16 JULY 1983, Page 5


110o legs at all, no legs at all.' I heard the .16 words wafting up from the pavement behind me as 1 supervised the unloading of my luggage from the car which had delivered me to Calcutta airport. The words were correctly pronounced in almost BBC English and sounded detached and rather quizzical. But they were no less than the truth, for I turned round to see a pathetic, legless youth stretching out his hand towards me. `No legs at all were clearly the only words in English he knew and I felt he might have picked them up over the years from departing British tourists — 'Oh look, my dear. Isn't it ghastly. No legs at all.' So I gave him a couple of rupees and went to catch the aeroplane for London. Having Spent a week in Calcutta brushing beggars aside, I spend my last morning there han- ding out minute sums of money to the regulars as a reward for their persistence. Most people, particularly foreigners, advise one strongly against giving anything to beg- gars. They enjoy a reputation similar to that in Britain of the social security scrounger. One is encouraged to regard them as thoroughly undeserving and probably rather rich. It is put about that they mutilate themselves on purpose in order to attract sympathy. But I don't believe that People cut off both their legs for fun. And 'fit is the case, as it appears to be, that they are not among the lowest earners in the city, this can only mean that a lot of Indians feel genuine pity for them. In the slums of Calcutta, which are inhabited by one quarter of the city's 10 million people, the average wage is 107 rupees (about £7) a Month. In one slum I visited, however, I was told that the beggars earned 10 to 12 rupees a day (about £22 a month).

On my first evening in Calcutta I atten- ded the Fourth of July celebrations at the American Consulate-General. To my sitprise I found that the Consulate was situated in Ho Chi Minh Street. This turned out to have been a joke played on the Americans by the Marxist government of West Bengal. The street used to be called Harrington Street, but for fun the authorities decided to rename it after the man who had caused the United States the i.eatest humiliation in its history. Perhaps it Was

by the government of West Bengal

that the Marxist government of Camden was inspired a few weeks ago when it decid- ed to rename a dingy little road called n)elous Street in honour of the South African anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela. As 1 reported in the Spectator last IncInth, this decision was taken after the At ntt-Apartheid Movement moved its of- ices. into Selous Street. The Movement im- Tedlately assumed that it was called after erederick Selous, the African hunter and

explorer whose name was adopted by the `Selous Scouts', Mr Ian Smith's notorious anti-insurgent force in Rhodesia. It in fact commemorates a Victorian painter of the same name, but this did not prevent a sym- pathetic Camden Council from responding at once to a request that it should be chang- ed. The decision has created both con- troversy and confusion. Although a final decision is to be taken this Friday by the Greater London Council, Camden's Works Department his already put up a Mandela Street sign and taped it over pending fur- ther instructions. This week someone removed both the tape and the old sign say- ing Selous Street, so that at the time of writing the Mandela supporters are vic- torious. Camden ordered the Mandela sign to be put up early because they hoped to rename the street in time for the great man's birthda'y next Monday. Perhaps they already felt certain of GLC support. For those who are interested in this scandal, there is also a letter on page 19 from Com- mander G.M.B. Selous, great-nephew of Captain Frederick Selous.

At the party in the Consulate-General I was introduced to a very small man with a large cigar called Jatin Chakraborty, West Bengal's minister for public works. Knowing nothing about him, except that he was a Marxist, 1 made the rather fatuous opening remark that in Britain we tended to associate cigars with politicians of the Right rather than the Left. He scowled at me and walked off. I subsequently discovered that he had good reason to be in a bad mood. Not only had he been accused in that morn- ing's newspaper of corruption, but he had recently made himself the laughing stock of Calcutta by banning one of India's most popular singers from all theatres or

auditoria managed by the state govern- ment. The singer, Miss Usha Uthup, is — at least by Western standards — highly respec- table and in the habit of giving concerts for charity. But Mr Chakraborty, who turns out never to have heard her sing, pronounc- ed her 'indecent' and her music 'decadent'. His ban, he explained, was part of his ef- forts to 'maintain the traditional culture of West Bengal' — a policy which has led him, wherever possible, to remove British statues and any other vestiges of the Raj. The city, however, still abounds in British monuments, the most impressive being the Victoria Memorial, a domed marble ex- travaganza commissioned by Lord Curzon on the Queen's death in 1901. The Presi- dent of India, who happened to be visiting Calcutta last week, astonished journalists by describing it at a press conference as more beautiful in his opinion than the Taj Mahal, The Indian press generously agreed not to report this extraordinary remark Despite Mr Chakraborty, the British monuments in Calcutta appear on the whole to be better maintained than most other buildings.

j was unable to see Mother Teresa because I she is in hospital in Rome recovering from a heart attack. Her Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta are praying for her, but — it seemed to me — without great expecta- tion that she will ever return to them. Meanwhile, her work goes on. Since 1952, when she opened a home for dying destitutes in Calcutta, her activities have ex- panded rapidly, She now runs 38 homes in the city, serving the sick and the poor. I visited her children's home which currently looks after 327 ill, blind or mentally retard- ed children as well as supplying food every day for about 2,000 very hungry people whom I found queuing outside the gate. Some people in Calcutta are sceptical. They point out, correctly, that hers is neither the oldest nor the largest mission in the city do- ing the same kind of work. They claim that she is less efficient than others. They argue that she has received international attention out of proportion to her achievement which, in the context of Calcutta, is a mere drop in the ocean. These criticisms may or may not be justified. But it is impossible not to be impressed. The children, however ill they may be, are visibly happy. The nuns who look after them are happy too. Indeed, they never stop smiling, which I found just a little disturbing. In such circumstances it is amazing how quickly one can overcome one's revulsion to sickness and deformity. I found myself picking up little children whom normally I would not have dared to touch. But what I found oddest about the place was a large, framed photograph on the nursery wall of HRH the Prince of Wales sitting with a golden labrador in front of Balmoral Castle: Nobody could tell me why he was so specially revered in such a place.

Alexander Chancellor