US Army Guide to Calcutta, circa 1945

At this summer’s Westport Public Library Book Sale I came across a guide to Calcutta, India prepared by the Information and Education Branch of the United States Army Forces during World War II.

The Calcutta Key

The small pamphlet provides both cultural information and advice on living abroad in the city. Brigadier General Robert Reese Neyland provides the following introduction:


Once I knew a man who grew up in Philadelphia but never visited Independence Hall located there. I know several New Yorkers who though they live in its shadow, have never visited the Statue of Liberty.

I hope it can never be said that you were in Calcutta and didn’t visit the Burning Ghats, the Kalighat Temple, and some of the other – equally famous – sights which Calcutta affords.

If you come here with an open mind you will find Calcutta is “Teek-Hai” (Okay). Of course, it’s just like visiting any big city back home: you can have a good time, or a bad time, depending on how well you take care of yourself.

Incidentally, the people here like us. They think we’re all right. Thanks to the good behavior of American soldiers who preceded you, a friendly welcome from these folks awaits you. If you behave equally as well, a similar welcome will await your buddies who follow you in here.


Br. Gen. R. R. Neyland

Calcutta, 1945.

(Information and Education Branch, The Calcutta Key,  3)

Illustration for “That Minor Sport – Bargaining”

Unfortunately, Islam and Muslims are rarely mentioned in the publication. Nevertheless, there are a few notices. Under the section “People in Calcutta” we find the following:

The Local Man. Being a Bengal he usually has no headdress. Of the Bengalis only the Muslim wears a fez, and even then he does not wear one all the time. The Bengali is the chap who wears a sheet-like cloth which you will see draped about his waist and legs, with the ends of the cloth tucked between the legs – sometimes winding up in a flowing, folded end that hangs in front. The shirt-like garment is worn outside the lower one. (Remember those jitter-bugs back home who thought they were starting a new fad by allowing their shirttails to hang outside their trousers?)

(The Calcutta Key, 7)

Mention is also made of “the Nakhoda Mosque which is the largest Mohammaden mosque in Calcutta” under the “American Red Cross Daily Tours” as part of the second of such excursions (The Calcutta Key, 45).

On a more general note, we find the following interesting description under the section “Our Allies”:

You Look At The Indian. You look at the Indian daily, you pass him on the streets, his life touches yours constantly. But do you actually see him, do you get a picture of what makes him tick, or do you brush him off in your mind as “That darn native who….”? (He is an Indian, not a native, by the way – and you, being a non-Asiatic in a country where all such visitors are for convenience classed as Europeans, you are a ‘European’) You do see that the Indian is different from yourself. Granted. But – do you see that the difference between the two of you does not give you a reason to criticise the Indian? Do you try to realize that the Indian’s dress is not strange for India? Rather, it fits the climate here. The Indian thinks his turban to be sacred and does not want it touched. Is that silly to you? Okay, soldier, how’d you like to be back in the United States sporting a new light-grey snap-brim felt and have some stranger come along and casually reach up to finger it? When the stranger had picked himself up…! Many Indian women object to hands being touched even in a friendly handshake. Perhaps you may feel the same way about the French custom of kissing you on both cheeks. Kissing you, the nerve of the guy! Everywhere, in streams, ponds, or under public fountains, you will see Indians taking baths by pouring water on themselves; although they have their own standards and their own instincts for cleanliness, a great number of Indians consider a bathtub to be dirty. Queer of them, isn’t it? Ha, ha! Some of our own States once outlawed the use of bathtubs as being immoral. To repeat, yes, the Indian is different. But instead of merely noticing that difference and judging it hastily, suppose we take a good long second look and attempt to understand the fellow’s customs and ways of living. Remember, it is an age-old failure to laugh at things that you do not understand.

(The Calcutta Key, 11-12)

Illustration for “What To Do and Where To Go”

Finally, some concise guidelines:


1. Avoid political discussions.

2. Act here with the same common courtesy you use at home.

3. Guide the other fellow’s conduct; ‘breaks’ reflect on all.

4. Replace, “Hey, you!” with “Bhai!” or “Brother!”

5. Discuss Indian customs out of their sight and hearing.

6. You’re in Rome. Keep your ways; let the Romans have theirs.

7. Keep your temper; the Indian will keep his.

8. An attitude of respect leads to ‘breaks’ being forgiven.

9. Take pictures only of the laboring classes (and them only if they cnnsent [sic]); upper-class Indians don’t like to be photographed.

10. Look at passing British and Indian women without tossing remarks at them. Four out of five women over here are offended by “yoo-hoos.”

(The Calcutta Key, 16-17)

The publication page of “The Calcutta Key”

Now, a bonus excerpt:

Women. (whoops, here we go again! But we don’t mind knocking ourselves out if you guys don’t mind listening.) Those of you who have already made up your minds to abstain, kindly turn to the next movie section and decide what show you want to go to tonight. That eliminates part of the audience – we hope. To go on: As in any port city in the Orient, Calcutta is riddled with venereal diseases. Studies show that professional prostitutes are 150% infected (half have one and the other half have two). Even in the native population the rate is well over 50%. That good-looking amateur whom you think you convinced by your personal charm may be just the baby to hand you a gift package – unwrapped.

(The Calcutta Key, 75)

The final illustration in “The Calcutta Key” pamphlet

Information and Education Branch, United States Army Forces in India-Burma. The Calcutta Key. Calcutta: The Indian Press Limited, n.d. [ca. 1945].

3 thoughts on “US Army Guide to Calcutta, circa 1945

  1. Pingback: oh, collegiate grief

  2. Brilliant would be an understatement. We at Calcutta Walks are designing a WWII tour of the city and this information is invaluable. Thank you. Shukraan.
    As a gesture of our appreciation please feel free to join us on any of our tours complimentary when you’re in the city.
    Kind regards,

    Explorer Ifte

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