Adventures on an Indian Visa (week 16): West Bengal
Calcutta is a very fine city, full of cheap & tasty food, with lots going on & lots of things to see. We had a massive day of exploration really. There’s the genetic mutation of a White Tiger at Alipore Zoo, where most of the tea-stained, soul-less cages are void of even the fakest plastic flower. There are the modern art galleries (which Charlie usually storms about in a huff goin’ ‘that was shite’), there’s College Street, a world of books & bookshops & the famous Indian Coffee House where the waiters are dressed up like cockateets. There’s BBD Bagh – formerly Dalhousie Square – full of British pomp & architecture, including the fabulous GPO, the former nerve centre of an empire. There’s the very cool one-line metro system that links the city north & south, for between 4 & 8 rupees a ride. Then there’s Salt Lake City Stadium, a great football arena that rivals the Nou Camp in size – but was filled with only a thousand die hard fans for a game the Indian’s barely notice when we went to watch the game. It’s just not cricket, y’see.
In the evening I went off on my own to see some Indian classical music, which was free! The highlight of which was opening my legs virgin-like to the wonders of hearing for the first time, sitar played majestically before. It was a celestial experience & I’m looking forwards to getting back to Edinburgh & putting my new eastern-influenced art-form into practice.
I love hanging out on the roof of the Modern Lodge, it really is a suitably cool hang-out for my stay in Calcutta. It’s just off Sudder Street – the travellers’ ghetto – surrounded by eateries, chi shops & even a record store which has some disco vinyl I dont have! I was listening to some through a gramophone style thing in the street which got some amusing looks & me in a reyt funky mood.
There’s also a fair share of homeless families here, & I was a bit taken aback when I saw this clearly beautiful homeless mother led away by some burley, well-dress’d man. I’d had a wee chat to her beforehand; her name was Sabia. My instant thought after seeing her led away was prostitution, a word which rhymes & comes along with destitution. Anyway, the moment inspir’d the following sonnet;
She’s up from the Sunderbans, her village was decaying,
& found herself a destitute, an elf on Sudder Street,
Dismiss’d by the government, while the Gods ignoring praying;
Her final resolution – no begging, nothing to eat!
Her mother caught the Black TB, whose nightly liquor treat
Ensur’d their police harassment, what lifetimes humans lead!
Then, as her mother pass’d away, with nothing on her feet,
She’d become her own mother, with three younger mouths to feed;
With teenage prostitution desperation made complete,
Condemn’d by mega-wealthy Westerners, “the lesser breed!”
When nly the decent Amir Vela Mandir pay her heed;
For every Sunday every soul who waits in line with patience,
Receives their sweets, their savouries & their sabje in a bag –
Afore shuffling back to paving flags to sip their gutter-wine.
As for my own poems about Calcutta, I’ve done a handful, but have hit a brick wall of apathy & heat. It is almost touching 40 degrees Celsius in the middle of the day, my head’s melting into mush & my clothes are sticking sweatily to my skin. The the cool of air of Lancashire & the East Lothian are definitely more conducive to sonneteering. I’ve got loads of notes, tho’, picked up from city wanderings & the two great libraries in town. There’s the National Library of India in the grounds of this maharaja’s old palace, & the Ramakrishna Mission, the HQ of this divine guy whose spirituality was borderline schizophrenia, but whose legacy was a world of learning & books. I’ve come across his libraries been all up the East Coast, & it’s been cool getting Eastern insights into set Western ideas.
I wrote this sonnet today about Mother Teresa & the poet Tagore, both of whom had received Nobel Prizes.
The city bubbling & thick with proud calls & lights
Overflows the saucepan of its eyelids
Its tears flow out in gutters of lowly populations
The Kolkatan will say, “My city makes me proud,”
For only yesterday, foot-picking thro’ the crowd,
Two Nobel avatars had gelled with days on earth,
Descended from the stars, imbibed by mortal birth,
Remarkable Tagore, from whose prolific pen
Words order’d to restore lost dignity to men;
Thro’ poems, plays & song, short stories & ballets,
He entertain’d the throng, for minds he made essays,
Grey dryad of Bengal, no praise of ye enough,
While, on her morning stroll, a woman goes, grown tough
To dressing rancid sores, to scrubbing at gangrene,
She opens up her doors to any libertine,
Whose inscrutable pain, makes newer nurses faint,
Teresa, dress’d so plain, O gutter-dweller saint!
In the evening I went on my own to see a performance of Indian folk dancing call’d Kathak, & was blown away by its crazy, theatrical mix of of supernatural costumes, dancers, singers & actors – dancing, tap-dancing, rapping & all-round wickedness. After the performance I was given a flyer for a Kathak marathon tomorrow – twelve hours of non-stop performance – & all for free. In fact, it seems there’s a lot of free culture every day on offer around the city, paid for by the West Bengal state government. It seems the Indians consider their high culture to be native binding force, rather than a commercial elitist enterprise. Like an NHS for the arts, & something which we could really do with in a televisually-dominated Britain. Something to work on in my later years, perhaps.
Today is our last full day in Calcutta, which was something of a cultural sandwich. The crusts were formed by Indian classical music & folk dancing, with the filling being a trip to the races. The day began with a rush for orange juice to counter the effects of the previous night’s drinking session. It was there, on the breezy rooftop of the modern lodge, that Malcolm, a bearded twenty-something from Athens, Georgia (US) & Rebecca, a salt-of-the-earth Irish lass from Tipperary agreed to join me on my kathak quest. We were join’d in the morning by Owen, a handsome-in-that-Irish-way traveller type from Cork – & Sebastian. I’d met him on my mission to get juice – a young, long haired Pole, resident in London & with appropriate cockneyisms chuck’d into his accented English. He’s in town to get a sitar made – a two-week process – & I said as there is sitar accompaniment to the kathak, he should come along. He did, & soon enough the five of us were sat in a lovely air-conditioned auditorium.
After an hour or so, me & Becky walked back to the Modern Lodge & picked up Charlie & Pete. The latter’s a lovely guy who is staying at the Lodge. He’s a Londoner, but for the last ten years he’s been living in a tiny village near Graus, in the foothills of Catalonia. He’s bought & is renovating a second house there & has said we should go & visit him later in the year for a poetic retreat. Happy days. My impromptu posse got even happier down the race track. We arrived after a lovely walk across the Maidan – the vast green, lung-like space of Calcutta – with a thousand Tendulkars all enacting the coming match against England in the Cricket World Cup, on many a home-made wicket. The walk to the course is dominated by the Victoria memorial – a beautiful domed, marble affair & a constant reminder of empire – it’s like the Taj Mahal meets Saint Paul’s cathedral & positively glitters in the sunlight.
Entry to the racecourse was only ten rupees, well worth it considering the grandeur of the five pavilions & the view of central Calcutta emerging from the Maiden’s trees. O yeah, I the winner of five out of seven races. The first two winners I was drawing the number from the cosmos. I tried it again for the third – but it came dead last – & again for the fourth, which fell in a flat race! I changed tack now, & queuing at the window to place a bet on the fifth, I asked the guy in front for a tip for the next two races, follow’d his advice & duly won both of them. In the last race was a horse called Zillionaire – & feeling like one with my winnings, back’d it & won again! Great fun – Charlie won 150 rupees with a ten-rupee place bet on a rank outsider, & Becky picked three winners. In between races you can even watch the horses be paraded & have a beer & banter with the locals. Great fun.
Come sunset came the second crust of mi culture butty, & we went to a classical music festival concert – where we listen’d to the haunting violinesque mantras of the sarangee, & the wonderful guitariness of the saron. I swear down, this guy was playing stuff & I’m like, how the hell is he doing that. It must be something down to the sheer seriousness of the musicians over here – like how the Orientals treat the game of ‘Go.’ Young boys are initiated at the age of 8 & become disciples, in some disciplines practising for thirty years before they are even allow’d to perform. In one of the vocal arts – Dhurava – you have to practice the base note ‘sa’ for two years!
Then, after food & beers on the rooftop, & a full-flow crack with the Irish, what was a very special day finally drew to completion.
Just as we were leaving Calcutta this morning, I had my wallet stolen with about £60 in rupees freshly drawn out from the bank. Me & Charlie had gone to a café near the station, & I’d left my money bag out next to Charlie while I went to a a toilet. I came back, & he went to the loo, then later on, while I’m on the train wanting to pay for some snacks, realised my wallet was gone. I had to borrow some money off Charlie, & there was just something in his demeanour that made me realise he was the one who’d nicked the money off me. The fear of his imminent return to a much more expensive Britain has made him desperate, I think, I just wish’d he’d have asked. I couldn’t believe it – or even prove it… once a crack head, always a crack head, I guess! Anyway, I’m a big lad, he must have done it for a reason & there’s no point letting it ruin my experience of India. I’ll be with him for another week or so, then I’ll be on mi todd, so I’ll just humour him. This is Charlie’s version of events, by the way, in the form of his second sonnet, which incorporates the wee bout of diarrhoea that karmically attack’d him for being a thieving cunt!
THE LEAVING OF CALCUTTA
By Charlie Fairclough
We left Calcutta the way that we came
One week later on a shaking train
We said our goodbyes & paid all our tabs
& walked to the bus-stop avoiding the cabs
The day was hot & the carriage cramm’d
As we left the city behind
Then crossing the Hooghly
Life chuck’d us a double googly
We gobbled a snack & boarded the train
But soon one of our party doubled in pain
& staggering off to the dunny
& whilst he was gone
And to make matters worse
the other one’s lost all his money
Cheeky fucker, nicking my money & writing about it.
So we left Calcutta on a slow, seven-hour local train, full of blind beggars, ston’d babas & occasionally bursting at the seams. Our destination was the crappy little town of Rampurhat, where we got a room & watch’d England v India in the Cricket World Cup. The match was a reyt thriller, swinging one way then the other, as we watch’d it with a group of Indians at the hotel. At first India’s total of 338 seemed massive, but England struck back & seem’d to be coasting, only for the Indians to strike back themselves & leave England needing about 24 off the last two overs. Then a few sixes later the last ball came along – England needed two to win & everyone was on their feet – England just got one, however, tying the match & everybody broke out into hugs, handshakes & friendship. I’m glad really, if England would have won, I don’t think we’d have made it out alive.
This morning we buss’d it from Rampurhat to the city of Murshidibad – a fine looking place pregnant with of poetically historicity. It was the capital of the Nawab who fought Clive of India at the Battle of Plassey in the 18th century, the British victory at which kinda kick’d off the Raj. After this our soiree among the Himalayas, I think I’ll drop Charlie off in Calcutta, then go & check out the battlefield.
After 20 minutes in Murshidibad, we caught another bus north. This swept us over the Ganges itself, which seem’d like a slightly larger Firth of Forth, with infinite flatness on every side. Then we hit Malda for the night, & before settling down in our beds watching footy with cheap rum, we tool a wee trip to the beautiful & vast ruins of the Adina mosque, a real banquet of oriental & Islamic architecture, 15K away.
There was a riot in the early hours this morning, when three hundred guys stormed the police station at Malda to free their mates – reminding me yet again how crazy this country can get in an instant.
Back on the trains, we had to change at an ignominious wee place call’d Katihar, but where waiting on the platform I was suddenly inspir’d to pen the following sonnet;
There is a certain sadness in this land,
The handicapp’d are heap’d upon my heart,
The twisted feet of those too low to stand,
& me, all in their midst, yet set apart.
I wait all night to catch the midnight train
So many shudras spread about the floor,
A spell of blessed respite to obtain,
From drudgeries of being born so poor.
As grunting swine from meal-to-meal subsists,
Therein lies the archaic chaff of wheat
On which this young democracy insist,
“Caste is caste & never the twain shall meet!”
Here, even dreams, which all should equal share,
Combusted by some tannoy’s constant blare
On our new train, a bit of confusion over stations meant we actually slung past our destination – Siliguri – & ended up in a quiet village. While waiting for a bus, a local taxi driver befriended us & as he was driving this posh advocate guy to Siliguri, gave us a free ride. Siliguri itself is astonishingly European, with wide-ish boulevards full of large western shops & dripping in neon-bling. Tho’ still perched on the seemingly endless, & frankly quite dull flatness of the Gangeatic plain, it is the gateway to the Himalayas – where we’ll be heading to in the morning.