Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Kolkata, West Bengal

We arrived in Bangalore at 4 in the morning, and had a few hours to kill before getting to the airport to catch a flight to Kolkata. Half asleep, groggy, and homeless, we attempted to go to the city, which was a bit on the useless side at that hour. We had read that at 7 am ISKON, or the Hare Krishna headquarters, opens for tours and prayer, and what better way to experience Bangalore than with Hare Krishna dancing, chanting, prostrating, running back and forth with pink, pony tailed cultists, fanning a golden statue of their master, who, being dead, and now made of gold, could care less? Anyway, we toured their massive temple and grounds, their well-placed shops of books and vegan food and even joined in the dancing which is eerily similar to the Hora, and no, we are not now Hare Krishna, though not for lack of trying on their part.

A quick flight later we landed smoothly at the mouth of the great Hooghley River, the delta of the sacred Ganges: Calcutta, now called Kolkata, an attempt to rid the influence of the British and Indianize the name.

Kolkata is hot! ..balls sticking to your thighs hot, feeling like the french fries boy over boiling oil in McDonalds hot. We took one of the crappier hotel rooms we’ve had so far at an old hippie establishment, the not so modern Modern Lodge that has been serving blissed-out sub-continent seekers since the 60’s. There we met many characters, most whom had been there for months, volunteering with the Sisters of Charity, the organization made famous by Mother Teresa, coming to terms with themselves and their pasts: anger, truth, whatever it is that people think they are searching for, running to or away from, smoking, dropping, or epiphanizing about, mantra whispering, sutra repeating, or drinking the past away, along with the rest of India.

We spent our first night exploring the convoluted alleyways and market of Sudder Street, the area where most cheap backpackers hang out, catering to grubby hippies, the poor, upper crust shoppers looking for a bargain and backdoor dealers. Indians live and work in the streets, especially in the heat of summer. They bathe in the street, go to the public open urinals, and shit in the street. They eat, drink, burp, fart and die in the street. They get their hair cut and fresh shaves in the street, they sleep, talk, smoke, and make babies in the street. All this makes people watching in Kolkata the best site seeing. We enjoyed Chai from single use clay tea cups, which for some reason one throws on the ground after finishing the tea, a thing we found strange in such a poor country. We ate Bengali sweets and egg – veg – chicken rolls. But mostly we just sat and watched the throngs of people go by, wallas (hawkers) of any kind, shirtless, paan spitting, sweat drenched rickshaw pullers jingling their bells to warn people to get out of the way. Zen paan wallas, sitting lotus like the great caterpillar on their shelves, concocting betel nut creations for addicted clientele who spit the red stuff on all corners (except statues and pictures of Shiva of course) of India. Goat herders moving herds through alleyways and streets as if they were in an open brush desert, and not in a city of more than 15 million souls.

Kolkata has a bad and mystical reputation as the poor, downtrodden home of the saintly Mother Teresa. This all may be true; however, Kolkata is also home to the proud Bengali people, communist to the bone, and flying the red flag of the worker from every light pole. It is a city that worships Kali the destroyer goddess, whose great toe fell at the Kalighat temple when Vishnu cut her into 51 pieces. It is also the city that took the brunt of partition when, in 1947, 4 million Hindus fled present day Pakistan to Kolkata. It is a city of universities, the former British seat of power before it moved to New Dehli, the delta of the mighty Hooghley river that is the end of mother Ganges, and Indian poets, writers, and intellectuals. It is a city about which countless books have been written, and whose name means something to all people, whether they have been there or not.

After getting our fill of Sudder street and New Market we ventured further out, taking in some of the sites. We saw the Victoria memorial, commemorating the fat Queen Victoria on her 1901 diamond jubilee, and making our way around the Maiden and fort William to the banks of the Hooghley river from whose Babu Ghat we ferried across to Howrah station. All the while we watched street urchins, families, homeless and barefoot tattled devotees washing, praying, drinking, and swimming in the filthy waters who would make any westerner sick immediately were they stupid enough to swim in the putrid but revered waters. We walked back across the mighty Howrah bridge and through the flower market, where amongst the filth of Kolkata, garlands and flowers designs are made to be offered in devotion to gods.

We also saw the Indian museum, a raggedy collection of dimly lit paintings, gorily stuffed decaying animals and oddities of nature, statues of Shiva, Ganesh and Buddha gathering dust and disorganized fossils and insects, treasures of India laid out in no particular order or care. Sunday afternoon we went to pay our respects to Kali at Kalighat temple, and were taken through the chaotic maze of shrines, idols, statues, swimming in the mass of devotees cracking coconuts in a haze of incense, prostrating, chanting and wailing while dirty children and dogs fought and barked all around. Animal sacrifices are still made to the fearsome goddess who stands on Vishnu with her bloody knife and necklace of severed heads.
We paid homage to mother Teresa’s Nirmal Hriday home for the dying while watching the communists march in support of their candidate. We finished the night by splurging on a real Bengali meal of fish, prawns the size of a small cat and rose water soaked sweets.

Apart from the searing heat and humidity, and the constant drenching of filth and sweat, Kolkata was by far our favorite metropolis thus far. It is a place of legend and horror, and felt more “Indian” than any other place we have been. It is a place where the poor and lame with bleeding, pusy wounds, severed limbs, fallen extremities, and deformities of every kind line the streets to beg and sleep. Women hire babies to increase their chances of begging with a child on their hip, and the skilled auto rickshaw drivers ply the roads, giving you a roller coaster ride through the gridlocked streets that’s unmatched by any amusement park. We were happy to leave the heat and get onto our air conditioned train car to Darjeeling, but sad to leave this buzzing hive of humanity where one can live on a penny or a thousand dollars a day.
For more pictures of krazy Kolkata, click here.

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