Hazy Days in Kolkata (Calcutta) , India

November 25 - December 3, 2006

 

 

 

 

Thirteen million people live in the sprawling metropolis of Kolkata, formerly Calcutta. Ancient ambassador cabs and buses crowd the streets, spewing clouds of noxious fumes into the air. On a warm autumn afternoon, visibility is measured in blocks and our lungs and eyes burn. We walk around the city center, unable to hear each other, our voices drowned by a cacophonous symphony of blaring, beeping car horns. One day, a strike is called by the minority political party, drawing attention to a land dispute -- the government plans to seize agricultural land to build a Tata car plant -- the shops are shuttered, the air miraculously clears, and under a surprisingly blue sky the city is eerily quiet.

But every other day, Kolkata's jam packed streets throb with the vibrant energy of life lived for all to see. On crowded sidewalks, we barely squeeze by men stopping for a shave or haircut, vendors making fresh-cooked food in sidewalk kitchens, women with babies begging for rupees, shoe-wallahs re-soling shoes, men urinating on narrow alley walls, and street stalls set up everywhere selling cheap clothes, fabric, books, CDs, watches, spices, jewelry, toys...

An air of faded elegance permeates the city, a dilapidated veneer cloaks its decrepit colonial buildings. Surprisingly, Kolkata is easy to fall in love with. People are friendly, helpful and curious, and despite the poverty and filth, everyone dresses neatly, their hair immaculately groomed. The food is fantastic, and the bookstores are divine. We enjoyed roaming the streets, absorbing the chaotic energy of the place, watching the smog-softened light illuminate one amazing street scene after another, wondering what would happen next.

 
 
 

 

Sound Recordings --
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

We said farewell to Kolkata early in the morning, at Howarth train station. It's an enormous, bustling place, filled with people: families sleeping on newspapers, waiting for their train; a horribly crippled man, his back distorted, his limbs just stumps, begging for coins; women in beautiful saris, the soles and sides of their feet dyed bright red, their ankles covered with bells tinkling on silver bands; commuters in transit from points far afield. Helpful strangers guided us to the correct track, and we boarded the Poorva Express for a ten hour ride to Varanasi. We rocked gently back and forth as we made our way past flat golden plains, dotted with palm trees and neatly divided into rice fields where women in saris cut and stack freshly harvested grain into huge mounds. We rolled along, passing brick houses, tiny wooden huts, thatch-roofed mud huts, occasionally stopping at train stations -- Rafiganj, Hazaribagh, Gaya, Sasaram, and others. The landscape is strangely surreal through the amber-tinted windows of our "1st Class AC" compartment, which we share with a wealthy Bengali businessman. The porter enters to deliver thick cotton sheets, wrapped in a shiny brown paper wrapper, clean towels, and a hot lunch of curry, rice and yogurt served in a crudely thrown red clay cup, disposable and biodegradable. The hours pass quickly as we write in our journals, plan the next phase of our journey, read novels, and imagine our next destination: Varanasi, the City of Life.

 
 

Gangtok (jeep)Siliguri (plane) ► Kolkata