One of the many cute tea shacks, perfect for a quick chai or two and a snack when in Kolkata.
'Ah good morning Mohammed good frieeend! Eeeeh. My good friend aaah ricksaw?' Meet Mohammed once more my good friends. 'Good morning Mohammed.' One of Kolkata's unnumbered 'barefoot' rickshaw wallahs. He's a funny chirpy old soul whose sunken glinting eyes and two or three remaining teeth held in place by pinch-pout cracked lips conjure between them a sense of cheer and goodwill far beyond that which his circumstances should normally permit. His green-patterned white shawl wrapped around his head partially concealing his skin-scraped-too-thin-over-skull weathered face and its small snow cap of white hair.
Car Bonnet Sale :)
A large silvery beard bushel blooms forth from his chin. He likes to compare this with the facial hair brushfire currently raging across the lower half of my own visage.
'So my frieeend ahhh you want ricksaw?' Mohammed enquires, as usual quaintly dropping the 'sh' from rickshaw. He sleeps out most nights huddled like a threadbare bag of bones upon the vehicle of his torturous trade besides the Maria Hostel and so is always on hand first thing for a chat and a chai. 7 Rupees for a large clay puruwa of chai to put a smile on Mohammed's face and 4 for a smaller for me so as to foreshorten any potential conversational entanglement.
Though many licenses for these 'human horses' are (I believe?) no longer renewed by the authorities with a view to phasing out this 'inhuman' form of labour, and the manual rickshaws are prohibited from many parts of the city, the beaten up wooden carriages whose pullers are the only objects more broken down than the vehicles themselves probably remain the archetypal image of Kolkata life.
Christmas lights still suspended in the main market district of Kolkata.
A life of hardship for many and one often lived in the embrace only of the streets and skies and, like Mohammed, far from family and home. That such work still remains viable through economic necessity is some measure of the types of jobs and conditions often required to keep a family's heart beating in India. Mohammed is actually a resident of Bihar, India's poorest state, 200 kilometres to the north west of Kolkata. There Mohammed's family of wife, five children and mother apparently survive on the 1,000 Rupees (£12.50) a month he claims to eke out from the sweat of his brow taxiing people and goods around the streets of Kolkata, often quite literally bare foot.
Kolkata, or rather Calcutta is a name too well renowned for its association with images and tales of urban poverty and hardship.
Hmmm? Forgotten the name of this one momentarily. It be a church.
It's initially irrevocable decline starting with the removal of the British Raj government to New Delhi
in 1930. The coincidental tailing off and ceasing of so much of the commercial shipping trade that had laid its economic and political foundations leading to a decades long downward spiral of neglect and financial exodus. Finally the world was left with only memory enough to retain such searing images of suffering and degradation as those relayed in such culture-shocking landmarks as Dominique Lapiere’s factual slum-set 1980s novel City of Joy. Part of the city’s challenge now and for the future - to keep pace with certain more desirable images of a modern, progressive India - is to slough off these past images of social debilitation.
The Victoria Memorial
An end to 'slum voyeurism' and 'poverty tourism' and the idea that only martyrs and angels can make a mark here. But these things take time. Much time. And some of those images, such as the families living in the spaces beneath concrete flyovers and its pavement-based communities mentioned in my last entry, are still applicable to Kolkata and many of India‘s large cities today.
I spend a fair bit of my time in Kolkata observing and musing on India's small but necessary employments. The subsistence economy that India’s majority survive on. The street side chai wallahs up all hours of the day simmering and artfully descanting their 2-7 Rupee cups of sweet deliciousness and accompanying biscuits and pastries. The chaps that do the same by hoiking heavy portable braziers with kettles strapped to them around the streets and parks.
'Bath time!' :)
'So how much do you earn a day Sonath?' I enquire as he pours my 5 Rupee cup on the Maidan grass : 'Mmm?... 200...300... 500... 250. It depend. Normal 200 to 250 Rupee
[ £2.50 - £3 ] but if no sport, no tea, no business. Not good. If cricket, boxing, football... then good.'
There are the ladies and gents whose seemingly futile sweeping of smashed clay cups, paper and plastic dross, dust and other discard into piles and thence (occasionally) to refuse carts saving India’s streets and cities from a fate worse than the one it already looks like they’re often suffering. The street-side shoe menders and boot-blackers. The latter happy to offer a buff and a blacking to absolutely any article of footwear you may choose to be wearing (flip flops 'n' all) no matter how inadvisable such chemical attentions would be for the longevity of said shoes.
'Grrrrrrrrr!" :D Sufiyan and his tiger.
Walking off-base besides a small filthy tributary of the Hooghly river fringed by a series of just-above-slum-status housing settlements near the famous Kalighat Temple I come across the men who actually produce the tens of thousands of tiny clay purawa cups that bring chai to this city’s lips on a daily basis. Sat in the shadows of their wooden river-side shacks the men sit behind huge mounds of slate-grey clay, wetted by the rivers waters, thumb-teasing out endless little grey cups (terracotta colour when dried or fired) on their manual potters wheels which are then set in long lines upon planks to dry in the sun. Given that a chai can go for as little as 2 Rupees on the streets I wonder how many puruwa must be turned out before a living for a family is also born of the spinning?
A little further on and the clay is in use again, hundreds and hundreds of clay-cast sculptures of the goddess of learning and knowledge Saraswati lined up on boards.
'The Hard Sell'
A tiny grey army of goddesses sunning themselves dry. Why all Saraswati when Kali is the city’s part eponymous patron goddess I don’t know? A specific festival somewhere else soon perhaps? Gods and goddesses to order. Export available. We make all kinds. Around the temples of course, especially that of Kalighat, many people make ends meet by selling the brightly coloured paraphernalia of offerings and strings of puja flowers and trinket mementos and icons of the blood-thirsty goddess and the fearsome deity image of her housed within the temple.
Walking along the flank of the Maidan Racecourse on day one of my time in Kolkata (you joined me upon my arrival, remember?) my German friend-for-a-day Peter and I had exclaimed at the task ahead of three back-bent men who were slowly, swipe by swipe ‘mowing’ the entire green grass carpet of this massive horse racing ground with just single-handed sickle blades.
Kolkata, city of Kali.
How long and how back-breaking such a job must be is anyone’s guess! Peter, I think, correctly observed though that the scale of economy in India is dictating circumstance again here. It is likely cheaper, he observes, to pay to employ these three men to do the task by hand than it is to buy and maintain an industrial mower or two with the fuel cost this would also entail. Besides you employ three people not just one. A pertinent consideration for a population of over a billion people.
Those billion and more mouths need to be fed. Market life is another fabulous window onto the economic minutiae that sustain lives as readily as the glorious array of food stuffs they descant into the societal body. This is true of any nation on earth but India’s markets are for sure the most ad-hoc, chaotic and literally street or pavement level examples that I have tip-toed through in my travel times so far.
Besides a muddy river this man forges the thousands of clay 'puruwa' cups that later dispense the city's chai.
A fine example heading back from the Kalighat district when I come across a fish market taking place with all its merriment, blood, guts and silvery scales abounding upon the main road pavement that is my route north. Men and women, backs against the pavement railings as cars, buses and rickshaws and their attendant noise and emissions whiz past behind them, sat upon blood-sluiced tarpaulins, the large curved steel blades of their trade arcing up before them (used for cutting, disembowelling, de-scaling, filleting and whatever all) and piles of fish heads, guts and tails mounting up all around as they hack, chop and shout to sell their still glistening wares.
On another day I make a repeat trip down Mahatma Gandhi Road, heading towards the Hooghly River and bridge.
Big Kidz ain't popular in skool!
I’d been here before but today the road has been completely overtaken and turned into a fruit-filled Bedlam! Never in my life have I seen anything like it! The entire road and several of its offshoots covered in a carpet of straw and two long rows of massive goods trucks with their backs uplifted disgorging avalanches of oranges, lemons, melons, papayas and other fruit produce onto the street. Sifted, sorted, basketed and lifted to the ground. There's shouting and colour and sweat and men reeling around one another with huge baskets of produce upon their heads in all directions.
First of all the forest of bananas. Whole trucks piled high with unripened treasures. Men in pairs lift huge cut stalk-bunches of the green bananas onto their heads before stepping forward into a tiny opening in the crowd and twirling themselves 360 degrees or so like catwalk models on show.
Army of grey goddesses drying in the sun.
Their audience composed of a throng of men, but only a few of import sat upon makeshift wooden stands shouting out with machine gun rapidity what I can only assume are the stream of numbers and words required to auction the bananas off bunch by bunch to prospective marketeers.
It’s absolute madness here! As I duck and weave and stagger my way through the fruity throng trying not to step on toes or goods as I go it proves impossible for this particular tourist tangerine to go unnoticed and not become a minor centre of attention for the hordes of men and boys glad for a momentary distraction from the frenetic sorting and carrying of their bosses‘ goods. I am requested to take endless photos of lads in truck bays proudly clutching pyramids of oranges and of others at work, sorting and selling upon the straw and tarpaulin street floor.
The fruit bearers bump and jostle around me, the large baskets made of pliant strips of weaved bamboo and plastic sacking artfully balanced upon their heads also occasionally happy of a portrait though our shared environment is so crowded that I live in constant dread of bringing the whole system crashing to a fruit-squishing halt of their and my creation. Many of my photos are graciously rewarded with an item of fruit or two or more (there’s evidently plenty to spare!) and my pockets and backpack are soon brimming over with kindly proffered oranges. ‘No shortage of Vitamin C for a while!’
me thinks. At other times the same objects are playfully pitched and lobbed at those posing for my camera and I, the camera taking a few troubling direct hits by rogue fruit products for its pains.
It’s all good fun. The best form of chaos.
So what else do I get up to in Kolkata? I'm there a while (4-5 days) and it's a big city. But actually a surprisingly manageable one, not like New Delhi, so no need to be intimidated. I start sedately in the Indian Museum. A grand building best attended for its (poorly lit) examples of historic Indian paintings and the fine collection of stone and brass objects, carvings and deities. It also houses vast collections of fossils, stones, cultural wares, and a stuffed animal menagerie of a universally dust-formed ochre colouring in display cases nearly as ancient as the items held within them and humorous signs reading 'Under Renovation' that have been stood there so long before empty glass cabinets that the signs themselves now require renovation.
Naga Baba Jalashwar Giri fiddles with his bits and sacred fire before inviting me for a chai.
Reminds me a little of the Museum of Egyptology in Cairo. Lots of slowly-fading good intentions suffering for a lack of money and love.
In terms of buildings and monuments the Victoria Memorial probably takes the prize. An ostentatious white marble domed structure built to commemorate The Empress Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1901 but not completed until a couple of decades after her death. It attempts to ape the Taj Mahal but despite its indisputable grandeur fails to do so on most levels I feel. Not imbued with enough grace, force of historical narrative or sheer love I suppose. Inside though a fantastic extensive temporary exhibition of the original aquatint prints illustrations of Indian landscapes, temples and cities produced by Thomas Daniell and his nephew William Daniell around the turn of the last century.
"Charming way to treat your audience!" ;P (linga yogi in action)
I had often read of these most iconic, romanticised representations of a time-capsuled India but never seen any. Quite, quite beautiful! A very happy traveller that day :)
But I don’t know, whilst Kolkata should be a rich repository of grand European-influenced Empire era architecture and a feast for the eyes as they scan from ground level to the skies, it just doesn’t pull it off. Whilst it has the scale to impress at times it remains aesthetically a city in a state of depression. Many a formerly fine building having succumbed to decade after decade of neglect, ankle-deep in litter, garbed only in dust, flaked plaster and paint and bill posters, sporting cracked Corinthian columns, broken stucco elaborations and boarded up windows, now seeming to bow their heads to the dust in shame.
Cycle Rickshaws - the iconic means of transport in poverty-raked Kolkata.
It is a depression that for now no amount of fake-plastic, mirror-fronted malls, office blocks and hotels will manage to alleviate and without some concerted regeneration of its historical heart (mostly around north Chowringee and BBD Bagh districts) people will continue to walk away with a low opinion of the city's prospects. It sometimes feels like an oversize ghost town for the lack of visible activity. Whilst lives are lived on indifferent to the decay of grand dreams and architecture, appearances can be important to the prosperity of cities so burdened with the weight of history’s expectations.
But a city is its people and the people in Kolkata from the market sellers to the street kids and the chai wallahs and surprisingly rotund beggar women who bum chais and snacks all day off tourists in Sudder Street are bold and bright despite their plight.
India is a compendium volume of stories of lives mostly undimmed or at least defiant in the face of dust, dirt and social dilapidation. All looking to the brighter future... which by interminably slow degrees is coming for many, a generation or so down the line. And then beyond the ordinary and the day-to-day this country will always pull something spectacular out of its hat for the visitor unawares.
And so it goes in Kolkata with the advent the Ganga Sagar festival that erupts in town whilst I am there. I’m afraid I can’t tell you specifically what this huge gathering of holy men (saddhus), pilgrims, well-wishers and darshan (blessing) seekers is actually about other than a form of reverence to the mother river Ganga, whom the Kolkata Hooghly is an offshoot of.
Street side fisherman's wife :)
there’s a lot of river worship in the air right now with the once-every-twelve-years many-million people madness of the Kumbh Mela about to kick off at the three rivers’ confluence, north in Haridwar
. But who cares it’s a huge gathering of holy men, pilgrims, well-wishers and darshan seekers which makes for unusual and interesting times (and a happy camera).
In the park area grounds opposite the famous Eden Gardens cricket ground of a period of some days a large circus colourful like tented encampment starts to bloom. Buses are arriving from all over the country and park up bumper to bumper on the grass and along the river-hugging Strand Road and Eden Gardens.
'Super models' - bananas for sale on the MG Road
These will be portable hotels for the thousands of darshan seekers and their families who will squat, sleep, shit and piss all over this patch of the city and eat enough cheap thali to sink the navy from the tens of food marquis during the festival. Day upon day the area becomes populated with a greater and greater number of some of India’s most fabulously bizarre looking individuals. Many of them Shivaite saddhus naked but for their poonulu (sacred threads), a top to toe covering of holy ash culled from the ‘sacred’ log fires that smoulder before their tents and tiny silver, stone-studded rings clasped wince-inducingly tight around their shrivelled willies.
I sit a while and have a chai and chat with one mystic eyed (read bleary eyed) saddhu Naga Baba Jalashwar Giri and his more talkative, though no less stoned, disciple-accomplice Om Prakash Das.
It is they that first attempt to educate me on the creation myths of the River Goddess Ganga but through a combination of language barrier and the vast quantities of charash (marijuana) being imbibed from a chillum by the two of them whilst we talk, it later requires some Googlification for me to begin to set the story anywhere near as straight as a myth can ever hope to be. Naga Baba JG doesn’t say much but his bleary eyes glitter and he head wiggles and beams a good happy spiritual-stoner smile, shaking the vast Shiva-aping curled braid of matted locks upon his head (the traditional kaparda style) whenever I give him my attention.
I had seen some incredible photos by a Polish photo-journalist sharing my dormitory of some group of dark-saddhus who still worship and practice blood sacrifice and the imbibing of it there from.
The Tangerine Twins :)
He had amazing images of these ash-smeared wraiths drinking crimson fluid from cups made of actual human skull tops sat behind macabre piratical arrangements of further skulls and bones. Think Indie Jones and The Temple of Doom and the Thugi cult! ( ’Om num Shivai - Om num Shivai - Om num Shivai!’
- I once actually heard a hostel landlord in Nepal chanting this whilst whisking marigolds in the air. It freaked me out but upon my enquiry he just said it was a generic prayer made to the god Shiva. ’So nothing to do with black Kali Maa magic, Shankara Stones, ripping out hearts and dropping succulently-breasted blonde Hollywood scream-queens into pits of fire then?'
Apparently not much.
Taking it easy with the oranges.
Shame!) Sadly I was never able to locate these dark babas, they perhaps having vanished back into the nether-dimension from whence they had appeared.
I did though get to watch a ‘performance’ by the equally jaw-dropping Linga-yoga practicing form of saddhus. Basically crazy ash-smeared blokes who do unimaginably painful things to their dicks so as (the theory goes) to further suppress the (apparently) undesirable sex instinct that leads us all (not often enough of late I can tell you!) astray from the true and correct spiritual path.
For example : Yogi Number One stretches out his much abused todger like limbering up an elastic band and then passes it back between his legs then clamping his thighs together. His poor old wiener is then wrapped around a large bamboo pole which he clasps behind himself with both hands.
Only holy cows get to wear the cool sh*t!
Yogi Number Two then proceeds to climb up from behind and stand upon the salami-encircled bamboo pole and press all his weight down upon it, lightly bouncing too. “OUCH!”
His dick disentangled, Yogi Number One then proceeds to do some grin-inducing arse and ball sack baring form of yogic callisthenics. Yogi Number Two meanwhile does the spiritual equivalent of ‘passing the hat’ for a few Rupees from those having enjoyed what, I’m sad to say is little more than a circus-show spectacle for all, and largely devoid of theological merit though for a Roop or two you’ll get a tikka mark of sacred ash smeared across your forehead. And this makes me rather sad. Faith as a sideshow put on for survival.
India’s economy dictating purpose and pain once more.
Back in Sudder Street Mohammed sits upon the passenger footplate of his rickshaw with his spindly legs drawn up and knobbly knees clutched to his chest. We exchange some barely intelligible pleasantries in a dialect now mutually understood. A guest at Maria’s has kindly donated a pair of black and white baseball pumps to him. A little too big and clownish looking, but no more barefoot torture for now. 'Ahh Mohammed friend Mohammed ricksaw?'
He has spotted the bundle on goodies under my arm. I feel bad. I've been rebuffing the 'ricksaw'
invites for nearly 5 days now and I know this guy earns less than no money at all.
So though I'm loathe to be transported by the sweat of another (somewhat enfeebled) man's back, it is his only means of a livelihood for better or for worse on my final day in Kolkata I concede to a ride to the post office and back, which I suspect is ridiculously close. This turns out to be so. No more than three minutes walk around the corner. And it's closed. 'Oh post office no open Mohammed friend'
says Mohammed staring up glumly from the street. 'Well, okay, back to the hostel then Mohammed. Thanks.'
We shake and jangle our way back, Mohammed's baseball pumps slapping the tarmac as he strains with his little rickshaw wallah bell he uses to alert fellow traffic and customers to his presence tinkling in his right hand all the while.
The entire episode takes no more than 10-15 minutes and I pay him a way over the odds 100 Rupees (£1.25) for the sake of friendship and sympathy again. 'Oh Mohammed friend want?...'
he tinkles his little bell for me smiling his practically mono-tooth grin. He's now trying to sell me his bell for an extra buck and a slug of whiskey or three later, I suppose to fight off the night as well as poverty. 'No Mohammed, no bell thank you.'
He tinkles it again, smiling, his little coal black eyes a-gleam. Tinkle -tinkle -tinkle 'Ricksaw?' 'No thanks Mohammed.'
You can't carry me as far as Chennai after all!