India Travel Diary: Calcutta
Chapter 1: Calcutta
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January 11th, Calcutta
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Arrival at Calcutta airport goes smoothly. Few Westerners fly into Calcutta. The young lady at immigration asks if this is my first visit to India. "I was here in a former life," I say. "Do you remember your former life?", she asks. I reply, "I was a Tibetan monk, and I came to India on a pilgrimage." She smiles. I don't tell her that I was on a pilgrimage to the four holy places of Buddhism (Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and Kushinagara), but died from the heat after visiting only the first three.
During the taxi ride from the airport to the cheap hotels in Sudder Street the first beggar appears at the window asking for baksheesh. Clad in dirty rags, like most of the poor in Calcutta, he yet expresses a human warmth which is rarely found in people in the West. Fortunately I have a five-rupee coin to give him, for which he expresses his gratitude. I'm lucky to be able to give something to him when asked, and to receive a sort of blessing in return. A good omen for my stay in India.
The taxi driver drops me off at the hotel I had requested, which turns out to be unsuitable. I try two more hotels with no luck. Then I try the Astoria. There's a room for 600 rupees (US$13), which I think is not good value. I check the next place, the Park, and for 400 rupees get a small room, grubby like all the others I've seen, with a bath and something like a desk, so I take it. Hard mattress, small and mid-sized cockroaches, but at least there's hot water.
The overwhelming impression produced by Calcutta is of chaos, dirt, decay and grime. What redeems it is the people. In circumstances which would reduce most Westerners to despair within half an hour the Bengalis cope, retain their dignity and even radiate warmth and good humor.
Sudder Street has lots of people, cars, rickshaw wallahs, shops (some just holes in the wall), touts walking alongside you, "Come this way, sir, very nice, no buy, just looking!"
I want to buy some skin cream, containing a steroid, for a skin rash. In most Western and Westernized countries you can't get it without a doctor's prescription. I walk into a pharmacy (here it's called a "chemist") and show the empty tube I have and voila! an equivalent is immediately produced. Twenty rupees (50 US cents). No fuss. Other items are also available without a prescription.
I find a cybercafe. Cheap but slow. In an hour I can't even deal with the backlog of messages.
January 12th, Calcutta
I go out at 9 a.m. looking for breakfast. The Bengalis get their tchai (sweet milky tea) and bread roll from street stalls, and sit on wooden benches. Westerners tend to go to the little restaurants that exist to cater to them (if they exist, as here in Calcutta). The toast and butter is starchy and bland, and the fried eggs about as unappealing as you can get, but at least it's all edible.
I share a table with a young French woman, been two months in India. Works in Hong Kong awhile, then travels. Doesn't want to return to France. We talk about the differences between Indians and Westerners, how Westerners are (in comparison), reserved and formal. In India (and elsewhere in Asia) people make a lot more contact with each other, talk more to strangers. In Europe this happens only in the Mediterranean countries.
I sleep for a few hours around midday. Seeking to escape from being in Calcutta, a bit of culture shock after Singapore. I go out in early afternoon, find a cybercafe; again cheap but very slow.
Street hawker selling postcards of Hindu deities. I know them all, except for Amba. Back at the hotel I stick the picture of Ganesh in the mirror frame. (Later, when I leave, I will forget to take it with me.)
I walk along the nearby main street, Chowringhee. There is a political rally, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is marshalling its supporters in a march to make some political statement. Sure are a lot of people.
Having heard of Calcutta's renowned subway I think I'll take a ride for a few stations and maybe visit one of the ghats on the Hoogley River. I go down into the Park Street station, walk along until I came to the ticket counters, am directed by some attendants to the start of the queue, which turns out to be over a hundred yards long! I decide not to join the queue. I wait until a train pulls in. The carriages are packed full of people. That's what happens when you build a subway with a single line in a city of 13 million people and a million of them want to use it at any one time.
I want to buy a Bartholemew map of India, so go to Oxford Books in Park St. All they have is an Indian-made map in the same format and design, but with none of the topographic details which makes the Bartholemew map so interesting and useful. Presumably Bartholemew is no longer permitted to sell their good maps in India, being a non-Indian publisher, and all that is available is this fairly useless Indian-made imitation. Thanks a lot.
I go next door to Kwality restaurant. Pricey. Presumably for well-to-do Indians to flaunt their well-to-do-ness. Consider a mutton curry. Does it come with rice? No, you have to order a pricey rice dish to get rice. Ridiculous. In India curries are always eaten with rice. I leave without ordering.
I walk through some back streets. Apartment buildings that look as if they are a hundred years old and haven't had any repair work done on them in all that time. Grime, rubbish. I get a rickshaw back to Sudder Street (pay the rickshaw wallah twenty rupees, probably four times what an Indian would pay, though I don't begrudge it and he was happy) and have my mutton curry with rice in another restaurant for a reasonable price.
My flashlight finally died. The one with the rubber casing that I could hold between my teeth so I could use both hands. At least it worked well for eight years. I don't suppose I'll see its like again.
Have a strange dream, in which I'm in a modern church, full of people. Somehow I have a simple representation of Christ-on-the-Cross, about 10 cm long, made of gold. I set it in its silk-lined case and allow it to be found by a woman a couple of rows in front of me. She is happy to find it. I wonder whether I should let her know it is a gift from me.
January 13th, Calcutta
I get especially runny fried eggs at breakfast. Sit at a table by the front window and watch the 9 a.m. street scene. Several mangy dogs running around playfully. A lot of parents bringing their 8-year-olds by rickshaw to the local Montessori school.
Although there are some places I'd like to see in and near Calcutta, such as Dakshineshwar, 20 km. north, I want to be getting on to Bolpur and Kendubilwa, a couple of hundred kilometers north of Calcutta, to try to catch the annual gathering of Bauls which occurs around mid-January. So I'd better be making my train reservation. My guide book, the Rough Guide to India, says this is now not difficult to do, and as it turns out they are right.
The rickshaw wallah says he'll take me to BBD Bagh (for the West Bengal tourist office) for fifteen rupees, but goes just a hundred meters or so to the New Market and won't go any further (because, he now tells me, rickshaws are not allowed on Chrowringhee). I give him ten rupees (ten more than he's worth) and start to walk. Chowringhee as usual is a madhouse. The word "cacophony" fits the streets of Calcutta perfectly. The worst is the constant blaring of horns by drivers stuck in traffic or warning pedestrians in their path, and pedestrians are always in their path.
Finally I get to the tourist office, and discover that the Baul festival (more properly called the Jaidev Mela), which I came to India to attend, has its main days tomorrow and the day after. So I have to make a train reservation for tomorrow. But it's approaching 2 p.m., when (didn't the guidebook say?) the banks close, and I have to change money before I leave Calcutta. There are supposed to be a lot of big banks in the city center, so I look for one. But a bank in India is not like a bank anywhere else. Banks look smart, usually impressive, sometimes extravagantly so. But not in India, or at least, not in Calcutta. All the buildings in the main business district are grubby and rundown. Some have a sign outside announcing that they are banks. Walk inside and it looks like a warehouse with counters. Men sit in cubicles behind wire mesh, seemingly doing nothing. Nowhere is there any hint of a foreign exchange counter.
Finally I return to the West Bengal tourist office and ask where I can change money. Just up the street at the money changer, R.N.Dutt & Co. I find the entrance, and walk into a dingy, rundown building which looks like no cleaner has been inside for twenty years. I locate the moneychanger's office, which is small and full of men sitting around. The manager welcomes me, and within ten minutes I have changed my cash for 19,000 or so Indian rupees in denominations of my choosing. All very efficient and easy. I'm careful to check the banknotes for rips and tears, since in India no-one will accept a torn banknote.
I then locate the train reservation office. Indians queue at various windows with incomprehensible signs (all in Hindi, of course). Fortunately there's a foreigners' office upstairs, and the man behind the counter is quite helpful. In five minutes I have my ticket and reservation for the train next morning from Howrah to Bolpur, not far from Kendubilwa (a.k.a. Kenduli) where the Jaideva Mela takes place. It's also close to Shantiniketan (where Rabindranath Tagore lived), which I plan to visit.
I'd like to visit the Nimtola Ghat to see the sadhus who come through Calcutta this time of year on their way to some gathering south of Calcutta. I start walking in that direction, but the traffic and crowds are too much, and I grab a taxi back to Sudder Street.
Some shopping in the late afternoon at the New Market. I buy a couple of Ravi Shankar CDs to complement the eight Naxos CDs of classical music I bought in Singapore (along with a CD player, so I'd have a way to stay sane in India). And a new flashlight, Chinese-made, for a dollar. I said, "How long will it last, a week?" As it turns out it lasts only a day.
I head back to Sudder Street for dinner. Get my boots cleaned very efficiently by a shoe-shine wallah for 25 cents.
I'm looking forward to getting out of Calcutta tomorrow.
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Thanks for sharing. This brought back some fond (and not so fond!) memories of my own trip to Varanasi years ago. What year were you there? Your article doesn’t say.
There were so many things I enjoyed about India. What an amazing people and culture!
I still try to recreate some of the tastes I experienced there (although I had to be pretty careful where I ate if I didn’t want to die!)
The romance of a street seller’s tea was hard to resist, so we’d watch from afar for a bit to make sure things were done properly.
My favorite tea seller was a woman crouched in a rubbled side alley, true Indian fashion (a squat), in a dusty Punjabi. She made her tea carefully in a large steel pot, beat and dented, on top of an old propane single burner.
She made tea in very small 2-3 cup batches, crushing her spices and then bringing sugared water to boil briefly, then stirring in the milk to bring it to temp, cooking long enough to kill MOST (😱) of the bacteria - good enough for us, anyway.
She served our tea in roughly formed but smooth-lipped raw clay cups, and she had a lovely smile. I think we overpaid her, happily.
I’ll always remember those cups - the height of disposability, handmade and single-use, and then dropped into the street where they became one with the road on the next rain. Like us, if we’re lucky, only faster.