Dan Simmons’ novel Song of Kali enveloped me in a strange journey into India that reminded me again of an old old saying that didn’t explain much when I first heard it. “The black hole of Calcutta” could have meant anything but Simmons took it to a special realm. The book is a couple of decades old and now I wonder if he strained the goodwill of India with his depiction of a city that instills a severe physical revulsion in the reader.
Even the sinister presence of the goddess Kali crawling on six limbs in the ill-lit darkness does not horrify as do images, in the poor quarters, of waist-high piles of stinking garbage overrun with rats in alleyways. Simmons presents a particularly sickening scene of the protagonist foundering in garbage and human waste. The overlying, stifling heat over Calcutta and masses of human beings jostling each other at the airport almost killed off this reader.
I wonder if matters have improved since, if they were ever that bad, though I don’t suppose the crowds at the airport have changed. A long time ago, in 1952, the cargo ship Sebastian Cabot, which carried my family and me from China to Italy, made stops at Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Bombay (now Myanmar), and Karachi, Pakistan.
My sister and I spent a night ashore in Bombay in the home of Father Roque Pereira’s sister, while Father Pereira escorted us on a brief ride through the city. I recall the streets at night covered with sleeping bodies that caused our host to drive slowly around them. He even took us to a movie and I remember the name of it — The Golden Horde. The next day, my sister and I addressed the Catholic University’s students in a church, telling of the communist persecution of Catholics in Shanghai. I signed autographs, for undeserved celebrity, as I hadn’t done anything except being exiled from China.
i am told by a California Writers Club member that India holds six million readers of English literature. The population is catching up with that of China. History and humanity stagger on.