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Kolkata : You join me on arrival...

Kolkata Travel Blog

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Sudder Street, Kolkata

'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.

Mohammed the 'Ricksaw' puller with his chai.
 

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.

'Mass feeding of the poor...' : sign in a boarded window of the Indian Museum above a pavement community of the poor.
  Trust to your feet.  Dirty yellow-sheathed backpack heaved onto shoulders.  'Groan!'  I wince into the sun.  The heat.  The dust.  Join me on arrival why don't you people. I think the hostel's this way?  Follow me.

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.

The Little Fountain Boy
  Phase One complete.  Arrived.  Bed for the night.  Done.

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.

Saddhu washes his garments in the Hooghly, an offshoot of the River Ganges.
  So I will say "Hello" to Kolkata via a circuitous stroll to Howrah Train Station to try to grab one of the Tourist Quota Tickets - one of the small tranche of tickets exclusively held back for tourist bums like me.  But ya gotta go get 'em.  So it's back on our feet folks.

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.

A Hooghly bathing ghat
  'No thanks Mohammed.  My first morning in Kolkata, I like to find the city with my feet.  My own way.'  Right I'm getting late for my first date with a city already!  I'm supposed to be taking you on my arrival aren't I?!  Bye Mohammed. 

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.

'The Old and the New'
 

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.

The Hooghly Bridge : "Shhh, photos of it aren't allowed!" though L*rd knows why?
  I think if I plunge left ( 'Which way west anyone?' ) I shooould be taking us in the general direction of the Hooghly River.  Sorry if I’m wrong!  A long session of gutter-skipping, sidewalk hot-stepping and rickshaw, motorbike and cart waltzing later, still no Hooghly River.  Don't lose heart.  Trust instinct.  Mental map.  Mental map.  Keep going.  I think I fluffed the main Mahatma Gandhi Road but must be running parallel to it.  ( Musn’t I?)  And it's interesting here anyway.  India crafting her million Rupee-fishing treasures in the shadows as usual.  Glass fronted kiosks with flies on one side (sometimes both) and golden, orange and milky-coloured sweet-meat treasures on the other.  Syrupy Gulab-jamun and jalebis, various sugary ladoos and their many creamy, silver-foil dusted kin.
"So ferry, cross the Hooghly..."
  Tasty looking pastries, samosas, batter-fried-capsicums, chillies and pakoras tempting with their oily sheen too so long as you don't ponder too long on the centuries blackened and begrimed over-size skillets and woks within whose bubbling depths they were christened.

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.

Tree in park in city
  I have to duck and weave to avoid being knocked out by stacks of sheet metal or impaled upon any one of a thousand lethal bananas.

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.

'Taxi'
  'TII.  This Is India!' I sigh to myself.  Ever proficient at being reliably and efficiently inefficient.  'So where's this office?'  'You go over the road, take the Fairlie ferry other side of river, and our office there.'  Great.  I swelter off into the growing heat and frustration of my arrival.  The 6 Rupee ferry ride is a pleasant break.  Three boats glide and turn like sputtering old synchronised swimmers across the Hooghly and a nice breeze accompanies us as they drift back downstream.

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.

Kali - the blood thirsty, part eponymous patron goddess of Kolkata
  Passing a profusion of street-food stalls and drinks 'n' snacks kiosks for a kilometre or more.  Kolkata has an abundant population of such teeny-chow venues and an enviable budget food culture therein, though as frail-belly foreigners of course one needs choose wisely, if such discernment be possible.  I often stare, half tempted, half terrified at the glorious gamut of globs and goos and greasy, gelatinous grub crafted and consumed at the finger-tips of India's pavement chefs and patrons and find myself often supplanting desire with visions of committing gastronomic hari-kiri : i.e. the plunging of something directly into one's guts with the sure knowledge the act will bring about, if not death, then a fair bout of discomfort. 

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.

'Home Sweet Home'
  The usual banal travel itinerary chit-chat aside and a  'which way are you heading now? - oh that way, can I join you?' from my company and like it or not I've gained an FMF (Five Minute Friend) for the remains of the day in Peter the retired German Army technician.

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.

'Onward for the People!'
  Hugging the curb-side.  Stopping at one point to take in a view two teenage Indian lads approach us.  Peter not noticing has carried on ahead.  'Hello, are you a Christian?' is the first question, smiling friendly from who I shall call Number One.  A strange first quiz given our context on a highway curve.  'Sorry?'  'I am a Christian' says Number One.  His pal Number Two says nothing.  They stand, Number One and Number Two, either side of me now.  'Are you a Christian too?'  'Oh, well, no I'm not.  Not really.'  'Then what are you?' Number One pursues, smiling friendly like.
"Nah mate, 'fraid to say we're all outta sandals this week, try next door guv!" :D
  Number Two remains silent-indifferent.  'Well, I'm English.'  'Oh, English!  Nice place.  What country are you from?'  'Errr, En-gland.'  'Oh nice.  Okay my friend, goodbye.' smiles Number One moving on his way. 

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.

'Artificial Flowers'
..?' Number Two's eyes bore into me with quite palpable hatred.  One of his hands now grabs my 'third limb', the strap of my Lumix camera, near always to be found slung over my right shoulder 'HEY WAIT A MINUTE, WHAT ARE YOU...?!!'  I grab the strap defensively too.  No frickin' way you're getting this pal! (foolish I know)  And I'm thinking 'Oh f**k, oh Jes*s I can't believe in broad daylight on a frickin' flyover in Kolkata I am about to be mugged for the first f**kin' time ever!!!’  Number Two's scowl, if it were possible takes deeper root and he yanks my camera strap whilst moving his other hand now into his jacket pocket where a pointed item I'm supposed to believe is a knife spikes with (I think) faux threat through the material.
Bro and Sis
..

... 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.

A scene from the Maidan grounds
  Amazing!  Amidst all the thundering noise and pollution here stand and suffer some of Kolkata’s finest horses, kept in tiny slap-dash patches of dirty-scrub pens.  Fenced in.  The elegance of their glossy-coated muscles, branded and shimmering with the little light that manages to fall upon their flanks, attempting to defy the indignity of their housing.  We will later see them cantering, freer, happier, in the evening sun at the track side of the Royal Calcutta Turf Club enclosure. 

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.

Boys of the NCC (National Cadets Corp) stop for a snap :)
  Parents stare out from the shadows squatting by piles of wood and braziers, their children fanning out towards us, crackling with momentary excitement and then receding back like embers from and to a dying fire.
 
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.
Being a rickshaw puller is undoubtedly tiring work!
 

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!

hummingbird50 says:
Holy crap Steve...good thing you still have your camera :) would be horrible to lose all those great photos we are seeing...and I am extremely glad you came out of it, thanks to you 5 minute friend :):)
Lucky man to be in the heat too....
Posted on: Feb 23, 2010
dothoin says:
great blog again steve ...as always buddy
Posted on: Feb 23, 2010
esposabella says:
The read was great, but want more pics!!!! they are great, thanks for sharing :)
Posted on: Feb 23, 2010
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Sudder Street, Kolkata
Sudder Street, Kolkata
Mohammed the Ricksaw puller with…
Mohammed the 'Ricksaw' puller wit…
Mass feeding of the poor... : si…
'Mass feeding of the poor...' : s…
The Little Fountain Boy
The Little Fountain Boy
Saddhu washes his garments in the …
Saddhu washes his garments in the…
A Hooghly bathing ghat
A Hooghly bathing ghat
The Old and the New
'The Old and the New'
The Hooghly Bridge : Shhh, photos…
The Hooghly Bridge : "Shhh, photo…
So ferry, cross the Hooghly...
"So ferry, cross the Hooghly..."
Tree in park in city
Tree in park in city
Taxi
'Taxi'
Kali - the blood thirsty, part epo…
Kali - the blood thirsty, part ep…
Home Sweet Home
'Home Sweet Home'
Onward for the People!
'Onward for the People!'
Nah mate, fraid to say were all…
"Nah mate, 'fraid to say we're al…
Artificial Flowers
'Artificial Flowers'
Bro and Sis
Bro and Sis
A  scene from the Maidan grounds
A scene from the Maidan grounds
Boys of the NCC (National Cadets C…
Boys of the NCC (National Cadets …
Being a rickshaw puller is undoubt…
Being a rickshaw puller is undoub…
Put up yer dukes! :))
'Put up yer dukes!' :))
Zebra Crossing
Zebra Crossing
Think Big  : T-shirts for sale.
'Think Big' : T-shirts for sale.
Inside one of the huge and rather …
Inside one of the huge and rather…
Off the hanger
'Off the hanger'
Kolkata architecture
Kolkata architecture
Under repair
Under repair
Maidan
Maidan
Goats scavange the Maidan scrub-gr…
Goats scavange the Maidan scrub-g…
The Kolkata Racecourse
The Kolkata Racecourse
Kolkata river boatman
Kolkata river boatman
The master of movies : a subway st…
The master of movies : a subway s…
Street side chai wallah stall
Street side chai wallah stall
Bathing in the Hooghly
Bathing in the Hooghly
Mother Love
'Mother Love'
Kolkata
photo by: sky69