Friday, 24 April 2009

The Jewel of West Bengal

There are some cities of the world which immediately weave their magic spells upon us: Habana in Cuba, for example, with its crumbling old town, intriguing street life, amazing and varied public transport, but above all great and unusual things to drink. St. Petersburg in Russia, for example, with its once crumbling old buildings, fascinating street scenes, historic trams and trolley-buses, but above all the taste of its food and drink. And now, here in Kolkata (lets give it its new name: new for our new millennium, with a phonetic spelling which hardly disguises the fact that it’s exactly the same place it always was) the magnetic draw is to its majestic and crumbling old buildings, compelling street life in all its varied hues and full glory, the full repertoire of public transport, from rickshaws pulled along on foot by old, bearded men, to tuk-tuks; classic Ambassador taxis; luridly painted buses and graceful old trams. Just as we found in Mumbai, in some quarters, this city has a debonair feeling of London about it. Wide boulevards, elegant trees, parks and open spaces, vast and historic monuments and buildings. And it has a pulse. A pulse we haven’t quite found anywhere else in South Asia. The street life here is unique. Where else in the world could you possibly be crossing the road, when you swerve in order to avoid an antique bus bearing down upon you, only to be now in the pathway of an old man lying on a rickety cart supporting a greasy tractor engine and pulled by a wheezing donkey? He missed us only by inches. Where else in the world could you find people sleeping in the streets? Well, many, many places of course. But here it’s different for a certain sector of the homeless society. Do you remember back in Jharkhand, at Daltonganj, we remarked on countless people bedding down on the railway station concourse? We thought back then that it was all to do with the impending elections, and that perhaps these people had travelled into town for voting, and that they would soon be returning to their villages. But as we approached Dhaka just two days ago, at 5 am, we noticed something else at a small suburban station called Tungi. Here too were rows upon rows of sleeping bodies, neatly occupying their few square centimetres of station platform. But here there were groups of people perhaps not important or significant enough to be allowed to sleep on the station platform, and they were banished to sleeping along the railway tracks themselves, bedding down upon lengths of rusting iron rails. As our train waited at signals on the approach to Tungi station, its noise and lights must have awoken a man whom we watched silently for a few minutes. He did not belong in the group of parallel, sleeping bodies. He tried to lie at the end of the group, farthest from the platform. With no bedding or pillow he tried to make himself comfortable. All he wore was a pair of trousers. He tried to lie his head down on his left arm, but kept tossing and turning in an attempt to sleep. He was unable to do the same on the other side. He had no right arm at all. Such was our impression of Dhaka, and I digress to make a point. Now of course Kolkata must have identical cases, but we are unlikely to witness them. The homeless of Kolkatta have created an entirely different impression upon us. Around our small hotel there must be a colony of hundreds of men who are living without a roof. But they are smart. Most wear a white vest and the traditional Bengali cloth (usually blue) tied around the waste. Now they may sleep in the street but they have beds. Yes, beds. In the street. Perhaps they are rickshaw runners; perhaps they are low-caste workers. But they certainly have a sense of purpose about them. The temperature here in April during the day is baking-hot. At night, the temperature seems to stay the same. This seems to render the whole idea of a roof somewhat pointless, but soon the monsoon will be approaching. The picaresque (and, infact, picturesque) nature of this gamin-like life may not quite be so attractive during the rainy season. In Bangladesh, the oppressive dullness of a Muslim society seemed to create a hopeless feeling of meaningless poverty. But here, with the vibrancy of little Hindu temples on every street corner, wafting incense over the sugarcane grinders, would it be too fanciful to talk of a feeling of MEANINGFUL poverty? I’m not too sure, and perhaps we will feel differently after tomorrow morning’s visit. For tomorrow we are to visit the Motherhouse of Blessed Theresa of Calcutta.
And finally, some food. (Yes, did you think we had forgotten about the TASTE of the place?) We craved tastes which would banish the incessant monotony of Bangladeshi restaurant tucker. Supper was Chinese: lip-smackingly spicy chilli-chicken, then sweet&sour vegetables and some chow mein, all washed down with jasmine tea. Breakfast was great and unusual: mango porridge and Tibetan bread and honey. Throughout the day we made constant pit-stops for lassi and juices on Sudder St. Banana lassi gets a thumbs-up, as does mango lassi and sweet lime juice. But the winners are pineapple juice, coolly tying for first place with the simple sweet lassi. This sweet lassi at the Blue Sky CafĂ© is, without a doubt, THE best lassi we’ve had since leaving Jaisalmer. Yum!

1 comment:

  1. Calcutta... what a shithole.

    Mind u the Blue Sky Cafe looks top of the range.

    Sry it had to be done ... i'm still lafing:))