Agra town, India

Friday, 3 December 2010

Downtown Kolkata

Under the sheets of tarpaulin covering the glut of food stalls around BBD Bagh, a hum of Bengali lingers above the lunchtime crowd of white-collar workers. A slit of a walkway is left for the passing traveller to wind their way through. We see men and women packed deep on low benches and tables. In front of them silver compartmentalized platters divide soft roti from lentils, which glisten in a thin acid-yellow gravy. Pretzel like snacks are fished from the depths of a deep wok brimming with stinking hot fat. Spent corncobs skirt the stall's fringe and fill the already litter-heavy gutters. A bewildering array of food is on offer, from full meals to quick bites, the choice is unbelievable. The ubiquitous chai (Indian sweet milky tea) is served in miniature terracotta cups, many of which lie discarded and smashed on the nearby pavers. Every second to third stall is a Kati-roll shop. It's a two to three man affair. One stands abreast the circular flat plate, another over a heap of dough - the colour of ivory. The roller rolls the dough into rounds and fires them onto the hot plate where the cook flips it with egg. The third man handles the rolls post-plate stuffing them with onion, chili sauce, potato, mutton and chicken. The choice depends entirely on your pocket. These rolls are a West Bengal speciality – in fact the potato variety is the closest I've come this trip to a chip butty. Ace.

The smells invading your personal space range from the divine whiffs of blended spice and garlic to the malodorous aroma of the numerous public urinal, to the rancid oil spitting in the deep pans, to the piles of waste choking the gutters, to the fresh zip of lime and ginger squeezed through hand-pulled mangles for on-the-go drinks, to the air hung heavy with metallic fume and drops of seasonal rain, to the pungent patches of sweat circling worker's armpits to the block punch of aftershave that follows swift on it's tail.

Assaulting your ear holes simultaneously is a complete philharmonic of squeaks, trills and blare from some of the most frighteningly fearless inner city traffic I've ever had the misfortune to try and cross. Buses, taxis, motorcycles, decrepit pushbikes, jeeps, trucks and the odd hand-pulled rickshaw compete for a place on the scrappy tarmac. The lowly pedestrian is alas way down the greasy pole of importance. To honking briefly, the government machine is attempting a ban on the habit, with good reason. It's bloody annoying. But to little avail, as far as I can gauge from this visit and the last there's little significant change in India's volume YET! The honking continues, ears bleed on....