Song of the day: In The Ghetto by Elvis Presley
We woke again just before the crack of dawn. It’s been muggier today and as I write we’re sort of half hoping to witness a thunderstorm – the monsoons aren’t due until the end of May and a bit of a downpour might do everyone some good. We went out onto the street and decided we’d have a tea straight away to blow away the cobwebs. We sat at a Chai stand that was being supervised by a lithe, twenty-something lad with an intelligent face. He started chatting to us in excellent English about our trip. We told him that we were flying to Darjeeling tomorrow and he got quite excited, telling us that it was beautiful and much, much cooler, which was nice to hear with it being six in the morning and the temperature already in the mid-thirties. When we asked how he’d learned English he said “From the street”. I don’t know how the street had taught him such perfect grammar and elocution because most other “street” english speakers are difficult to decipher. After we left his stand though, we both agreed that it was bizarre and kind of sad that this guy was obviously highly intelligent and entrepeneurial, but because of the situation he was born into he would probably never make the waves that he’d be capable of making if he was born into a more priveleged background.
We walked for about half an hour past whole families stirring from their slumbers on battered old mats. Past a muslim bloke who was praying to an altar that he’d hastily assembled in a shop doorway. Past all kinds of mongrel dogs who regardless of their pedigree resembled greyhounds because of their scrawniness. We came upon our first destination of the day – Old Chinatown. The first street we walked through was referred to in the Lonely Planet guidebook as “Rubbish Street” – on either side of the road the destitute had crafted family homes out of the garbage that other people had thrown out. Ramshackle collections of pallets, bin liners and wooden offcuts had been lashed together to form makeshift shelters. I say makeshift, but in all probability people have been living here for years and will still be doing so for years to come. When I was a kid my Dad helped me build a den in the back garden, and thinking back I think it would have provided better shelter than some of the desperate bivouacs that we saw here. I had expected for us to be approached by beggars here and to be made to feel very uncomfortable. In fact the only discomfort was self-inflicted – the guilt of knowing that we will never have to struggle like this to survive. The people here went about their daily ablutions, washing themselves and their clothes at public waterpumps without batting an eyelid at our presence. It felt invasive but somehow compulsive to take photos, and I filmed our walk through the ghetto with my gopro down at my waist.
After walking through “Rubbish Street” itself, we turned the corner onto a street which contained a huge sea of rubbish, perhaps about four foot deep. Half a dozen ladies in saries were combing through the filth with rusty rod-like instruments – presumably looking for recyclable items that they could sell for a few rupees. Whilst beggars have approached us asking for money on a few occasions during our stay in Kolkata, a lot of poor people seem more interested in having our empty plastic water bottles. Whether they recycle them or fill them with water to try and sell to tourists is unclear.
Humbling is the word for places like this. It’s like anything which you know to exist but don’t see on a day-to-day basis. Out of sight, out of mind is the way that the world seems to function – perhaps this is why the Kolkatans who are fortunate enough to have wealth have moved away from these poverty-stricken areas. We passed a street corner where a kind of market was in progress, even at this early hour. A lady gutted fish on a rusty machete-like blade that was attached to a wooden board – the aroma was foul. On the other side of the street a man was dealing with the entrails of some nameless beast, and an eyeball liberated from it’s housing stared up at us from the towel that it was placed upon. I guess the poorer you are, the poorer cuts of meat you can afford. The streets narrowed and we found ourselves wandering the winding lanes of the old chinatown. But for a few old signs and bits of crumbling architecture, there was little sign of the Chinese community that must have thrived here at one time or another. A lot of Muslims seem to live in this area, alongside the Hindus that make up the largest portion of India’s religious demographic. A recently violent past exists between these two religions, but you wouldn’t know it walking through these narrow streets.
Gradually the squalor and desperation receded and we entered further into what is known as the BBD Bagh area. The area was formally known as Dalhousie Square after William Dalhousie – governor of British India between 1847 and 1856. There’s an interesting story behind this renaming. The BBD stands for Benoy, Badal and Dinesh – the forenames of three Indian independence fighters who carried out an assassination on Colonel N.S. Simpson – the Inspector General of the Police and a man known for his cruelty against the prisoners of Kolkata. All three of them met a sticky end themselves and so after independence in 1947 the square was named after these three heroes of the struggle for freedom. The whole area stands tall with impressive buildings from the colonial era. Unlike the rest of Kolkata these buildings have been maintained and look just as impressive now as they must have done when independence was handed over. We headed back to the hostel via the bus station, which we wanted to walk through again just because of the general scenes of chaos.
We came back and ate some street food from a stand on the corner of Sudder street. Hygiene is not something that’s given an official rating in India, so the only way you can make a judgement is to see if a place is popular. The store we selected was thronging with people so we decided it’d be safe to take the plunge. We had a chickpea curry with paratha breads that were cooked in a clay pot, washed down with a spiced coffee. It was possibly the best meal we’ve eaten so far and certainly the cheapest – the whole thing cost less than a quid for the both of us. We were stared at constantly while we ate – western eating habits are a source of curiosity in India and although it makes you a bit self-concious, the same people who are staring intently at you seem to be happy to smile and chat with you if you engage them in conversation. After another period of recuperation (remember the temperatures!) we decided to make a final trip out to the Indian Museum in Kolkata, mainly because it was just around the corner from our hostel. As we approached a smartly-dressed chap with one of those immaculately-groomed moustaches that are all the rage here engaged me in conversation. “Where are you from sir? Thankyou for coming to our city?” etc. He was pleasant but a bit creepy, and as we bought tickets for the museum I was glad to see the back of him. But as we went through the door he said “I would like very much to see you again sir, perhaps later outside this museum entrance!” I nodded politely and buggered off as quickly as possible.
As interesting as Hindu and Buddhist sculpture, fossilised remains and ancient weapons are, it was too bloody hot. We managed an hour and a half of gruelling culture-soaking before we couldn’t take it any more. We spent more time in the ancient Egyptian room than anywhere else – partly because they had the body of a mummy which is always a curious sight, but mainly because it was the only air-conditioned room in the museum. An hour and a half later we walked back down the marble steps and who should be stood there in exactly the same spot? The same bloke from earlier. As he shouted “Hello sir! How nice to see you again!” I couldn’t help cracking up at his persistence and the fact that he’d clearly waited an hour and a half on the scorching pavement to see us come out. I temporarily lost the power of speech because I found the whole thing so funny, so he turned his attentions to Luke and finally got to the heart of the matter – he had a shop that he wanted us to come and look at. Luke attempted to extracate himself by looking interested in a wooden toy from a street shop, but our assailant became more and more insistent.
MAN: “How much would you pay at the maximum for this?”
LUKE: “I don’t want it.”
MAN: “But how much would you pay?”
LUKE: “But I don’t want it…”
MAN: “But how much you pay? I will do it cheaper…”
REPEAT SIXTEEN TIMES
LUKE: “I don’t want it mate. I’m going back to our hostel…”
He didn’t follow us, but you have to give credit to him for his never say die attitude.
We rounded off our last night in Kolkata with a meal at the Blue Sky cafe, which we ate in the other day but I neglected to mention the name. The owner was friendly, the food cheap and the air-con efficient. Luke had a sumptuous paneer tikka kebab, daal and rotis. I went with the Mushroom Paneer Taj, pakoras and garlic nan – superb.
Tomorrow we leave for Darjeeling, catching a flight to Bagdogra then a taxi up to the hill station famed for it’s scenery and tea production. Kolkata has blown Luke and I away in so many ways. It’s not been nearly as stressful as I thought it would be, although the heat has been far more intense than anything I’ve known. Having spent a few months in India before Luke reckons that Kolkata might just be his favourite city, owing to the lack of hassle and the general good nature of everyone we have met. The poverty is unparalleled and although it’s harrowing, we’re both glad that we’ve had the experience of seeing it. You have to look for the silver lining in every cloud and I think the resourcefulness and general demeanour of the people of Kolkata is heartening, even if their predicament is not.
I’ll sign off there for tonight – hope ya’all have a good day.
Tommy and Lukey