Kolkata : You join me on arrival...
Kolkata Travel Blog› entry 239 of 268 › view all entries
'HONK-HONK! WAAAAAAAAGH!!! P-P-PARP-PARP HOOOOONK!!' There's nothing quite like a dawn chorus India style. As my eyes creak open, bright light bursts forcefully through the dusty bus windows and scorches the still dream-coddled surface of my mind. Whatever happens upon a night bus in the moments when one’s eyes technically are closed, it isn't sleep and you never feel ready for the morning when and however it's announced. My ears have already been dragged unceremoniously into the new day. Another new day. Another new destination. A big one. A city. The famous city of Calcutta. Now Kolkata. Capital of the British Raj until 1930 when that honour passed to New Delhi for the final curtain call of Empire.
Eyes still bleary. Mind partially responsive. I strain out of the dirty windows in vain to reconcile some landmark from the blurred, intimidating reality outside to the sedate lines of the Lonely Planet map. Anything helps. Some place, park, hotel, statue, street name, train or underground station from which to orient oneself from. In the meantime I make mental notes of visual reference points in the new landscape. We call this process 'piloting' in scuba diving. Creating a mental map of distinctive physical objects in your new, disorientating and as yet unfathomable environment. Upon arrival one must start the process of creating yet another large city anew in one‘s mind. The bus stops. My sorry-state-of-affairs shoes crunch down onto Kolkata dust.
A sweaty 360 degree circuit of the large Esplanade Bus and Tram Square, ricocheting like a ginger pinball ricocheting from person to person until finally being flipped in the correct direction of the tourist squat spot of Sudder Street in the Chowringee district. It had only been a kilometre or so's walk after all. I'm in luck. The one and only 80 Rupee (£1) bed dorm at Maria's Hostel to free up to day does so the very second I walk in the room. New sheets? Why bother. Bag dumped. Check in.
Phase Two. No rest for the wicked or night-bus weary. No mucking about in India if you wanna keep moving around on those oh-so popular trains. A population of one billion plus that exists in a state of constant flux between family in the smaller towns and countryside areas and jobs in the city and a calendar that possesses - it often seems - three major festivals somewhere in the country for every day of the calendar year means trains are always sold out. Book in advance or weep whilst you re-itinerise or get on another soul and butt-shattering bus. The hotel can't help. All trains to Chennai in 4,5 and 6 days time sold out online.
As I leave Maria's my attention is called by, and I introduce myself to Mohammed one of the city's legendary nobody-really-knows-how-many-thousand 'bare-foot' rickshaw wallahs. Mohammed becomes a regular feature of my time in Kolkata but I shall save introducing you to him until tomorrow. I purchase a 7 Rupee (10p) purawa (cup) of chai each from the street stand nearby and we sip and chat. 'Ricksaw?' He always drops the 'sh' from rickshaw.
Feet - feet -feet. Pound the street. Feel the new city through your soles. Start making that map. Piloting. Past the micro-community of families who literally live their lives on the pavement of Sudder Street (urinal and pumps provided) besides the Indian Museum. ‘Mass feeding of the poor every Sunday 9.00am' reads the large painted sign on the museum wall behind their encampments. Living exhibits and artefacts of poverty.
Turn right onto the main thoroughfare of Jawaharlal Nehru Road. I cut a bit of time and into a slice of curiosity and dip down onto Kolkata's one and only north-south Metro subway line at Esplanade station. 4 Rupees to go four stops north to Mahatma Gandhi Road. Dressed in kaki uniform one of the most charming ladies I've yet seen in India blushes whilst requesting to check my bags. Security. But we both just get stuck in an odd language-barrier induced blushing contest whilst her fingers rifle bananas, notebooks, cuddly toy (Muju), bog roll, biscuits and other such items of clear Tangerine-Terrorist potential in my bag without actually looking at them once. Permission to proceed. And blush some more.
Back up into the air. That potent dust-laced Indian city air my lungs have come to know (and loath) so well.
Eventually the passage explodes in light and human activity. Must be near the famous Howrah bridge now but despite its gargantuan steel-girder proportions it's hard to spot until you're right on top of it so equally over-powering is the melee of human labour that whorls around its ankles. Men in lungis and greasy vests jostle and jog about with packs of white cloth-stitched goods and bamboo-weave baskets twice their body weight, grand caskets of fruit of frightful proportions or back-breaking balancing acts of construction goods bound either to or from the Hooghly docks.
Finally fighting my way through the Scylla and Charybdis of India's human and dirt-belching, horn-honking automotive traffic streams I am finally up and onto the Hooghly Bridge. Apparently one of the world's busiest bridges though mercifully it seems not so today. No photos of it allowed. Don't know why. I sneak one later anyways. Down below on the Hooghly's banks - a large offshoot of the Ganges and venerated as such - Kolkatans and Saddhus upon the ghats bathe their bodies and fabrics in its waters. A solitary vessel, a reed and bamboo pole raft drifts on the grey-green shimmer of the river, a man crouching on the prow to fish.
On the west bank now. Dipping south towards the fortress sized complex that is Kolkata's Howrah Train Station. Nearly thirty principle platforms and so many attendant offices and buildings, old and new, it boggles the mind. I eventually fluster and figure my way to the far-flung Computer Reservation Centre. Fill out my form for the Coromandel Express. Say "hi" to the only other foreigner in the centre. A tall, middle-aged bandana sporting ( I think) German. Then say "bye" just as soon. Form handed over. 'Well I can tell you that there are three Tourist Quota seats available for the date you want as at this minute but you cannot get from here... you must go to our main Fairlie office to book.' Great, the largest train station I've yet come across in India (in my life perhaps!) and no facility to book what I need here.
Half an hour later or so, ticket booked. Job done. Chennai in five days time. Phase Two of my arrival (strangely the anticipated departure) concluded. So let's complete our introductory circuit of Kolkata shall we folks? Back onto the main river parallel Strand Road South.
I pass on it all today but spot the bandana-adorned German from Howrah Station sat on the fence-footing and decide to be gregarious for once, tap his shoulder and say "hi" inciting him to kindly purchase me chai.
Kicking up particles of dust and conversation we stroll further and further into the heat-blinding early afternoon south-south westerly arc of the sun and towards Vidyasagar Setu (Bridge) the Hooghly's next span south of Hooghly Bridge. The remaining constructs of the 18th Century British Fort William reside down this way but a good three kilometre swathe of grounds encompassing it are off limits to the public and of permanent military and other State usage.
Peter and I plan to loop around its southern flank and onto the Maidan park grounds but our map reading goes awry and we find ourselves having to walk up and over several tar macadam ribbons of flyover road.
As I turn to move on myself though Number Two has not budged and suddenly steps in to smother what little ground remains between us. His brow collapses into a vicious frown and his mouth puckers in a cruel grimace. 'Ummm?' I'm thinking... and then he's suddenly grabbed me and I‘m thinking ‘Uh-oh!’. Both hands gripping and knotting my shirt 'Hey, what the.
... and then all of a sudden what I will later call my 'almost mugging' is over as strangely and suddenly as it started. Number Two’s friend Number One returning to the scene, intimates to his pal that, almost in sympathy I sense, they should 'let this one slide'. But if they had any doubt, Peter, all six-foot-plus ex-army inches of him has turned from his several hundred metres ahead position, spied the kafuffle and started shouting violently about 'CALLING THE F**KING POLICE!' etc, etc... and it's all over. Number One and Number Two - Christian's I'm told - stroll off into the distance unruffled. "Phewf!" A lucky escape this time. A well-timed Five Minute Friend! Shall we continue our introductory Kolkata tour ladies and gents?
Still trying to extricate ourselves from the flyovers we spot literally on the patch of ground in the middle of this tumultuous transport maelstrom the so-called stables of the Calcutta Polo Club.
As we curve back down, the flyover petering out to ground level a sorrier sight still. Hunkered down with their teeming tornadoes of children and many dust-blown miseries, another glimpse of Kolkata’s (as with the rickshaw wallahs literarily romanticised) abject poor. Not one of the infamous slums here, but large homeless families, small communities really, whose lives are lived out in the spaces beneath and between the concrete limbs of the modern road structures.
Back on track now Peter and I sidle along the grassy paths beside the tram line towards the large pie-bald grass expanses of The Maidan. The so-called ’lungs of the city’, though in my time here I consider this image more appropriate to the vision of the city’s people managing to escape suffocating labours rather than fumes. Ice-creams are consumed and hundreds of improvised cricket matches a plenty played out. One father bowls a tennis ball underarm to his cricket-padded, new-bat-in-hand little lad. I cry ’Go on kid, the next Sachin Tendulkar!’ He bobbles the ball off his bat ’WOAAH!!! Straight to the boundary!’ Litter is a problem here - as anywhere else in India - but between the pigeons, goats, dogs and crows a good sum of it is consumed leaving just the clusters of plastic wrapper ghosts to haunt the park grounds.
Peter and I part company later after dinner and I head back to the hostel in Sudder Street. It’s been a long day for Day One. A lot can happen upon an arrival. Feet, ferries, 'ricksaws', metros, buses, bridges, stations and trains, tickets, confusion, horses, beggars and a nearly-mugging. Thanks for being by my side. Sat on his haunches upon his rickshaw Mohammed’s little eyes glimmer in the dark. His shawl now wrapped tight around him. 'Aaahh Mohammed friend want ricksaw ride tomorrow, Mohammed wait here?' 'Good night Mohammed. I'll see you for chai in the morning.' Right now it's time for my bed and some real non-bus sleep!