The Black Hole of Calcutta
I have been praising the efficiency of the Indian rail system to several people over the last month, every train I have caught in the four months I’ve been here has left on time and arrived on time, if not early. I should have known better. My journey from Varanasi to Kolkata should have taken a mere 14 hours, arriving at the crack of dawn. It was almost two hours late arriving in Varanasi, which was fine by me as I figured it would be nicer to arrive in the city at 8.30am rather than 6! In my hurry to get a cycle rickshaw from the guest house, I forgot to ask them to pack me some food. No worries, I thought, a pack of crisps and chocolate chip cookies and two oranges will do me just fine until I get breakfast in Kolkata. Little did I know that a shooting by police of political protesters in West Bengal had caused the political party to call for a shut down of local trains, taxis, buses, shops and services in the city. My train was therefore delayed by, get this, 13 hours. It just sat at one station for 4 hours and another for about 6, unmoving and stationary. And there were no chai men. Just when I need India’s no. 1 liquid refreshment of choice, it is cruelly taken away. No chai men, nobody selling samosas, pani puri or anything. In 24 hours I had a packet of magic masala crisps, eight chocolate chip cookies, two pip filled oranges, a packet of bombay mix and four of the world’s smallest bananas. I read through both my books, the Times of India twice and listened to the Tenacious D soundtrack about five times to try and keep myself sane. I finally arrived at Howrah station at 7pm, hot, sweaty, with badger breath that could have stopped a charging buffalo, and in a filthy temper. The prepaid taxi booths were staffed but, due to the strike, apparently not operating. I asked them if they could just tell me how much a taxi would be into town. They refused, meanwhile I have three taxi-wallahs all yelling in my ear. At this point I snapped and wheeling round yelled at the nearest one.
“I have just been sitting on an over-heated train for the last 26 hours, most of it not moving due to reasons I cannot understand and now you are trying to screw me just because you think I have ATM tattooed on my forehead. I DO NOT NEED THIS RIGHT NOW!
“Okay Madam, no problem, 200 rupees.”
At this point a French Canadian couple appeared and saved me from committing taxi wallah-homicide on my final days in India, and took me off in their taxi. I checked into my room, went out, got a take-away chicken burger and sat on my bed watching ‘Home Alone’ on Star Movies and finally relaxed. India, it seemed, wanted to give me one final reminder of her fickleness!
Today I have walked and walked all around Chowringee and BBD Bagh areas of Kolkata. It’s a fascinating city, from the gardens along the river, the beautiful Victoria Memorial, back streets with pavements crowded with shoe-shiners, vegetable stands, beggars and food stalls to huge crumbling relics of the British rule. The streets are clogged with yellow taxis, white ambassadors and local cars, and despite the notable absence of motorbikes, bicycles and rickshaws on the main roads, every driver sits on their horns the entire time and the city seems to reverberate with the sounds of honking from morning until night. By five I was exhausted and collapsed into the one beacon of salvation in any large Indian city, a Barista coffee house, where I proceeded to order a cookies and cream iced coffee and a blueberry muffin and settled down to read, shielded from the noise and the dirt. When I got back to my hotel I was horrified by the sight of my feet, so much so that I had to take the included before and after photos to show what seven hours of walking through Kolkata will do!
The ending of an unexpected love affair
Well it’s finally time to say goodbye to India and despite a few sense of humour failures and frustrations, I am really going to miss this country. It was the one place I never originally intended visiting, the one place I have spent the longest and, in many ways, have been most surprised to enjoy.
There are so many beautiful and fascinating places, from the deserts of Rajasthan, the beaches of Goa to the hills and snow of Himachal Pradesh. I’m going to miss the noise, the sounds of the mosques, the chai sellers with their long drawn out wails of Chaaaiii on the trains at 5am, people yelling “Hello, Madam” everywhere I go and telling me for the thousandth time that I look Indian. Note, they don’t think I’m Indian, just that I look it! The music from the lilting classical sounds of the sitar to the full bodied catchy Bollywood film soundtracks. The food, masala dosas, chickpea curries, pani puri, thik aloo, fat butter naan and Old Monk rum. The colours on everything from the bangles, the saris, the decorated trucks with their HORN PLEASE signs of the back, the pimped up rickshaws with boom boxes in the back and the piles of puja powder in the markets. The endless amusements and frustrations, the triumph when you finally figure out the train system, how to ship home a parcel sewn up in white cloth with red wax sealing on the seams, or finally get a rickshaw wallah to take you on the meter. The people who, when they’re not trying to rip you off, can be lovely and entertaining and nearly always want to chat, find out where you’re from, your job, marriage status and why on earth you are travelling alone! And the smells which range from everything to the sewer stench of shit of the railtracks at dawn, to sandalwood incense smouldering in the temples. It’s a crazy country full of more contrasts than I have ever seen before in my life, whether it’s the makeshift tent slums in front of huge new apartment blocks or street kids begging for money outside expensive restaurants where the middle class spend their evenings; the religions that permeate every aspect of life and the Sadhus, holy Hindu men with their long beards and yellow outfits who come up to perform a puja and bless you, right before charging you 100 rupees for the privilege. This is the only place I’ve ever been where you will find monkeys running along the electricity wires over the train station, buffaloes by the bathing ghats, and cows dominating the rights of way on the roads and where you are equally likely to find human shit as cow shit on the sides of the pavement. A country where on the same street you can get run over by a car, a motorbike, a tuk-tuk, a rickshaw, a cow, a herd of buffalos, a crazy goat, a bus, a truck, a tram, or simply a guy walking along carrying a fourteen foot column of steel on his head. A place where you can find Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddists and Christians all living in the same cities, albeit not always peacefully, where mosques , churches and temples stand only streets apart and where the symbol of a country that is 82% Hindu (four outward-looking lions) is actually the figurehead from a Buddist stupa.
Well, providing India doesn’t have one more bug in the bag for me tomorrow morning, I have managed to survive four months, and the last one with barely anything to drink. Although I’m sad to be leaving, I’m looking forward to being able to show my legs again in public without feeling like a prostitute and hopefully I’m going to a country where looking out of the train window of an early morning doesn’t involve watching a whole community plopping out turds along the rails. There are some things I will miss dearly about India, but that is not one of them! Namaste!