Thursday, July 24, 2014

Oh, Calcutta by Paola Fornari

All good stories test boundaries. The boundary here is the edge of the author’s comfort zone. Skilfully told.

-- Robin Graham, travel writer and judge of the 2014 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest 

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'There are 330 million Hindu Gods.'  Ajit had only told us about four so far: Krishna, Radha, Shiva, and Durga. I was brain-dead with their myriad details, though it was early morning and our tour had just started.
‘Tired already? I'll take you to have the best cha in Kolkata.' He led us to a tea stall in a narrow alleyway. 'Cows and buffaloes have been cleared from the streets. Now people have to cycle twenty miles to supply cha stalls with milk.'
We sipped mud-coloured liquid from rough clay cups. It was scorching, syrupy-sweet, and invigorating. We threw our empty cups onto a heap.
'What happens to the cups?' I wondered how many were used each day in this metropolis of fourteen million people.
'They disappear into the mud and someone makes more.'
Our next stop was Mother House, where Mother Teresa worked for forty years. One room houses a museum, in which huge panels relate her life, from her birth in Skopje to her death here. A letter written in her neat, strong hand condemns the practice of abortion of girl foetuses.
'Some criticise her movement for trying to impose Christianity on local Hindus,' Ajit said as we got back into the car.  'But she was a saint. I'm going to show you Kolkata's garbage mountain now.'
My husband kicked me and hissed: 'Where did you find this tour?'
'Trip Advisor. Highly recommended. Isn't it fun?
Hand-pulled rickshaws jostled for space with overflowing buses, cars, stray goats, and yellow taxis. We emerged onto a huge flyover. Kolkata has several upper-level roads along which traffic runs relatively smoothly, leaving the chaos below. Down at ground level, makeshift hovels with plastic awnings lined the road.
'People arrive here by rail from their villages, looking for a better future. But they end up living in squalor.'
We drove out of the city, and down a side road into the countryside. Fields of vegetables bordered both sides of the road.
A flat-topped mountain appeared in the distance, green and luxuriant. 'Once it's been thoroughly picked over, Kolkata's garbage all ends up here. This side has been cleared of recyclable material: glass, metal, plastic, paper. What's left is organic and fertile.'
As we drove alongside the mountain, it gradually changed into a mound of clearly visible garbage. Crows flew overhead, and on top of the mound I spotted people, dogs and goats.
'Fifty thousand people make a living from this,' Ajit said.
Between the mountain and us, people worked in lush fields of potatoes and spinach. ‘Half of the city's vegetables come from here. Think about it when you're next having salad at your hotel.' I gagged, and my stomach churned.
We drove off down a rough road. In front of rows of shacks, piles of garbage were neatly sorted into categories.
'This is almost the end of the cycle. See those shards of plastic? People here chop up old bottles and packaging into tiny pieces and sell them to factories. Now we're going to see Kolkata's most revered spot, the Temple of Kali. Some people say that this is where the name Kolkata originated.' I jerked awake: the temple featured strongly in Paul Theroux's novel A Dead Hand, which I had just finished reading.
'Kali, Shiva's consort, is known as "She who destroys". She overcomes evil, and we consider her a mother goddess.'
We worked our way on foot down the bustling avenue which led to the temple. Terrified of getting lost, I clung to Ajit. Stalls by the side of the road displayed white shell bangles, icons, and powdered red dye. 'For bindis,' Ajit explained. 'The dots on the women's foreheads.'
Three women were prostrate on the muddy ground, scrambling slowly forwards.
'They are giving thanks. Perhaps a wish was fulfilled. A child survived a disease, or a despised neighbour died.'
A couple of goats were tethered to posts. 'Would you like to see them being sacrificed?'
'Absolutely not.' The sacrificial scene in Theroux's novel was enough for me. We emerged into a large square.
After half an hour of hiccupping and jolting through traffic, we were in a tiny restaurant.
'My stomach is in your hands,' I told Ajit.
'In my experience people fall ill much more often from hotel food than in places like this. Leave it to me.' As Ajit dashed back to the car to fetch our bottled water, my mind drifted back to this morning's salad fields. Soon we were tucking into deliciously spicy fish and plain rice, served with what looked like an oversized chapatti. 'It's called handkerchief roti, because it's so huge and finely rolled.'
After lunch, Ajit announced: 'Special treat for you now'. We pulled up in front of the Botanical Gardens. Once inside the gates, we could have been be a million miles away from the crazy traffic and deafening cacophony of honking horns.
A couple strolled past, hand in hand. 'It's a great place for young people. You can't do that in Kolkata's streets. I spent many an afternoon here as a teenager.’ Ajit chuckled.
At the end of a shaded path, we came to a fenced-off circle, inside which there were hundreds of tall, narrow-trunked trees, forming a massive canopy above us.
'This looks like a copse, but it's one tree: the largest banyan in the world.' Ajit indicated the branches reaching out horizontally. 'See these shoots growing downwards? They sprout aerial roots, and when they reach the ground, a new tree grows. This banyan is more than two hundred and fifty years old. In the 1920s the original trunk got a fungus and started rotting away, so it was removed to protect the rest.'
We left the tranquil gardens and drove towards the River Hooghly. Suddenly we found ourselves in gridlocked traffic on the old suspension bridge. 'This is the busiest bridge in the world,' Ajit said.
On the pavement beside us, men carried enormous loads on their heads. A fight broke out between a rickshaw driver and a pedestrian. I wound up my window and closed my eyes, gripping the edge of my seat. I heard an ambulance siren, and wondered if the patient would ever reach hospital. At last we inched forwards.
 ‘Just two more stops,’ Ajit said. We drove to a narrow street where large bamboo marquees were being erected on either side.
'They're called pandals. They're for the biggest Hindu festival in Bengal, Durga Puja which is next week. Groups decorate their pandals with icons. The festivities last five days, then all the effigies are thrown into the Hooghly.'
We found the car again, and a narrow opening took us back to the banks of the Hooghly. To our left was a massive metallic box-like structure. 'That's the electric oven.' Ajit pointed to our right, where the last embers of an open fire were dying. ‘And that's the traditional cremation method. It'll set you back 15,000 rupees. The electric one costs 500 rupees. It's subsidised by the government. Our greatest Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore, was cremated here.'
On the way back to the hotel, exhausted and elated, I thanked every one of the 330 million Hindu gods for sparing me a corpse.

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Paola Fornari was born on an island in Lake Victoria, and was brought up in Tanzania. She has lived in a dozen countries over four continents, speaks five and a half languages, and describes herself as an expatriate sine patria. She will shortly be moving from Bangladesh to Ghana.