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....

Spectres of a lost city

Kolkata's look is a rough smash of ancient and modern; one part faded memory, another part building site - see every large metropolis here. The architecture certainly reflects the wealth of religious and social diversity in residence.

Character-devoid white concrete multi-story boxes mix it up with richly rainbow hued mosque; pedestal's flourished with marble and stone iced gems. From the dregs of the night emerges the prayer cry of an imam; singular voice moves through the early quiet gathering with it the bright elements of the new day. Tiled shrines to the Hindu deities appropriate street corners, bedecked with garlands of celebratory orange and yellow marigolds to honour Ram and Sita, phallic stone to symbolize the creator, nurturer and destroyer Shiva.

Look down another packed thoroughfare and glimpse a catholic spire. For the presence of these as well as the numerous green areas and broken down mansion-houses, you can look to the British connection. As capital once-over to the British Imperialists, flaky remains of their tenure are strewn all around the central areas - in particular closely clustered around BBD Bagh.

The expanse of parkland wedged tight to the river Hooghly’s eastern bank - the vast Maidan is a Raj leftover complete with numerous gents club for everything. So too are the rotting exoskeletons of ex-administrative and governmental buildings wrecked and semi-abandoned.

60 years of decay has visibly tamed the lion's roar; wild bush sprouts unchecked from the fluted pastel pink balconies and rows of previously elegant windowpanes are cut through with potholes. The grimy fascia of recent additions tacked hastily to the grand foyers denigrates the tired buildings a few yards further into the abyss. The best areas to catch a glimpse of vintage Raj are top end Park St, near Park St cemetery, Royd St, Elliot St and the imperial sounding Old Court St.

Old habits die hard and though the tangle of streets and alleys have long since shed their imperial tinged appendage, the ghosts linger on. Ask a resident where BBD Bagh is and you may well be shown the way to Dalhousie Square.

Hello my friend..

Our pace in India has slowed to a leisurely dribble of travel here and there. The first visit in January of this year was in comparison a mad goose chase from one city to the next. It seems lunacy now that we saw four cities and traversed three massive states during those three short weeks. Granted this is our final or should that be last leg(s). Our cash is ebbing away see too our energy.

Looking back, we were bowled over but then India has that effect. It is gross understatement to say that it's a crazy overwhelming place!

From the minute you step off the plane, bus, yak, however you get here, you'll know it. Whether you're caught up in maniacal traffic jams, being hauled against your will from one eager tout to the other. Negotiating pavements stuffed with people, farmyard animals, food carts, dog crap, cow crap, human crap! Half laid pavers, paddling through mechanical, joiner's and plater's workshops disgorged from the shop to the pavers to the road - every inch of space is staked and claimed. Plus there is the fun of accessorizing everything to the red beam of your permanently sweaty face.... Mein gott.

Despite some significant leaps in economic growth and major changes within India's social stratum throughout the last 20 years, the frenetic busy-ness of life on the street rages on. Co-existent yet seemingly a distant planet in relation to it's sister world; the monied world closeted behind office blinds, property boundaries and darkened backseat windows, the vibrancy of India's city streets is unparalled in the other countries we have visited during the trip. The latter way of life incidentally belongs to the emergent affluent Indian upper and upper middle classes for whom the action has decisively switched from the outer to the inner. The gulf is wide and widely felt. Nothing hidden, everything on show, all of India's triumphs and disasters, freedoms and injustice hanging out front rather than concealed in the back. It's bloody maddening.

Passage to Kolkata

In India, the Highway Code consists of only one rule, the larger your vehicle, the more road you have. That's it. Its just recklessness fuelling the other ten million people on.

I'm impressed by the tenacity of our driver who has ingeniously managed to squeeze the saloon through a slight gap opened up between two battle scarred ancient local buses. The taxi - a bright yellow Ambassador, is built like a tank so we're not unduly worried, nevertheless the twists of shrapnel protruding from the adjacent metal carcasses skim eye-gougingly close to the backseat windows.

We travel along a two-lane freeway but it carries easily four times that amount, plus goats and the odd garbage-seeking cow.

The noise is ear-splitting.

Its 7am, Monday morning...Welcome to India my friend!

We've flown into Kolkata - not part of our original plan... We had hoped to be coming in overland through Nepal and thence through the hills of West Bengal, stopping off at Darjeeling but providence...nah our budget intervened so that little escapade was packed off to the Great Escapade graveyard in the sky. With little money left in our pot 'o' gold, the only option left was to fly direct from China.

Only this is never the easy option as we're both stinking yellow-bellied cowards when it comes to the wonder of flight. I spent the two, yes TWO, flights (we had to transfer at Kunming) rubbing my non-existent rosary beads (I'm not remotely Catholic but Methodism, even lapsed Methodism doesn't do comfort) and praying that the pilots were actually flying the plane, and not dealing up a fresh hand of hold em' whilst puffing on a meaty Havana as my sleep-deprived imaginings had it.

So we're here initially for a week, a brief primer to settle and then a longer visit after the hills. If the money situation is looking better we will be heading to Mumbai earlier.

This would be very nice.

So to Kolkata or Calcutta as formerly known. My general knowledge of this great east coast city is honestly pitiful. I know exactly this - it was home to one late Mother Teresa, a notorious hellhole of poverty and hunger, ex-capital of the British Raj...

Our temporary home is Sudder St - Kolkata's centrally located haven of budget hostelries, restaurants, travel agencies, exchange bureau and traveller's bars and cafes. It's a great place to find your feet and settle in. Rooms are 300rps (4.50 pounds app) cheap provided you don't mind sharing a bathroom and your bed with the obligatory budget bugs! (I recommend those off the main st, preferably with a courtyard to reduce street noise!)

We stayed at the Tourist Inn, three stories of colonial wreck dead centre, Sudder St and in our ignorance were ripped off for a big room with nay A/C. Wiser and cooler, following the break in Darjeeling. (Cold weather does wonders for the brain activity no!) We returned to the same hotel but bargained for a cheaper and naturally smaller pit which cost the not unholy price of 250rps (4.00pounds app) with common bath and toilet and ceiling fan.

The local cafes, Blue Sky and its opposite number Fresh & Juicy across the road are ok traveller hangouts providing the basics and a usually raucous atmosphere at decent prices. Blue Sky was good for a western style breakfast if you're craving decent coffee and toast.

Fresh & Juicy does excellent veggie dishes in the evening. 120rps (1.70 pounds app) for two dishes, rice, bread and drinks. There are plenty other quality cheap nooks in the area around Sudder, it's worth a rummage around the triangle encompassing the New Market, Mirza Ghalib Rd and Esplanade. Khalsa around the corner from the Fairlawn hotel serves up excellent chow with friendly service and explanation of dishes...