27th April – KOLKATA

Song of the day – The Hindu Times by Oasis (as chosen by Luke)
Hello.

I’m getting behind already – I started writing this blog yesterday evening but found myself falling asleep on the keyboard, so apologies for the delay.
We got up at half five in the morning – it seems a bit extreme but with the heat being as intense as it is we thought that we could get as much sightseeing in as we could before the sun put paid to our plans. We began walking from Sudder Street and found ourselves in the midst of Kolkata’s main bus terminal. A heaving, disorientating mass of people flocked around chai and food stands, whilst battered buses devoid of any glass in the windows shunted about a large terminal, beeping aggressively at each other and pausing to pick up swarms of passengers. We proceeded past the Ranji Stadium – a huge structure dedicated to the mass worship of local cricketing heroes. Home to the Kolkata Knightriders – the city’s IPL team, the stadium is so large and imposing that it could easily pass for an English premier league football ground.
The river Hooghly runs through the centre of Kolkata. It’s banks are piled high with deposits of clay, and the locals use this to their advantage in the crafting of millions of tiny plant pot-like recepticles that are used to serve tea. On every street corner a Chai stand offers a steaming pot of Kolkata’s local interpretation of the national drink. It’s a very milky, slightly spiced affair which is served in a fairly tiny portion for the princely sum of five rupees ( or five pence). We stopped off at Babughat, where we elected to sample the local produce for the first time. Though the portion is little more in volume than that of a shot of alcohol in England, the nectar inside is extremely refreshing. And for 5p a pop we couldn’t resist a second cup. The idea with the clay pots that the tea is served in is that Kolkatans can just throw them on the floor after they’ve been used, and eventually the shards will wash back down to the river. There are mllions of these pots smashed up on every kerbside, but we decided to keep ours as a souvenir. It struck me as a peculiarity that in a place of such poverty the local people discard these pots without a second thought, whereas we rich tourists attached such a value to them that we decided to keep them as souvenirs.

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After the necessary refreshment of the tea we walked past abandoned and condemned old British colonial buildings – a huge old wharf covered in creepers was the highlight. As we approached Howrah Bridge the density of people on the pavement steadily increased. In the shadow of this huge bridge, Mullik Ghat Flower Market is situated. A huge, pulsating mass of people amble along in every direction, bartering for flowers that spill out of huge sacks. For all of the dirt and decay of Kolkata, there is an opposite end of the spectrum. Never before have I seen a place in which incredible beauty and appalling ugliness can be found in such close proximity.

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The flowers are every colour of the rainbow and then some. Some craftsmen create elaborate patterns and images, presumably to be used as wreaths. Other stalls sell chains of flowers to be worn around the neck, but for me the prettiest sight is to see a huge sack, the size of one of those builder’s sandbags that you get in Britain, just full to the brim of flowers. The temptation to take a running jump into them is almost overwhelming, and in the overall chaos of the market it’s hard to imagine anyone batting an eyelid. At one point the flora was so dense that we found ourselves treading on a carpet of mulched flowers – who knows how deep. After getting under everyone’s feet for an hour or so, we climbed up onto the Howrah Bridge for a better vantage point over the whole market. From here the diversity of colour is even more striking, and you can see moving blobs of colour as traders carry impossibly large bundles of flowers on their heads. Two very dodgy types began to hover arouns us and ask us question in Hindi which we obviously couldn’t interpret, so we reluctantly decided to move on from our vantage point.

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We walked across the Howrah Bridge – an impressive structure spanning the east and west banks of the Hooghly. As we got over to the other side we experienced the most intense case of “Worship the white guy” that we’d had so far. Two Indian men who looked as if they might be holidaying from elsewhere in the country asked politely if they could take our picture. The next thing we knew this chap was putting our arms over his shoulder, posing with his thumbs up and generally waving our arms around like two string puppets. Though they were both keen to have their picture with us, one of them was particularly excitable and as we walked away and dusted ourselves down, he chased after us to have one last shake of our pasty white hands. I have a renewed sympathy with the plight of the celebrity – no amount of fame and fortune could be worth this attention on a daily basis. I have to point out that although we’ve been stared at, sniffed and sometimes touched, the Kolkatans have been unerringly kind, friendly and polite. Having been to India before Luke says that Kolkata is very different to other cities, and I must admit I’d mentally prepared myself to recieve a lot more negative hassle than we have done thus far. Whilst we’re on the subject of the general “vibe” of Kolkata though, I must mention the poverty, which is far worse than anything that I’ve seen before. Hundreds of people sleep on the street – some in makeshift shelters, some on roll-out mats, and some on the hot, hard pavement. Many children make up this street-dwelling population and it’s a hard sight to process. What’s heartening is how jolly they all seem to be – running around in gaggles and playing with whatever street debris they can get their hands on. As you pass by they will stare, smile and maybe even venture a very chirpy hello. In some way their warmth and innocence towards strangers makes it all the more difficult to see them in this plight. The lack of equality is astounding in Kolkata and The Lonely Planet guide warns travellers of this. Whilst soldiers patrol the fenced off colonial villa belonging to the governor, scrawny, aging men pull handcarts around as taxis, carrying human cargo around the city. I have to say, I can’t imagine having the gall to pay another man a pittance to wheel me around in a cart when I have two perfectly good legs myself, but this is India and it seems that anything goes. For a country that still recieves foriegn aid but launched it’s first rocket into space last year, it’s hard to see how things are going to change for the better any time soon.

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We walked to Howrah Station, not far from the bridge before getting a taxi back to the hotel – it wasn’t even ten and we’d been out and about for nearly four hours. We rested up for a while and ate some late breakfast at a place reccomended by our hoteliers called Blue Sky cafe. Luke had daal and rotis and I had a delicious little number called paneer mushroom taj – a mild, saucy curry.

Before we came away I was doing a bit of research on Kolkata and stumbled upon an online article on the India Times website, describing a “Tea Festival” which was being held at Jadavpur University. The article waxed lyrical about the flavours available for sample and the expert “mixologists” on hand to keep you informed and entertained. The university campus is situated about four miles away from our accomodation and the sun was at it’s highest. We decided to take a taxi and let the cool breeze from the open windows regulate our rising body temperatures. We clambered into the back of the cab and instantly knew what it was to be a potato baking away in an oven. The exposed metal interior of the taxi was a conducter for the sun, and the battered leather seats were themselves heated up to the temperature of thr average household radiator. “No matter!” we thought “The breeze will cool us off once we hit the road”. For some reason, the traffic of Kolkata had come to a near standstill. We sat on the back seat passing our litre of water back and forth and wiping the sweat of our brows. Luke and I both agree that it’s the hottest that we’ve ever been, and the weather report we looked at later that it had been 42 degrees at around the same time that we’d made the taxi. Each dash of a hundred yards between traffic jams was a blessed relief, and by the time we arrived at our destination we were thouroughly knackered and ready for the kind of revitalisation that a British subject can only gain from the glory of a cup of tea.
The students of Kolkata seem to be a political bunch. The walls of every building in this huge campus are plastered with posters proclaiming all kinds of political slogans. We asked a couple of students about the location of the festival, but no-one seemed to have a clue what we were on about. Our energy and hydration levels were dwindling and the sun was unrelenting. After about twenty minutes of needless wandering about we heard the rumbling of a PA in the distance and followed the source of the noise. A shouty rock band were playing a gig to an audience of about ten people in a large concrete stadium. Where were the stalls? The mixologists and students mingling together, united in the common cause of the cuppa? After walking back out of the stadium we found the “festival”. It was one small but admittedly very smart looking tent, occupied by bored looking students who seemed to have been designated the task of manning the stand against their will. We approached the counter and asked to see the menu. “We have three teas to try sir, but we are not opening until 2pm.” It was half one, and an extra half hour in this heat would have done us. We resisted the tempation to throw a tantrum and took shelter in the cold interior of one of the lecture buildings. I read about this festival in the country’s NATIONAL NEWSPAPER. Needless to say, they will get a strongly-worded e-mail in which I will imply that we flew all the way from England just to attend the festival. We made our way back off campus and sat down at a roadside stall, where we drank two cups each of the delightful local brew – who needs their poncey exotic flavours anyway!? After downing a litre of water between us we caught a taxi back to Sudder street and mercifully the roads had cleared enough to allow for a swift journey.

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After shower number two of the day, we took turns to wash our clothes the hard way. Inspired by the matronly Indian ladies washing their children’s clothes by the river (or perhaps by the lack of a washing machine), we scrubbed at each garment with a bar of detergent and soaked them in a bucket of water. We then wrung them out, slapping them against the wall a few times and placing them on a travel washing line which we fixed between two chairs. We were quite pleased with our return to old school methods and rewarded ourselves with a spot of tea in a restaurant called Oasis a few streets away. The food was good and for the first time since we got here we felt that we were hydrated enough to have a couple of beers. Kingfisher Strong was the beer of choice – a good lager that for some reason is unavailable outside of India. Maybe it’s something to do with the fact that they can’t decide on the strength – the label proclaims that the beer contains “Less than 8% alcohol”. 7.9% then? who knows. We returned to the hostel and I tried to write this blog, but I only managed a couple of paragraphs before the beer and the half five wake-up caught up with us.
Have a nice day, whatever your endeavour…
Tommy and Luke

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