First days in India: This is the real thing

In the lead-up to my trip to India, I imagined that I would have the time to compose a reflective post about writing and all the anxiety and excitement I feel about having almost two weeks away from home to read, explore a new city, take photographs and, of course, write. As fate would have it, I didn’t have any time for such careful reflection. Coming into the final stretch, in the days preceding my flight, I was beset with the sudden demise of two MacBooks, the second less than twenty-four hours after I brought it home, in the middle of all the work that had to be completed before I could leave.

Just as well, because I had no real idea how the arrival in such a strange, vibrant, and somewhat overwhelming environment would impact me.

I arrived in Kolkata on Wednesday evening after two eight or nine hour flights, separated by a nine hour layover in London during which I met with up Susan Curtis-Kojakovic, the tireless force behind Istros Books, and a further two hour flight from Delhi. I’d been travelling for nearly two full days. I emerged from the airport to noise and sweltering heat and a line up of waiting drivers, none of whom carried the sign I was looking for. A cab driver insisted, repeatedly, that he could take me to any hotel I wanted. I’m sure he saw me as his mark. I tried to make a phone call but could hear nothing, yet when I tried to go back into the building to find a quiet corner, the soldier with the AK-47 across his lap had other ideas.

Finally united with my driver who had been waiting at another gate, I made my way into the city. A ride on a river of noise—horns blaring, vehicles squeezing into any space available, lane or not, candy-striped light standards wrapped in strings of lavender and royal blue lights, and clusters of weary men lining the route. Here and there one of the city’s ubiquitous dogs eased its diseased frame to the ground. Every time the traffic flow slowed to a stop, people appeared from behind posts or over low cement barricades to pick their way across the sea of cars, buses and motorcycles. Enterprising street merchants arose to snake between the lanes. To conserve gas the driver would cut the engine until everything began to inch forward again.

It occurred to me, as if I hadn’t quite registered the fact, that I am well and truly in India. This is not a picture postcard. This is real life.

And now, on my third full day in the city, I have barely read a word, no less finished any one of the books I so ambitiously packed, but every morning I have written for several hours. No, I’m not deeply engrossed in the project I planned to devote my energies to, but there is still time. More than a week yet. Rather, I am simply absorbing and transcribing the sounds, smells, tastes and sights I’ve encountered so far. The incessant stream of traffic, punctuated by car horns, that roars up and down the busy street outside the heritage home where I am staying has become a comforting backdrop—an urbanized antidote to those recordings of babbling brooks.

No empty shelves at the Seagull office—if not books than beasts and birds..

On the first morning, in a somewhat quieter locale, I gathered my earliest impressions, mostly aural, of my initial encounter with Kolkata. Later that day I made my first trip to Seagull Books—my first opportunity to meet the staff and tour the nearby school and headquarters of their Peaceworks project. It was all a little overpowering to finally be present in a place I’d long seen captured in photographs. But the real shock if you like, the disconnect I failed to anticipate, was the street level reality of the area in which they are based. In my western naivety I had imagined something, well, less “heart of Calcutta.” But no, this is the real thing. The road on which they are located is a busy thoroughfare lined with sidewalk vendors, beggars, and homeless men, women and children. As I quickly discovered, one rarely actually walks on the sidewalks in this city—they are either crowded with people and structures, or in a continual state of disrepair. I have, in very short order, become accustomed to walking along the edge of the roads, having vehicles pass within an inch of my life, and being, to date, the only obvious foreigner—non ethnically South Asian person if you like—that I have seen.

Many of the people I interact with have no more English than I have Bengali. Uncertain tourists would likely feel ill at ease in these surroundings, but I am loving it! The house manager at this B&B fills me with multi-course Bengali meals at every opportunity. I used a fork for a day but now eat with my hands like everyone else and, knock on wood, I have had none of the usual traveller’s discontents I was fearing. And the bed, a firm 12cm mattress on a wooden platform suits me fine—I’m sleeping soundly. And now that I’ve finally worked out the vagaries of the limited water service, hey, it’s all good.

One of the coulorful side streets.

The opportunity to spend time at Seagull is a particular honour. Yesterday I managed the five minute walk there and back on my own without getting lost, and had time to sit by myself in the office and gather my preliminary impressions of the place, the groundwork for what I hope will be several articles and interviews to come out of this experience. Next week there are some really exciting things going on…

But for now, I think I ought to walk off a little of the special Bengali breakfast that was prepared here this morning (there is some kind of photo shoot taking place in the house today). So, back out into the noise, colour and congestion that is Kolkata.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

33 thoughts on “First days in India: This is the real thing”

  1. This brought back so many memories for me. India is such an assault in the senses and the sensibilities that it’s hard to take it all in. I’ve seen poverty in many places in the world but never in such close proximity to wealth. An uncomfortable feeling for sure. But I’ve also never experienced such warmth and vitality from local people as I did on my visits. Enjoy every momemt of this trip because it is one whose memories will endure.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I just walked up the road I’m staying on to visit a park. The mix of poverty and wealth is striking, shoulder to shoulder. However is it better the way the rich separate themselves from poverty and prefer not to see it in Western societies? Hard to say.


      1. Excellent question. When it is staring you in the face it’s hard to ignore or at least it would be for me. But in India a lot of local people seem to be immune to it because they see it on such a daily basis.


  2. It sounds like you’re opening yourself up to the experience. I remember arriving in Delhi many years ago, staring exhaustedly out of the airport bus window at what loooked like a documentary to my Western eyes. I also remember, three months later, crying quietly back home in my local supermarket at the bewildering choice of washing powder and how miserable everyone looked. It’s a cliche but those three months changed my life.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Oh I love this! That assault on all the senses, seeing it through fresh eyes, I’m looking forward to following your visit, what a great trip and experience you’re going to have. I loved being in India, people living in poverty open our eyes in so many ways we can never imagine until we’ve had an experience like this.

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  4. What a fantastic experience! I’ve not yet had the opportunity to visit India but hope to get there one day so I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your vivid evocation. Hope the rest of your stay is as explosive to the senses!

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  5. I’ve had friends verbalise their Indian experiences with a similar sense of awe and excitement; you’ve brought it alive with your choice of words. Merchants don’t ride or walk, you have them snake. Riding on a river of noise – how powerful is that metaphor? It’s like I’m there with you. Consider more travel writing Joe. Seriously, your window into India thus far, leaves gloomily dispiriting accounts of rail journeys far behind.

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  6. I can imagine that this is the kind of travel which is much more about the writing than the reading, and that it will inspire both activities in years to come. It’s nice to hear about it and to see the photographs too!

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  7. Your writing really takes me back to arriving in India and feeling overwhelmed (as well as excited, fascinated, happy) by the noise from cars beeping and trying to find a space when there isn’t any, as the roads are filled with other cars, busses, motorcycles, cows and people. Haha!

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  8. Joseph, this is such a wonderful, concrete expression of your first time in India — you really made me feel like I was there with you! I hope you’ll share more about your trip there. For those of us who have not been, it’s a breath of fresh air to go there with you 🙂 .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. This post reflects my immediate response to Calcutta. There are a few more posts that chronicle my time there. At the end of two weeks I was sad to leave and hope to plan a longer trip to India which will include more cities as well as return to Calcutta.


      1. Thanks for sharing my post. I can’t wait to visit India again. As I write this I am in San Francisco for a few days and more distressed by the poverty and desperation of the homeless here.


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