their edge.

Men on bicycles are on their way to whatever they do and lorry drivers as well as rickshaw drivers  are leaving their shanty town tents and taking on their burden for the day.  At the airport a cow wanders its way down the approach road, forcing everyone to pay it tribute by slowly giving it a wide berth.

That all this was visible and undisturbed by the sound of our cavalcade  (the police four

Following the noise...

Following the noise...

by four had five men in it, and the siren went continually whilst the police car behind us had three and counterpointed every blast) says almost everything that needs to be said about the remarkable , vibrant, extraordinary city that is Kolkata .  It’s people go about their 16 million lives and visitors may be entranced, but they are transitory.  It seems to have been there for ever.

Two days is nothing in its time scale.   I look forward to seeing it again.

All too soon we were leaving the airport and then – some hours later – leaving Delhi ( a much calmer place , though I never thought I would see it that way !) .   The time scale of travel has also got its own momentum which feels like suspended animation so although some 24 hours passed between leaving the hotel and arriving at my flat in Edinburgh, it seemed both an instant and forever.

Now with the Scottish dawn rising, I am preparing to go to Inverness for the SNP Conference, where  (at 12.30) I am taking part in the launch of Gerry Hassan’s new book on the modern SNP and then tomorrow I will be speaking about the Referendum.

Kolkata , meantime, will be bustling with its  teeming humanity and forcing its way through its enervating heat.   Some of my thoughts will  still be there.

Meetings, Greetings and Farewells.

October 15, 2009

The Chief Minister of West Bengal is fond of films.   So he was particularly interested in our plan to exchange film students between Scotland and Kolkata, which I announced

The Chief Minister of the State of West Bengal

The Chief Minister of the State of West Bengal

here today.  We met in the meeting room by his office in the Writers Building, which is the former headquarters of the British East India Company and therefore the past nerve centre of the British in India.    In addition to the film plan we discussed heritage co-operation and building restoration, as well as the recording of monuments and Scottish participation in the forthcoming 150th anniversary of the birth of Tagore.

Exchanging gifts with the Mayor of Kolkata

Exchanging gifts with the Mayor of Kolkata

Then it was on to see the Mayor of Kolkata who presented me with a traditional scarf and made sure I wore it  for the entire meeting.   We talked about co-operation on heritage and about municipal problems and I promised to put him in touch with the administration in Dundee, which shares so much history with Kolkata.   He also entertained us to lunch at the Oberoi, where we are staying.

Next port of call was the Victoria Memorial, a wonderful vast structure in the centre of Delhi, the brainchild of Lord

Dr Panda shows me the story of Kolkata

Dr Panda shows me the story of Kolkata

Curzon when Viceroy.  The central chamber is topped with a huge dome and around the frieze their are scenes from the life of the Queen.   The galleries tell many different stories including that of Kolkata itself.

Before we left we were taken into a storage room to be shown the largest picture in Asia, and the third largest in the world.  It was painted by a Russian artist and illustrates a visit by George V to India.   In the same room were two keepsakes of Queen Victoria – her writing desk and her piano.   Dr Panda, the Director of the Victoria Memorial was a good host and full of information about an extraordinary place which is visited by over a million and a half people a year.

Our final port of call was St Andrew’s Church where the Minister , Andrew Simick gave us a

Rev Andrew Simick at St Andrew's, Kolkata

Rev Andrew Simick at St Andrew's, Kolkata

guided tour of a well preserved building full of emotive connections with Scotland.   The pulpit , communion table and all the furniture is made from antique black teak , and even the stairs are blocks of teak.

The church was exceptionally warm and after a cup of tea with members of the Kirk Session we were all ready to freshen up.   But I had interviews booked with two journalists including one from the Times of India.   And no sooner were they over than we all had to go to the Bengal Club for the last event of the visit – a reception hosted by the Scottish Government for arts and culture figures in Kolkata.

It was a most enjoyable evening – a large number of people turned up and all were enthusiastic about new links with Scotland.  As in Delhi the British Council had helped to dress the room and we ate afterwards out on the lawn, in the heat of an October Kolkata evening.   The blog, however, was beckoning, so now I am back at the hotel finishing it off, and preparing to leave Kolkata very early in the morning for a long journey home, that should see me in Edinburgh before midnight.

The final reception - the Bengal Club, Kolkata

The final reception - the Bengal Club, Kolkata

A passion for the past.

October 15, 2009
The Scottish Cemetery , Kolkata

The Scottish Cemetery , Kolkata

An early start in a very warm and somewhat humid Kolkata.   We arrived at the Scottish Cemetery around 8.00 am to be met by a large group which included James Simpson, the Scottish Conservation Architect and Professor De who is Chair of the West Bengal Heritage Commission (and whom I had met in Edinburgh some months ago).

The cemetery is a remarkable place.  There are about 1500 graves , the earliest of which dates back to around 1820.   It sits in the middle of a teeming city (and the word teeming could have been invented for Kolkata) yet it is a place of tranquillity.   Since the 1950’s the place had became overgrown and the monuments are rapidly deteriorating.   The Kolkata Scottish Heritage Trust,  chaired by Lord Charles Bruce, was founded two years ago to start the process of restoration.  The cemetery was cleared as recently as November 2008 but the growth rate is remarkable, and the work is having to be done again.

The oldest part has been stripped of vegetation and now the plan is to complete the task and then to raise the money to employ permanent staff to upgrade the grounds and then (after conservation training) to start on the gravestones and memorials.

The place is redolent of our shared heritage.  But is more than that – it is place of individual stories and a tribute to the individual passion of those in Kolkata who are caring for it and caring enough to put in place a long term plan.

Kolkata resident Mrs Gupta who has meticulously recorded the cemetery and rediscovered much of the history

Kolkata resident Mrs Gupta who has meticulously recorded the cemetery and rediscovered much of the history

On our way out we stopped at a particularly poignant site.   A young man from Falkirk arrived on the docks at Kolkata in 1936, ready to start work in the Jute trade.   As he stepped onto shore a bale of jute fell from a crane and killed him outright.   More than 70 years later his sister read of the work being done to restore the graves and got in touch with the Trust.   Aged 86 she is now able to know for the first time where her wee brother lies.

One of the party at the cemetery was Dr Sengupta who is Director of the State Archeological Museum (and whom I had also met in Edinburgh)

Dr Sengupta went ahead of us to greet us once more when we arrived at his museum to discuss with him collaboration on a variety of projects and to see his remarkable collection of artefacts and records.

Dr Sengupta and his colleagues are preserving and recording a hugely complex past.

Dr Sengupta at the Museum

Dr Sengupta at the Museum

But they sometimes  feel frustrated that so much may be lost for ever from every age of history.

Yet they are succeeding in presenting in their museum a rich and detailed story, and it serves to remind us all that the culture of his part of India is long and the achievements of its artists and craftsmen (and those who governed it) were well in advance of our own , particularly in the European Dark Ages.   Sculpture, iron work and terracotta flourished and examples abound in the museum.

Now the travelling group is back in the hotel, preparing for signing the Memorandum of Understanding on Heritage with the Chief Minister of West Bengal.   And I – having been well provided for by the hotel in terms of instant renovation of what I was wearing yesterday – have just been re-united with my luggage.   Thanks to the efforts of the SDI staff and Air India – plus the High Commission.   I am grateful.

Ups and Downs…

October 14, 2009

A day of firsts  – not all welcome.   The first signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Indian Renewable Energy Ministry and any UK administration.   The first meeting between a Scottish Minister and the Secretary of the Indian Foreign Ministry.  The first Scottish Government Ministerial visit to Kolkata.

But – the first time I have ever been stuck in a lift.   And the first time (in twenty years – it happened once in St Louis)  I have lost my luggage .

The Exchange of Documents.

The Exchange of Documents.

The good ones to start with.   The Memorandum of Understanding agreed between myself and Dr Farooq Abdullah, the Minister for New and Renewable Energies starts the process of building relationships and projects in this vital field.  The signing was held in the Ministry in front of their senior officials and scientists and everyone is keen to take collaboration forward.  The British High Commissioner (above left) was also present.  Neither of us look as if we spent some anxious minutes stuck in a lift prior to my meeting with Dr Abdullah, with the fan running down and no idea where we were.   Fortunately we were only a couple of feet off the first floor and the doors were soon forced open.

The Ministry for External Affairs

The Ministry for External Affairs

Then it was off to the Ministry of External Affairs, housed in the magnificent Lutyens complex surrounding the Presidential Palace.   The conversation with the Secretary of the Department was wide ranging and informative , touching on a whole variety of concerns shared by our two countries.    In particular we considered areas of common interest with regard to Climate Change and the progress being made in Scotland and India.

Two media interviews at the British HIgh Commission rounded off the Delhi trip.  One was with an old friend – Dean Nelson who used to be based in Scotland but who is now South Asia Editor for the Telegraph.   The other was from a new

Meeting Utpal Bhaskar from mint

Meeting Utpal Bhaskar from mint

business newspaper, Mint, which is partnered with the Wall Street Journal and which is one of six business newspapers in India.   Their journalist, Utpal Bhaskar , was sharp and well informed.  His piece should be interesting.

Our subsequent journey to the airport was through a number of traffic jams – getting worse as Diwali approaches.  The flight to Kolkata was full, but uneventful and we were met at Kolkata airport by Mustaq Birader who is the Deputy Head of Mission for the UK Government in Kolkata.   After half an hour waiting for the luggage we were shown to our cars, where alas it became apparent that my suitcase was not waiting to be loaded up.   It transpired that it was still in the hotel in Delhi, having been missed when all the luggage was collected for transit.   So as I write this I am waiting for the only clothes I have to be taken away and freshened up for tomorrow , when – I am assured – my suitcase will arrive though not until mid morning !

The journey in from the airport was lengthy but livened up by the police four by fours front and rear of our little convoy, with lights flashing and sirens blaring.   They also accompanied us later as we went out for dinner to a wonderful local restaurant.  And they brought us back to the hotel not half an hour ago !

Tomorrow is a very busy day.   A culture day, almost entirely, but the business interests we are trying to help will not be forgotten because Mark Hallan the SDI man in India is still with us.   Frank  Boyland, the  SDI Director for the whole of Asia  has left us though as have the two Delhi employees , Rooma and Punita.   Thanks to all of them – this is the group photo !

Mark, Rooma, Punita and Frank - thanks....

Mark, Rooma, Punita and Frank - thanks....

An Indian Evening.

October 13, 2009
At William Dalrymple's listening to the Baul Musicians

At William Dalrymple's listening to the Baul Musicians

It was a long drive to William Dalryple’s house – in fact , the longest as Diwali is here and most people are already on the move , celebrating the most important Indian Festival.   Fairy lights abound in the streets and shops and even at the filling stations.

What was meant to be a 45 minute trip took almost two hours.  But we were met by his wife Olivia with the warmest of greetings and even William – despite having  endured a succession of journalists during the day , interviewing him about his new book (Nine Lives, which is published in India tomorrow by Bllomsbury) – when he appeared was the perfect host.

But there was much more than conversation.   Unbeknown to us he is presently touring the world with a group of Bengali Baul Musicians , and they were staying with him.  So seated on a carpet on the grass we were treated to a wonderful evening of song and instrumental music, all translated for us whilst the Baul tradition was explained.   A potted version is contained in this Guardian article from a few weeks ago.

And over dinner we then discussed the Jaipur Literary Festival, which he runs, and the possibility of getting Scottish authors involved.

We were meant to be with him for an hour.  Without noticing it turned into almost three.  The breeze was warm, the sky starry and the scent of the trees and flowers was wonderful.   Perhaps the most authentic and captivating Indian evening our group has ever had.

The Baul Musicians of Bengal

The Baul Musicians of Bengal

A day in pictures…

October 13, 2009

I am on my way to see the author William Dalrymple , who has kindly invited us to his farm outside Delhi for the evening.  So perhaps the quickest way to blog at the moment is to give you a day in pictures:

10:00 am:  Mr Sunil Munjal, Chairman HeroITES - Hero is the largest Indian investor in Scotland and owns TSC a Scottish call centre business with offices in Rothesay, Dunoon, Larbert, Stornoway, Aviemore, Erskine and Kilmarnock

10:00 am: Mr Sunil Munjal, Chairman HeroITES - Hero is the largest Indian investor in Scotland and owns TSC , a Scottish call centre business with offices in Rothesay, Dunoon, Larbert, Stornoway, Aviemore, Erskine and Kilmarnock

12:00 :  Rahul Dhir, CEO of Cairn India with two of their Scottish employees, Colin McIntyre and Alan Crichton.  Cairn has firm Scottish roots and is responsible for 20% of Indian Oil and Gas production.   The wheel is the one that the Indian Prime Minister turned to start oil flowing into the major new pipeline in June this year

12:00 : Rahul Dhir, CEO of Cairn India with two of their Scottish employees, Colin McIntyre and Alan Crighton. Cairn has firm Scottish roots and is responsible for 20% of Indian Oil and Gas production. The wheel is the one that the Indian Prime Minister turned to start oil flowing into the major new pipeline in June this year

2.30 : Ujwal Niketan Orphanage where PSN and Cairn ex pat employees have been instrumental in the building of a new dormitory for abandoned and orphaned children from Gurgaon.

2.30 : Ujwal Niketan Orphanage where PSN and Cairn ex pat employees have been instrumental in the building of a new dormitory for abandoned and orphaned children from Gurgaon.

The official opening , which I undertake with a little help from one of the girls.

The official opening , which I undertook with a little help from one of the girls.

You may have no idea where tapioca comes from - but honestly, it comes from these tapioca trees, the first I have ever seen and growing (for food purposes) at the orphanage.

You may have no idea where tapioca comes from - but honestly, it comes from these tapioca trees, the first I have ever seen and growing (for food purposes) at the orphanage.

4.45: Meeting with Kapil Sibal, Minister for Human Resource Development .  Minister Sibal is engaged on a programme of reform and modernisation and there will be opportunities for partnership with Scottish academic institutions and Scottish education providers.  He is also a writer and poet (we exchanged copies of our own books)  and his plans for a UNESCO Tagore commemoration in 2011 will be supported enthusiastically by the Scottish Government.

4.45: Meeting with Kapil Sibal, Minister for Human Resource Development . Minister Sibal is engaged on a programme of reform and modernisation and there will be opportunities for partnership with Scottish academic institutions and Scottish education providers. He is also a writer and poet (we exchanged copies of our own books) and his plans for a UNESCO Tagore commemoration in 2011 will be supported enthusiastically by the Scottish Government.

Mou and mouser….

October 12, 2009
Fire eating at the British Council

Fire eating at the British Council

The MOU was the memorandum of understanding which I witnessed this afternoon between Universities Scotland and the Association of Indian Universities .  Witnessing along with me was Mr Thakur, the Additional Secretary of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, who made a most interesting speech, talking about the educational reforms which the current newly elected Indian Government intends to introduce in the next session of Parliament.   The challenge is massive but so are the resources being applied to the task – some 16 new Universities to be built, to continue to support the output of 2.5 million graduates a year.   Half the population of Scotland !

In an interview with the Times of India after the ceremony I likened a MOU to an engagement – a declaration of serious intent which needs to be followed up by further action. Both sides intend to do so.

Late afternoon I met a leading Indian company which  is in discussion with SDI about investment in Scotland.   The omens are good and the deal is almost closed.   Hopefully there will be a positive announcement within the next few months.

Then this evening we had the fire eaters.  And the been players (who used to be snake charmers, we were told from the platform).   And the piper.   And India Alba, a wonderful combination of traditional musicians from both Scotland and India.

The reception was held in the British Council building  in New Delhi, an inspirational modern construction  with a wonderful courtyard, which was hung with Scottish banners and which formed a great natural theatre.    The drink sponsors were Bowmore, but alas their product was involved in a car accident on the way, and had to be replaced sometime after we had started.  They made it though, and the peaty, sea-weedy aroma (the distillery sits right on the rocks by the shore in the village – I can see it clearly in my mind’s eye)  overcame the meths which the amazing fire eater used in his performance.

"Should auld acquaintance ?"

"Should auld acquaintance ?"

The lone piper had greeted us on our entrance from a balcony way above the invited guests and after the speeches the been players and India Alba provided the perfect backdrop to meetings and conversation.   I was lucky enough to join then at the end for the most unusual rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” I have ever heard.

Tomorrow includes an orphanage visit, and conversations with companies who are investing in India from Scotland, and in Scotland from India.

But it has been a long day.  And the mouser…in case you have been paying attention.  A lovely black cat, a little like my own, crept across the courtyard and under the stage whilst the Director of the British Council in India , Ruth Gee was speaking.   A most auspicious start to a great evening.