February 2013 – If you’re looking to ease yourself gently into that tempestuous sea of humanity known as India, then you might want to start off somewhere other than Kolkata. If, however, you’re looking to cannonball right into it all, then the city formerly known as Calcutta should do just fine. In my case, it made for a culture shock of the first order and that’s exactly what I was hoping for in India, especially since most of Southeast Asia had failed to deliver on that account. Even before I stepped out of the airport I could tell that I was somewhere very different from anywhere I’d ever been.
For one thing it took a full hour for my backpack to make its way to the baggage carousel despite the fact that (a) my plane parked no more than 400 meters from that carousel and (b) only one other plane arrived during that time period. In retrospect I suppose it was a rather fitting introduction to a country that could indeed be maddeningly inefficient at times. Perhaps the delay owed partly to my pack having to wait its turn behind a seemingly endless parade of checked flat screen TV’s. Roughly 95% of the passengers on my flight were Bengali dudes in their 20’s or early 30’s, the majority of whom seemed to be physically incapable of remaining seated while the fasten your seatbelt list were on. They also seemed to be traveling with at least two flat screen TV’s apiece. There must be some righteous rupees to be made in the arbitrage of flat screens between Bangkok and Bengal.
With my backpack finally on my back, I made my way out of the airport and into one of Kolkata’s iconic yellow Ambassador taxi cabs.
And off we went into the craziness (and I use that word in the most positive sense) that is Kolkata. It’s a craziness that I could sense even before we left the airport grounds as if its carried in the air itself.
The roads were a riot of pedestrians, vendors, animals and every type of vehicle imaginable – some powered by motor, some powered by beast and some powered by man. The architecture is a wonderful jumble of new (yet seemingly already weathered) and old, with the most fascinating to me having been built during colonial times when Calcutta was the capital of the British Raj. Many of these grand old buildings are now in an advanced state of disrepair and while they are visually stunning in that state (the term “ruin porn” comes to mind), it’s sad to think that many are bound to rot and crumble into nothingness in the years to come as there is neither private nor public money to rescue them. Even sadder are the many people forced to make their homes in some of the most decrepit of those buildings.
As a visitor to the city, you’re quickly (and thereafter persistently) confronted with the extreme poverty for which the city came to be known worldwide in the 70’s and 80’s thanks in part to Mother Theresa’s efforts. A couple of tattered young waifs were aside my cab window with their tiny hands extended before we came to a complete stop at the first red light we hit en route to my hotel from the airport and they each had just about the hungriest eyes I’d ever seen.
The poverty is heart breaking and it’s everywhere you look in Kolkata and throughout India. It can be exhausting and overwhelming at times and, yes, I’m well aware of just how callous that might sound. And in no way do I think that the exhaustion I felt at times could hold a candle to that which surely must be felt by the many condemned to live in such poverty. In fact, it’s the guilt of knowing that, and yet still feeling beaten down by the seeming intractability of it all that leaves you feeling all the more exhausted. And that is right about when Mother India does her thing and blows your mind with something beautiful beyond belief, or hopeful beyond reason, right in the middle of the muck and the mire. She did so time and time again on my trip and such for me is the magic of India.
My lodgings were the dumpiest of the trip. The Hotel Oriental featured mildewed cinder block walls that didn’t even extend to the ceiling which allowed me to hear each and every of the many different sounds that emanated from neighboring rooms throughout the night. The sheets and blankets might have been older than I am. And the bathroom? Horrorshow. But somehow the joint felt appropriate. It was as if I were getting a better feel for the city itself by staying in this very humble hotel which I seemed to share almost exclusively with Bangladeshi businessmen.
I decided to get touristy on Day 1 in Kolkata and ventured out on foot to wander my way the fifteen or so blocks to the Victoria Memorial.
It’s undoubtedly an impressive building. But the other visitors were far more interesting to me than the building itself. Both the Victoria Memorial and the surrounding fields (including the massive Maidan) were mobbed with what seemed to be Indians from all walks of life. And although it’s surely a tourist attraction, I don’t recall seeing another Westerner all afternoon. In fact, I saw very few Westerners at all outside of the very small backpacker ghetto in and around Sudder Street in Chowringhee. I suppose Kolkata is a bit off the typical tourist route through India which might also explain why I felt like some sort of minor celebrity when strolling around the grounds of the Victoria Memorial. Children most certainly stared and/or smiled and waved and I was asked to be in several pictures with groups of Indians simply for being a Westerner as far as I could tell. It was often assumed that I was English but when my new friends found out that I was American, I seemed to become even more of a curiosity.
As I was leaving the Victoria Memorial and crossing a giant field in the Maidan (which is a 3 km long park extending north from the Victoria Memorial) which was packed with Indians strolling, eating, playing, lounging and playing cricket (most certainly playing cricket as India is the most cricket mad place I’ve ever been and it’s not even close), a few young dudes approached me and asked if I would be in a picture with their cricket team. They asked if I would present a trophy to them which they seemed to have just won in that afternoon’s test. The called me the “director” and thanked me profusely for shaking hands and awarding the trophy. It was a bit bewildering but thoroughly awesome. I only wish I had a photo of it.
Fortunately all was not lost on the photographic front that afternoon as I did manage to get an excellent shot back at the Victoria Memorial itself. Three men approached me wanting to chat a bit which I was only happy to do. They then asked if I would be in a photo with them. I agreed and then realized that all four of us were mustachioed. And thus I certainly had to get the shot too…
Yes, my good readers. Your humble narrator grew a fine mustache specifically for the Indian leg of his journey for long had he noticed that Indian men have what must be the highest incidence of mustaches in the world. And, well, when in Rome.
Another afternoon, I made my way over to the South Park Street Cemetery which makes for a fascinating glimpse into the life of an 18th century colonialist in Kolkata. The cemetery was only operational from 1767 until sometime around 1820. The grounds, with their ornate mausoleums, rotundas, statues, sarcophagi, tombstones and other grave markers, were presumably maintained for many years. However, at some point, the money ran out and the government was understandably none too eager to spend scarce public funds on the upkeep of the graves of 1600 or so long dead imperialists. And thus they fell into disrepair over the years with Mother Nature reclaiming much of the land as she seems to be doing with many a colonial building in the city at large.
Fortunately somewhere along the way someone recognized the boneyard for what it is – a slice of history that was worth preserving no matter how unsavory some of its residents might have been. Today, it’s lightly maintained on what is presumably a shoe-string budget but that light maintenance makes it all the more atmospheric. If you do visit, be sure to leave a donation with the gatekeeper as that seems to be about the only source of funding for preservation as far as I could tell.
Many of the inscriptions and epitaphs were weathered beyond recognition. But many more were still legible and quite fascinating to read. Perhaps most striking of all were the tender ages at which many of the occupants died.
I suppose it should come as no surprise that a great many infants and young children are buried at the South Park Street Cemetery. Surviving birth and early childhood was surely no small feat in that era. And even among those who had done so, it seems that many still signed off in their 20’s or early 30’s with few having lived to anything close to what we would consider a normal age for death these days. As brutal and unjust as Europe’s colonial adventuring surely was, you can’t help but admire the great courage it took for these young British men and women to strike out from home into the great unknown of India in hopes of making their fortune knowing full well that many would perish on the four to six month sea voyage and many more would do so shortly after arriving in what was presumably not much more than a tropical disease ridden backwater in those early days of empire.
I spent another afternoon walking the streets and admiring the many crumbling colonial era buildings around BBD Bagh and getting lost in the maze of visually stunning back alleys in Old Chinatown. The people watching was unparalleled in both neighborhoods. The sidewalks and streets of BBD Bagh felt no less chaotic than your typical rugby scrum in stretches.
Old Chinatown was a bit quieter but striking nonetheless. It seemed that many of the run down homes in the area were stuffed so far beyond capacity (or at least my American notion of capacity which I can assure you is generally much less ambitious than the Indian notion of such) that life literally spilled out into the alleys and side streets. People were simply making do with what little they had. And they had very, very little by our standards. It was fascinating to see but I found that it was a struggle to look in such a way that felt respectful. I felt like a voyeuristic intruder on more than one occasion which is part of the reason why I kept the photo taking to a bare minimum, the tremendously photogenic character of the area notwithstanding.
I suppose the other reason that I kept my camera mostly holstered in Old Chinatown, and on many other instances in Kolkata and throughout India, was due to the feeling that taking pictures of the somewhat shocking living conditions that were the source of so much fascination for me was to reduce these people’s daily struggle for existence to some sort of tourist attraction. And thus I tried to refrain and was largely successful in doing so. The downside of course is that I’m lacking representative photographs of some of the most moving imagery I saw in Kolkata and elsewhere. But perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.
What undoubtedly is a bad thing is that I’m also lacking a decent photo of the glorious Kati Roll… a delicious street food native to Kolkata. The Kati Roll is built upon a paratha roti (an Indian flatbread) which is fried with a coating of egg on one side and then stuffed with mutton or chicken cooked on skewers and topped with onions, chilies, vinegar, a squeeze of lime and some sort of delicious sauce. It’s then rolled up, wrapped in paper and handed over to a lucky soul for eating. They’re excellent and I stuck to a strict regimen of one per afternoon during my stay in Kolkata. I only wish someone in Los Angeles would have the good sense to open a Kati Roll food truck so that I could stick to a similar regimen back at home. Although I suspect a few too many Kati Rolls on any given afternoon might leave me looking and feeling a bit like this Kolkata security guard…