Out on the streets of Kolkata: A little exploration

While my first twenty-four hours or so in the City of Joy were intense—a mixture of everything and nothing I’d imagined—I now, just over halfway through my stay, greet each day with a blend of ease and exhilaration. How quickly one slips into the rhythms, growing accustomed to the roar of traffic and bleating horns. With each venture out, I have found myself fitting into the flow, making my way through the congestion to explore the city. Every time I emerge from my residence out onto Sarat Bose Road, I am filled with a sense of enthusiasm about where my wandering will take me. I have kicked around by myself in strange towns and cities, from Alice Springs to Cape Town, but none as intensely engaging as Kolkata.

Of course, this is a city that refuses to stand by idly. It commands a degree of attention whenever you step out on to the streets, and I do mean on to the streets; one navigates the roadways on and off the sidewalks as need be, and crosses any significant intersection with caution. In some places, smartly dressed traffic controllers aid the safe passage across busy thoroughfares, but only to some effect. I’ve learned to line myself up with other pedestrians and rely on their instincts. But even those only go so far. I’ve seen one man so busy on his cellphone that a van backed up into him. Only slightly startled, he quickly regained his balance and continued both his journey up the side of the road and his conversation without skipping a beat.

Some seem to engage with the roadways with uncanny confidence. Naveen Kishore, the esteemed publisher of Seagull Books, for example, appears to command the unceasing stream of traffic on S.P Mukerghee like Moses parting the Red Sea. Making the same crossing on route between the Seagull School of Publishing and the offices with their newest editor, a recent arrival from Goa, is a more tenuous exercise. We get half way across and crouch in the middle until an opening appears. On my own, I’ve been known to go out of my way to effect an easier passage, perhaps with lights, which is, even then, not a guaranteed free pass.

On my first weekend in Kolkata I began to explore. On Saturday, after a day spent mostly indoors working, I took the advice of one of the three men who tend to affairs at the residence where I’m staying that I should go to Minto Park. A little oasis in the middle of a noisy city, with a hectic corridor and a high level overpass running along one end, this space, maintained by the adjacent Belle Vue Hospital, is dominated by a large rectangular pond, lined with palm trees, a pathway and shallow green space. Once inside, all thoughts and memory of the boisterous mayhem of the roadways is, I want to say, not simply forgotten, but almost erased. One remembers the solitude and serenity, not the noise. Returning again almost a week later I noticed that, although the city sounds are acute when you first enter the park, they are all quickly reduced to a distant background murmur once you begin to walk around the pond. Or so it seems. In memory, only stillness remains.

The following day’s random explorations led me to the Victoria Memorial Hall, the grand marble edifice and surrounding gardens constructed in the early 1900s to honour the memory of the Queen. On a Sunday, the building and grounds were overflowing with visitors—local families out for the day, others bussed in from afar—squeezing through the passageways of the hall and spilling out onto the grounds. The colourful splash of bright saris added to the spectacle played out amid such formal colonial sensibilities. Hardly a day for actually absorbing any of the contents of the museum itself, I found it the perfect space for people watching. The relaxed mood of the milling crowds caused me to reflect on how much more fractious such a mass of human beings might be at home. (Mind you, this observation preceded my rush our ride on the Metro.) I have since returned to the Victoria Memorial for a very different evening event on the premises, one with entirely different intention and tone.

But that’s for another post.

Monday was the day for a couple of classic Calcutta experiences. I met up with a fellow book blogger, Chelsea McGill who has lived in the city for five years now and is a passionate defender of its charms, at the famous Flury’s—the tea shop and bakery dating from the 1920s that endeavours to maintain all the elements of Imperial elegance. The location, Park Street, is for the reluctant tourist, the most comforting of spaces I’ve encountered so far, where colonial meets modern architecture and business establishments are opened by courteous doormen. But it does blunt a measure of the in-your-face experience that, for me, makes this city so unique. Until, that is, one slips into the South Park Street Cemetery.

No more than a mark on a map for me before I entered the lush, high-walled enclosure, the place caught me completely off guard. Beneath a tall canopy of greenery, rows of aged-darkened, weather-beaten graves, crypts, mausoleums and obelisks mark the final destination of the British officials, traders, and civil servants drawn to the city in the early years of the East India Company. The inscriptions speak to the men, women and children whose sojourns were cut short by illness and other inclemencies of the tropical environment, as well as those who survived to make the mark in the expanding empire. The grandiosity of the structures is almost overpowering. The weight of the souls resting so far from their home shores is tangible in the hot spring air. The history contained in these stones is palpable. And lingering behind it all, the ghosts of more recent years: the criminals who once used the cemetery as a hideout and the homeless who sought refuge from the elements in the columned structures before the area became a protected heritage site. On the day we were there, I’d say that romance was in the air, evidenced by the many couples making out behind the sepulchres.

Finally, after enjoying my first experience of tea served by a street vendor in a tiny clay cup, I made my way back to my residence. Feeling the heat and the grime settling into my pores, and facing an endless steam of rush hour traffic—cars, buses, taxis, motorcycles, bicycles, the occasional rickshaw driver, and even a horse—I discovered that the streets are elastic. They shrink and stretch with one’s energy and fatigue accordingly.The street I’ve walked the most and know the best, serviceable more than spectacular for the experience, can seem absolutely endless at the end of a good, but tiring day.

So, that was Monday. The flavour of my time in Kolkata  again shifted greatly over the next few days. I had the most remarkable and inspiring opportunity to meet and listen to one of the preeminent literary greats of our time, an experience made even more powerful by its placement here, and now, in the City of Joy.

But more about that later. My notebooks are filling up faster than my ability to transform my observations into posts (and fight with the vagaries of composing on an iPad). More soon.

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.

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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.