Friday, April 10, 2009

Oh 'eck! Calcutta

We meet Jess & Duncan on the Naxalite Express to Kolkata (or Calcutta for anyone over 20 years of age) and it turns out that they too are intending to meet visitors, Jess' parents and sister, at the airport there. We're meeting Ruth, John's sister off an Emirates flight. Jess' sister is called Ruth and also lives in Hulme, Manchester. And they're all going to be on the same flight. Wha-hey! And on the basis of such coincidences we bond quickly and before you know it we're playing Scrabble in 2-tier A/C luxury aboard the night train. Amazingly, everything is still cordial and jolly even after the game, which is a new experience for me and Gayle - we had to give away our travel set after 18 months because the game always led to spelling disagreements, arguments, and sulks....usually before we'd even started. Anyway after a short kip we pull into Howrah station at the unearthly hour of 4.30 am, which actually turns out to be the best time of day. We take a taxi, a bouncy old yelllow Ambassador, on deserted roads to Sudder St. and head straight for a chai stall. The sky has brightened quickly and there's a stirring on the streets of men in vests and checked lunghis. Some are still stretched out on charpoys. Taxi drivers recline on their back seats. It is very warm and it's only 5.30 in the morning. What's it like during the day?

Hot. Very hot. Unseasonally hot, apparently. We wander the streets and take occasional refuge in air-conditioned shops, cafes or restaurants. I'm not sure if this survival method works - the body has to adapt from hot and humid to cold and dry and then back again. But c'mon, we're not dinosaurs. We really enjoy the city. My preconception of the city is based on an old English cliche - "it's like the black hole of Calcutta", Mother Theresa's work,and the film 'City of Joy' starring that bloke from Dirty Dancing which I've never actually seen (I mean City of Joy and Dirty Dancing, although sadly, and to my shame, I did see Ghosts twice), so to find wide tree-lined roads, uncrowded pavements (wow, pavements), and some attractive old buildings scattered around comes as quite a pleasant surprise. The Black Hole turns out to refer to a cellar in which some annoying English were locked up overnight by an irate Indian, in the early days of the East India Company. Many suffocated. The city's main post office now stands on the site of this infamous incident which seems quite appropiate. If you can survive the heat and the sort-of queues to buy some stamps for your postcards, there's the umistakable feeling, as you hand them over to the franking clerk behind the counter that they are destined for the black hole of the Indian Post Office.

It's great to see Ruth at the airport - she's been here before, a long time ago - and we spend a couple of easy days pootling about. Early one morning we wander off up to the Hoogly river, through streets that are full of the usual public daily rituals of bathing, breakfasting, clothes washing and teeth cleaning with those frayed twigs from the Neem tree. At the river the ferries are busy with commuters and school children. By 10am we're hot and exhausted and done for the day.

Our plan is to head up to Darjeeling, meet up with our good friend Laurence from home who is also in India at this time, and go on to Sikkim. Ruth specially requested that we take the day train northwards out of Kolkata, to enjoy the scenery and the train 'action', and there's plenty of it. Throughout the day there's a steady stream of people through the carriage. Small boys crawl along with a rag in their hand, wiping the floor and asking for tips. A respectable looking sadhu in bright orange robes gives us a tune, George Formbyish, on his tiny ukelele (not a bad Scrabble word, if only I could spell it). A couple of times hijras (transvestites) strut in and go up to the men, say a few words and collect a few rupees - it looks less like begging and more like extortion - some men look very uncomfortable. It seems the hijras hold sway over them. And then there's the chai and snack wallahs. As the journey progresses, there's less food and more stuff, like toys, torches, tea towels and at one point, a man with a casio keyboard. Imagine buying a keyboard on your train home? Our journey to the foothills takes us through miles and miles of fields and over the Ganges. We stay in Siliguri which is a little bit cooler than Kolkata, although after a twelve hour 350 mile journey we are still only 100 metres above sea level, so not quite in the hills yet........

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