A Day in Calcutta

Jessica H. Gardner

© Copyright 2009 by Jessica H. Gardner

Painting of Shiva with the dead Sati over his shoulders.

During a six-month long sojourn in India, I made my way over to Calcutta for what should have been a relaxing weekend, only to find myself re-evaluating everything the country had taught me thus far.

 It all began with one little toe.

 There is a traditional story that I read just before I arrived in the city. Legend has it that the Hindu god Shiva, in a fury of grief at the death of his beloved wife Sati, slung her body on his shoulders and began to walk out across the land, dancing the terrible 'tandava nritya' (the dance of death) so that he destroyed everything in his path. To stop the carnage, Vishnu, on behalf of the other frightened deities, flung his magic chakra at Sati's body, slashing it into dismembered pieces that scattered across the earth. The spot where Sati's little toe fell was named Kalighat, the place of Kali (who was an incarnation of Sati). Kalighat became Kolkata, and Kolkata, in the time of the British Raj, became Calcutta.

 As I write this on my long train journey back to Delhi and think back on the numerous wonders I've seen in the city over the last few days, I find it hard to imagine that enough magic could be contained in just one pinky toe to inspire a place so vivid and complex as Calcutta. From the modern spectacles like Howrah Bridge and the thoroughly metropolitan Park Street, to the remnants of the colonial empire at BBD Bagh, not excluding the natural settings of the Hooghly River and the nearby Sunderban jungle, or the inescapable sadness of its many slums--Calcutta is a unique city rife with dichotomies that would turn most other places on their heads. And yet, everything seems to come together, like each facet is a crucial cog in the machinery that makes this capital tick. It's difficult to quite put it all into words, but maybe that's why it has always needed its own special story, otherwise it would be impossible to explain it all.

 We arrived on a Thursday a mere five hours later than scheduled. All I can say about that is thank God the Indian Railway System seems to have an inexhaustible supply of fresh chai, otherwise we'd never get through the frustrations of a 23 hour train ride. That, and the view from the exit of Sealdah Station, seemed to promise me that Calcutta would not let me down. Everywhere there were these iconic bright yellow taxis and decaying buildings that had been reclaimed by unruly old trees. In fact, it all just looked a little old, but still colorful, as though when the British left they waved good-bye to a youthful girl all dressed up for a party, and now, sixty years later, she's still there, deeply wrinkled but with all the make-up still on.

 Found a cheap place to stay (Hotel Shams - not an encouraging name for an Indian hostel but not bad), went to a biryani restaurant, got lost around New Market - we didn't do much the first night because the next morning was an early start. When it rolled around I woke up to a great view outside - a graffiti mural of Ganesh the elephant god on an opposite building, and just down the street a chai wala pouring out some of his magic potion into take-out terra cotta mugs (only 5R - at least I have a cheap addiction). Our plan of action was to head across the river to the Botanical Gardens, then pop over to BBD Bagh, see the Kali Temple at Kalighat and lastly the Victoria Memorial lit up at night on our way home.

 The ferry ride across the Hooghly was ridiculously cheap, about 3 rupees, and gave us a great view of the Calcutta skyline. The Howrah Bridge also towered above us, massive and skeletal. I would describe the river itself as something close to the Thames about a century back, only maybe a bit smellier, and with people bathing in it along its many ghats. It had an oily sheen on its surface and the whole thing made me pray that our tiny old ferry boat still had enough life in it to make it to the opposite shore. Fast forward to the Botanical Gardens itself; not sure what you can really write about a Botanical Gardens to make it seem that interesting. The world's oldest Banyan tree is there. It's 200 years old and its roots span sixty meters across so that it looks like an orchard but in fact is just one giant tree. Maybe a better writer would make a good metaphor about unity or humanity from this, but I'd rather skip ahead to my favorite setting in Calcutta, back on the opposite shore - BBD Bagh.

 It's named after the three initials of the men who attempted to assassinate the former British governor of West Bengal in Victorian times, which is ironic because its entirely made up of colonial architecture and former government buildings from the Raj era. My favorite was the old headquarters of the East India Trading Company. It was huge, and to look at it straight on we had to stand across a little lake. Funny how the pictures in my guide book never seem to include the many locals who consider any body of water a public bathing area, but I think it only enriches the scene. It's just really interesting to see such an old part of the city, I mean, not just old, but from a different era and empire, juxtaposed with modern India. Part of me thinks that these European monuments don't belong there, but then I see how everybody has adapted to their presence - how fruit sellers chop up coconuts on the steps to the old Post Office, or how angry taxi drivers gamble behind the Royal Insurance Building - eventually it all fits together, but only because it exists in Calcutta.

 Ate the best lacha parantha of my life in the taxi ride to Kali Temple in the mid-afternoon. Street food, I love you too too much. The temple is located right behind Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying and Destitute. For some reason my DK guide book made this out to be a nice spot to visit, but I thoroughly regret walking inside. Yes, her grave is in the lobby, but it's also about five feet away from a large open room stacked with completely occupied beds of dying people being attended to by hurried nuns. I felt like a complete imposition, not to mention really embarrassed that I had entered as a tourist, not a volunteer, and had turned a hospice into an attraction. Bad idea Dorling Kindersley. But the Kali Temple was interesting - different from most Hindu temples in the village-like atmosphere in its courtyard where 60 goats are sacrificed each morning and fed to the poor, and also in the amazing shrine to Kali with her protruding solid gold tongue and fearsome, bulging eyes. And yet, as usual, similar to just about every other Hindu temple in the way we are always pestered, as tourists, to donate obscene amounts of money when we give puja and can never avoid a scene by refusing to do so. It's bittersweet. Eventually I had to promise the priest that once Kali had delivered me a good marriage, many babies, and great fortune, I would return to the temple with all of these things in tow and repay her. Fingers crossed!

 Saw Victoria Memorial on the way home just after the sun had set, all lit up, looking very beautiful and once again much too English (there's even a topiary gardens on the grounds). Then a man with two monkeys on leashes walked up to me and asked me if I wished to see them dance - how could I really ever forget where I was? And what were the old colonists thinking, trying to make the city so continental? All I can say is that they totally underestimated the formidability of Indian culture. Present it with any morsel of foreign ways and you'll soon find it eaten alive; Hinduism absorbed Buddhism, and Calcutta most definitely survived its strange makeover into a pseudo-British capital by emerging only more interesting on the other side.  But what did I really know about the city anyway? Then that night we suddenly had the thought that maybe it could be best understood by seeing what it might've been like had history played out differently. We would go to the jungle. I know, how Kiplingesque of us, and just after I've spouted off about the colonialist attitude of changing what might've been better if left untouched. But our guide's name was Mowgli, so it was too fated to resist. And besides, I thought that perhaps, at the end of the day, we would only be paying a tribute to the one thing that set Calcutta apart from its Sunderban roots all those many centuries ago: one little pinky toe.

Jessica is a Creative Writing student of the University of California at Davis and a citizen of the world, having lived in seven countries in her life so far. Needless to say she loves to travel and to test her own cultural limits, and is currently studying and living in New Delhi, India.

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