Kolkata - by Melanie
10.17.10 - 10.19.10 92 °F
Our final overnight bus ride, from Siliguri down to Kolkata, was by far the worst. Brie compared the blaring horn to (how we would imagine) the horrific moans of a dying herd of beasts. The driver layed on the horn all night long, a necessity since he was constantly baring down the smaller, weaker vehicles in his path. The curtains running along both sides of the sleeper berths were strung up like a shower curtain, metal rings on a metal rod. As the bus careened over the uneven highway, the curtains clattered like toolboxes full of nails being violently shaken just over our heads. Needless to say, we were relieved to arrive in Kolkata.
My friend Mandy in Ahmedabad gave me the name and number of another Fullbrighter, Jordan, in Kolkata. He offered to make the two hour trek from the suburbs to hang out downtown with us. Jordan was a fascinating character, seemingly full of contradictions, and a prime example of how wrong first impressions can be. He strolled up wearing a long sleeve plaid shirt tucked into a belted pair of jeans, an uncomfortably hot ensemble in the smoldering sun and smog of the city. He speaks fluent Bengali (along with four other languages), constantly has either chew in his cheek or a cigarette dangling from his lips, teaches literature and poetry at a prestigious university (for fun), was a kickboxer, habitual barfighter and philosophy major, and is a member of Hell's Angels (it runs in the family). It turned out that the long sleeve shirt in the sweltering weather was just to cover up his Angel's induction tattoo. Oh, and he was also recovering from a bout of Dengue fever, familiarly called "bone breaking fever" in Bengali.
We went to a botanical garden and saw the world's largest Banyan tree. This photo is all one tree! It covers 1.5 hectares.
Sunday was the last day of Durga Puja, Kolkata's largest festival. Each para, groups of 20-30 families, contructs a pandal - a temporary marquis made of fabric wrapped around a wooden frame (I read that some of the pandals have corporate sponsors, so they become wildy extravagant). In the center of each pandal is an elaborately ornate papermache idol of Durga, the festival's featured goddess.
There are festivities every night for 5 days, all culminating with bringing the Durga idols to the Hooghly River to plunge them into the sacred waters. We went to Babhughat along the river to watch as trucks carrying upwards of twenty hooting and hollering Indians pulled up with their fantastically adorned deities.
Many of the idols are not merely of the ten-armed Durga herself, but also an entourage of family members clustered into the scene of Durga's epic battle. Groups of men heaved the hulking idols from the truck beds onto their shoulders and hurried through the crowds to chuck the statues into the water.
Several of the spectators were covered in bright pink or purple powder. Tea stalls and snack vendors lined the river. Snare drums and excited shouts rang in our ears. The dunking of the deities is a regular event in India. It was perfect that we were able to enjoy the experience on one of our last nights. (The following day I read that over 90 truckloads of soggy idols were hauled out of the river.)
Fellow travelers and guidebooks had warned us about the extreme poverty in Kolkata. Honestly, during our two days in Kolkata we stuck to the Sudder Street area, the traveler-friendly, historic center of the city. On the brink of our move to Thailand, we were all content to take it easy. Our last day was spent on a Bollywood movie, seeking out our favorite Indian sweets, and thoroughly lavishing in one final Indian feast.
I want to mention that, along with personal experiences and observations, the thoughts shared on India in "What I Learned in Ahmedabad" were largely a reflection of the book I'm reading, The Age of Kali by William Dalrymple. It's a fascinating read that I highly recommend. At times the book is depressing, as it details so many scenes of corruption, violence, and "backwardness". These images were heavy in my mind when I was writing the last post. The book also introduces India's first rockstar, Baba Sehgal (a devout and witty rap-rocking Sikh) and first trashy romance novelist, Shobha Do - whose novels overtly mirror real personalities of Bombay's social elite.
There is so much going in India - sights, smells, people, cows, religion, progress, change - it's overwhelming. I plan on continuing to read about contemporary India, both news and commentary, and look forward to coming back someday. I would imagine that while some things will be exactly the same - as they have been for 5,000 years - in a country as bursting at the seams with people and hopes of a better future, my second trip to India will be an entirely new experience.