Ponderings, Puke and a Pilgrimage to the Princess

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June 23rd 2008
Published: July 9th 2008
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I'm always happy in Kolkata. It's hard to say why. It's a city that is in many ways poor, squalid, sometimes desperate, with lots of its citizens living out difficult lives. It might be that I'm deranged, but I sense that even those living in the toughest conditions approach their daily lives with a kind of practical stoicism and verve. Despite the odds, the poorest of Kolkatans seem undefeated, and its luckier citizens have the same air of drive about them. It feels like a place populated by do-ers.
We were in the cab, heading to our hotel, and my heart was skipping about all excited. It was dark and raining, and this is one city that suits the rain (Mumbai is another.) As soon as you start to walk about this place, you feel a part of it. It flows like a river. I have found in the past, and on this occasion, too, that I will go walking and return to my hotel only to discover that i have been out wandering for hours and hours. If you can imagine a city that is in constant decay yet which surges with life, that's Kolkata. There are old colonial offices with trees growing out of them, and other buildings that are blackened from decades of neglect and monsoons. If you catch a cab in the morning, you see throngs of people showering at public facilities in the street. If you catch a cab in the day, you pass trucks loaded up with trash, hand pulled carts loaded up with onions/melons/sacks of rice/tyres/bananas, and rickshaws loaded up with live chickens dangling by the legs. If you catch a cab at night, you see shop vendors and their customers glowing orange under their single lamps, small crowds gathered around one television, street sleepers curled up on sheets along the pavement. It's not like other Indian cities I know. Somewhere between it's squeaky old trams and it's hand-pulled rickshaws, it has a unique identity. It's also the only Indian city I know where you can be walking along a crowded, modern street and run into a shepherd with a flock of twenty sheep.
On arrival, Seth fell ill. In India, it's not unusual to go down for a full 24-48 hours of quite accute vomiting, fever, etc, and he got it bad. Luckily we were in the Lytton Hotel, the best hotel we had stayed in for weeks. If you're ill when travelling, a nice bathroom and a soft bed are gold dust.
I spent part of the first day looking after him, and part of it alone (if you can call it that) on the streets of Kolkata. In the Botanical Gardens, there was a massive banyan tree that sprouted from multiple roots and looked more like a forest than a single tree. I saw a bright yellow oriole (they always look so colourful against the green trees, like flying bananas) and several metallic blue kingfishers were surveying the pretty ponds. It was very peaceful but the ambiguously drawn arrows on the already confusing sign posts meant that I got lost in the gardens for an hour and a half. To be honest, I can get lost just about anywhere, including supermarkets, so it wasn't a traumatic experience. When I finally escaped, I asked my taxi driver to drop me off at the bottom of ChowringHee Road, so that I could enjoy the long walk back to the hotel. On the way I bought four juicy rasgulla from a shop (sweets made with cheese and rosewater syrup), hoping that Seth would be well enough to try one. He wasn't. Later, when he was sleeping and I felt sure he'd be OK, I walked out to BBD Bagh, a square with tank at its centre (very Indian), surrounded by colonial buildings (not so Indian.) There were dozens of policemen hanging out in front of the Writers Building. Talks had been taking place inside about how to handle the recent stand off in Darjeeling, the one which left hundreds of tourists stranded in Siliguri.
That night I took dinner alone in a favourite restaurant of mine, Jong's, and was reminded of how it feels to travel alone. People look at you strangely when you dine alone, especially in a non-individualistic society like India's. There's a bad feeling you get as the waiter very deliberately removes the place setting opposite yours, and, even worse, the moment when you try and get the waiters attention to order/get a beer/grab the bill, and also manage to grab the attention of everyone else in the room, confirming once again your status as a lonesome leper. A workmate once told me that this always feels worse than it actually is, and that less people are judging you than you think. It's probably true, but one thing I know for certain is that, after about a week of eating alone, whether the locals judge you or not, you don't give a damn. I will be experiencing all this again in a months time.
This morning, Seth was feeling a lot better. His skin felt the right temperature - I could no longer melt an ice cube on it in seconds flat. We were able to visit the Mullik Flower Market by Hoowrah Bridge, although it took me a while to find a taxi driver who understood where I meant. I was sticking my head into endless cab windows, saying, 'Flower Market?... Phool Market?... Bhara phool market, Hoowrah Bridge ki pas?..' and each guy was looking at me as though I had just quoted Edward Lear or something. When we reached the market, it was brilliantly atmospheric. Seth loved it but the smells made him feel sick. (For a flower market, it had an unusually high trash-stink to jasmine ratio.) We then explored the Kumartuli sculptors district, where clay effigies were being prepared for the autumn festivals of Durga and Kali puja. These stalls are just off Rabindra Sarani, a road which is an experience in itself. Somehow it is just quintessential Kolkata. For a long time it is quite narrow, and the shops sell strange brassware. Trams rattle through and the people who aren't at work pushing carts or serving customers tend to hang about in sociable clusters, watching the world go by. I spotted an old, Bangla style temple just off the road and a bespectacled Kolkatan gentleman appeared beside me as I took photos, explaining its history. He was very pleased that it had drawn my attention. The temple's design, and the way it poked up from behind street stalls, reminded me of the famous Kali temple down in Kolkata's far south. I visited that temple two years ago, and find it quite easy to believe that human sacrifices once took place there. There's an atmosphere like no other. It's a brilliant place but the experience of visiting is so intense that once is enough!
After a rest, it was time to take a look at Eden Gardens. This was a whim of mine, because in the famous Bengali novel 'Devdas' (also filmed many times), the protagonist spends the night of his lover's marriage to another man sleeping on a bench in Eden Gardens. He then slowly drinks himself to death. It's an epic story. The experience of being there was slightly less dramatic. There were broken kids rides, a crow infested gazebo and giant mosquitoes, which took me on like a project. Still, I was very happy that Seth was feeling better and that he was able to come and soak up the city with me. We walked along the ghats of the Hooghly River, and saw a green and yellow snake slithering amongst rats and broken Durga images on the river bank. Seth had a minor setback when a seven year old decided to cling on to his leg and not let go, much to the amusement of his little buddies. In a stroke of genius, I applied the universal law of tickling and the problem was solved. The sun set and it was starting to feel like the longest day in history. We made our traditional pilgrimage to the Princess Bar, where male and female singers sing Hindi hits on request. I love this place. There's always disco style lighting and when you order beer, they bring you a little dish of pink pickled onions. We requested 'Tere Bin' from Bas Ek Pal, and 'Sau Derde Hai' from Jaan-e-man, and the young singer did great renditons of them both. Later, a feisty young woman did a very good version of Asha Bhosle's 'Dum Maro Dum - Hare Krishna Hare Ram.' The Princess rocks.


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