Cheng Chin Yuen

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Kolkata aka Calcutta (5th – 10th Feb)

The 206 dollar Jetstar flight to Kolkata was the best ever! I had 3 seats to sprawl over and there wasn’t much of a crowd to disturb my 3 hour nap. All I remembered in my brief lucid moments was that for 12 dollars, you could get a meal and drink or a movie on a small plasma screen. The golf-themed magazine was the only one available and it was useful in getting me to that desired state of concussion. The only article I read was of Michelle Wie who at the point of writing was worth US$10 million! Pro rock-climbers wouldn’t even get close to half that sum.

The major mozzie welcome party at Kolkata’s airport was probably taking a breather from the haze conditions outside. I haven’t gotten a single bite walking her streets in the past 3 days here. For 210 Rupees (S$1 = 25 Rs) we got a vintage HM ‘Ambassador’ taxi to Sudder Street, where the backpacker places were. It was not surprising that instead of air-conditioning, we got conditioned to the air. The acrid smell of diesel and great plumes of exhaust from the variety of vehicles made Yangon relatively odourless and unlike Myanmar where the lovely people are tucked in by 1030pm, the industrious Indians drive their vehicles well past our usual travel bedtime. It’s fine if they drive quietly but it seems like honking keeps the car going in this polluted part of the world. Using our nose diggings as a gauge, it came out coal-coloured at every picking especially in the morning when we had just risen since we were not paranoid enough to wake up in the middle of the night to clear our nostrils. For the health-conscious and the environmentalist, Kolkata most definitely won’t be your City of Joy.

City of Joy?

As we got closer to the centre, the rickshaw pullers began to appear. In the classic ‘City of Joy’, their led miserable lives and more than 20 years after the book was written I believe the condition of their lungs could only have deteriorated with the increase in air pollution. However, it was good to know that these human horses could not really gallop through the congested streets. After a late dinner of exceptionally juicy chicken tikka kebab and freshly baked garlic nan, we walked back to Hotel Royal Palace and saw two pullers sleeping beneath their rickshaws. They lay corpse-like, mummified in a filthy blanket, on the pavement beside a main road. A 1.5 kilometre trip in a taxi would cost only about 15 Rs, so you can imagine how little these pullers can command. Well, according to the book, in the past these men will have the advantage during the rainy season when the roads are impassable by cars. Today, there is a Metro system running underground so the flooding problem should be under control. The rickshaws do give the city a special jaw-dropping flavour (especially those who pull barefooted) but for their longevity, I hope they will be phased-out and re-employed somewhere else.

Entire homeless families set up camps along the pavements. They are not prolific (at least in this part of town) but are numerous enough to be noticed. With the wall of the building as the main support, tarps are attached to form a shelter the size of half an A-framed tent. These can be ventilated during the day or sealed off during the night. The women here do their cooking beside the road using claypots on earthen stoves over wood-fire. For these road-side dwellers, potable water is obtained from hand-pumps along the pavements. For us, drinking water comes in a bottle at 18 Rs for 2 litres. What little belongings they have is tied up in small bundles and clothes are hung to dry on the grills and pipes that ran along the permanent wall. It was the misery I wanted to see. Here we were trying hard not to breathe too deeply and there barely 5 metres from the nearest exhaust pipe, lay men, women, children and babies sound asleep on the sidewalk. At a casual glance, you couldn’t tell if they were dead or alive.

Kolkata has beggars of every imaginable kind. We saw one topless man lying facedown on a groundsheet flapping two stumps that were once arms. Others were crawling around on crude rubber pieces tied to their knees and feet which have ceased to function. Others tried to win sympathy by displaying an incomplete arm or foot deformed by leprosy. The luckier ones just looked normally destitute. Children ran around barefoot on crow-shit splattered streets. The most sorrowful beggar we saw was on Howrah bridge. He was so small, malnourished and contorted that apart from his head, the rest of his body looked mutated. There were two huge bulbous humps on his crooked back and his thin shoulders actually looked disjointed from his torso. He would have made a searing photograph. We did not last 5 minutes on the massive 450m single-span bridge, the exhaust from the gridlocked traffic was just too much for our unaccustomed Singaporean lungs. It is tempting to give these beggars money in return for a close-up photograph but so far I have managed to exercise some restraint. Such shocking photos are excellent teaching material but nothing beats the real encounter.

Photography in Kolkata is tough. In general, the people are adverse and perhaps even aggressive to photography. So far I have been stopped three times from taking photos, twice of which I was taken to a supervisor for further questioning. The first was when I unknowingly took a photograph of some VIP’s car and in the second instance, I couldn’t resist the temptation of a funny sign at a Metro station and was brought to the attention of the security personnel by an over-zealous civic-minded lady. Street photography is also challenging with the high and constant flow of human traffic. Photography at the major temples is also ‘strictly prohibited’.

Stomach Business

We haven’t progressed on to street food yet but it looks promising. At sit down places you probably got the same thing for marginally higher prices. A small cup of milk tea (slightly larger than expresso size) costs between 3 to 7 Rs and we had aloo prata and dhal curry for 7 Rs! The most expensive meal we had was 140 Rs for two. Freshly baked garlic nan costs about 12 to 15 Rs per piece and chapattis 5 Rs. Mutton briyani averages 45 Rs and a whole tandoori chicken 80 to 100 Rs. Menus are wide-ranging and interesting but the mushy fish we had was a big let down. Hot tea and coffee is a pleasant surprise with each eatery having its own blend of masala thrown in. They seem to be perpetually boiling and over-boiling their milk tea in metal containers over fearsome gas fires. Tea is eventually served in tiny clay cups which are dumped in the gutter. Street food sometimes comes in a small disposable plate made from dry compressed leaves.

The Metro is 8 carriages long and the signs here are hilarious (see photos). Certain seats are reserved for ladies and they will have no qualms about shooing you off to claim their rightful spot. Indian men in the wrong spaces can be seen scrambling off when a sari approaches. Our MRT should adopt this policy. Rides are very cheap and range from 4 to 6 Rs. The trains are clean, arrive on schedule and offer temporary relief from the din above.

Air Traffic Control Please

Calcutta should be christened the City of Crows. In three days, I was bombed twice in two entirely different locations! They are big, black, brave and probably outnumber the pigeons in London. The worst is that they seem to enjoy flying a lot. Even with a hat on, my berms and page 446 of our guidebook was not spared a loud generous drippy white and light green splatter. If you are paranoid, bring a golf brolly. Besides the two hits, there were also quite a few narrow misses. The only thing that could be worse than crow droppings would be that of their big brothers - huge brown birds of prey that look like kites or buzzards making the crows look like mynahs. They look magnificent when they circle among the gothic colonial buildings and dive down to scavenge for food. I bet their poop would look equally magnificent on my head.

The Asiatic Society

The most interesting thing about this place was that we had to register ourselves 5 times with 5 different people at various locations in this three-storey building before we finally got to see the small collection of ancient manuscripts on the third second level. Perhaps it was the government’s way of creating jobs. There was even one dude stationed on a bar-stool in the old lift to operate it!

The Light and Sound Show

MP Birla Planetarium’s 20 Rs show is a 45 minute astronomy crash course specifically designed to confuse the lay-person. The centrepiece is a futuristic projector which looks like two sea-mines on a see-saw and from this device come the constellations we see on the marble dome above us. A lady provides live running commentary of trivia about the Milky Way, zodiac signs, Mars, Venus and other complicated jargon from outer space. I like this lady especially when she stopped her narration to scold an idiot whose handphone interrupted her commentary. It was hilarious and went something like this:

‘Blah blah blah blah blah blah. I SAID SWITCH OFF YOUR MOBILE!!! OFF YOUR MOBILE! Blah blah blah blah blah blah.’

It was worrying to know that this bad habit extended beyond the cinemas of home. The talk was a bit too heavy going for 20 Rs and I soon found myself entranced by the tiny green ‘stars’ on the ceiling. The ancient astrologers’ imaginations must have been light years ahead of their time to see Pegasus from just four stars out of the millions.


We had our first rip-off at the Kali temple. A man took it upon himself to be our guide and after depositing our shoes at his friend’s offerings stall in the temple, we found ourselves with a garland of flowers and a box of incense sticks. He then led us barefooted on a quick tour of the temple. We dropped by Kali’s back-door to throw a flower at it for our well-wishes to come true and then came the fear-factor bit…We were led into a small enclosure where male goats and buffalos were sacrificed. The head of the unfortunate animals were held in place by 3 poles and the animal had to be killed with a single stroke to the neck. There was quite a bit of blood around the area from the morning’s slaughter and let me remind you that we were barefooted. It would be wise to avoid this area if you have an open wound on your feet. In one corner of the temple, the heads of the goats were being piled up. At 4 pm there was a special treat for the poor, so our self-appointed guide says. He then brought us to a holy tree where we were separated to throw more flowers and offer the incense sticks. Then came the snag, he whipped out a donation book and pressured us to make a small donation. There were names of other tourists who, according to the records made a 1000 to 1500 Rs donations. I smelled a goat and parted with 100 Rs for the two of us. It was still a rip off but I didn’t want our shoes to suddenly go missing. Pissed off more with ourselves than the man, we hurried back to the stall to retrieve our shoes and brains. The man dealt us a second blow, asking us to pay 20 Rs per person for the flowers and incense sticks. Well, the flowers were with Kali now so we had to pay up. If the donation went to the temple, I could still forgive him but otherwise, I hope Kali, the destroyer, teaches him a lesson or two someday. I realised we went through the temple without really seeing the temple, so we went one more round, on our own and with our shoes on which turned out to be perfectly legal.

All That You Can Leave Behind

Still boiling from our rip-off, we stumbled into Nirmal Hriday 10 minutes later and had our anger immediately silenced with a major reality check. This corner building was Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying. In it were 50 dying men and 54 dying women lying on wooden stretchers. The place was packed but well organised. Some had the strength to sit up and a few could walk with the help of volunteers but the majority lay beneath blankets like the poor on the streets. It was heartening to see so many foreign volunteers helping out, playing and comforting the sick and dying but I found the atmosphere very heavy and depressing. One of the sisters told us that they have among them a sister from Singapore who had been there for 4 years! It would have been great to meet her but she was back home for a visit. We spent some time wandering around the compound and I was impressed by how organised the home was. Everyone seemed very busy and had no time to talk. There are 30 Dos and Don’ts for the volunteers to abide by. The last one reads: Work in the presence of God. Kalighat is not a place for socialization. The rules say heaps about the establishment and its philosophy and is included in the photos to educate you about the place. Beneath the huge crucifix outside the building are the words ‘I Thirst’. Next to the small entrance is a photography of Mother Teresa with her quotation - ‘Works of love are works of peace’ below it. Inside, is yet another gem by the Mother – ‘Protect your poverty, it is a precious treasure’. I think for the most of us, it is a principle we can understand but never practice. That’s why we continued our holiday in India instead of staying to help out. We are not ready to ‘give till it hurts’ yet but we did lug 13 kilos worth of clothes there the next day. The cheerful sisters here, like Reverend Philip and his crew at the orphanage in Pyin U Lwin are truly amazing people.

Our first night at the dingy Hotel Royal Palace was again victory to tiny six-legged things sleeping beneath the mattresses. This time round only I got bitten and the attacks became less intense after I covered up as much exposed skin as I could. They only got to bite my neck and ears. So we checked out the next day and bunked ourselves into Hotel Maria. By now you should realise that in Kolkata, ‘Hotel’ means any building with beds to let. Hotel Maria was 50 Rs cheaper and much better. It had hot water which meant that every night I had to go round the back to fill up two medium-sized pails of hot water from the dispenser and bring it back to our toilet. It was a great reminder of how much water we actually need for a decent shower. One third bucket of hot water could be filled up with cold water to give you a full pail of warm ‘showerable’ water. So after 3 nights, I found that two and a half mixings was enough for me and I haven’t shaved my head yet. By the way, the homeless bathe in the day in a sarong using the street pumps.

Essential Puzzles

Good quality toilet paper costs 30 Rs per roll but a small tube (50g) of Colgate toothpaste costs 8 Rs. Something doesn’t add up and it is not the shit tickets. Well, newspapers are only 2 Rs and will be the substitute when we get really broke.

Something’s Always Comin Through

Kolkata could also be known as the City of Coolies. On every street, goods are bulldozed through the sea of bodies, atop people’s heads, on long wooden carts pulled and pushed by human energy, modified bicycles and in all kinds of motorised vehicles. You get used to ducking out of the way when a massive shadow on small legs looms up behind you. There should be a ‘Most Amazing Thing You Can Carry On Your Head’ contest. The most intense part of Calcutta for me was the area west of Howrah Bridge in the side-streets of Mahatma Ghandi Road. The main road itself was too polluted in all its various forms for us to stay on for more than 10 minutes! In these crowded side-streets, you just go with the flow of bodies and try to keep all the interesting sights, sounds and smells from overloading your brain. The massive (and functional) old colonial buildings along Netaji Subhash Road is also well worth a walk through.

Four days of foul air was our limit and we took an over-night train to the mountains of Darjeeling to give our lungs a much needed break. A man sleeping opposite us told us that you could buy anything in Kolkata and get it cheaper than elsewhere in India. Interestingly, he calls it the City of Joy. He must be quite a positive guy to endure a 33 hour journey to Assam.


Anonymous sya said...

Halo cher,
hope u been in good life. u have a good talen of a photographer. u noe who i am? im syaful ur student all the student from 1A last year miss you. see you one day at hong kah...
be happy always.
And smile.. :D

8:20 PM  

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