Monday, May 07, 2007

KOLKATA - SIGHTS & SOUNDS




The last time I’d been to Kolkata, I’d seen the majesty of the city. This time round though, I saw what I have always seen in Kolkata, but for the first time I actually noticed it. A bid to escape the monotony of sitting at home brought me to some of the more frequented & crowded pockets of Kolkata. The entire atmosphere was overwhelming. Every inch of available space is usurped for one commercial purpose or another. Like Mumbai, the “criminally” empty spaces here are dotted with filthy eateries and stalls after stalls of stolen/cheap quality wares – toys, plastics, clothes etc (calling them stalls is an exaggeration, since they’re nothing more than a piece of cloth on the floor, wares displayed on it and a sheet of tarpaulin on the head to protect the vendor from sun and rain.) Kolkata is a sea of daily wage workers, carrying on their heads / carts virtually everything from coal to cement to underwear!!! In spite of the myriad range of shops around, it is extremely painful to locate cyber cafes, pharmacies & phone booths, for which I walk long and far without much success. It surprises me to see girls barely 5 years old manning cigarette & paan shops. The endless surge of laborers find succor on the footpaths which provides them with food and the tiniest of resting places. For them, it’s not important whether the spot is clean or not, whether there is the possibility of a hundred people walking over you. What is important is that there is a space, and it must be utilized well.

It becomes an art to dodge people on the narrow footpaths crowded with stalls and hordes of people. Worse still is avoiding contact with people with heavy carts, cars, cycles, rickshaws, cows, among others, all on a single two-way traffic road 20 feet wide! In spite of all the chaos, people or vehicles rarely ever bang into each other, such is the efficiency (if you could call it that) of the pedestrian system. The same could be said about the serpentine driving manners of the city traffic. The traffic is among the worst in the country, but what makes it worse is the worm in every motorist’s head that it is their moral duty to blare the horn incessantly. You just realize how loud EVERYTHING is. It’s like being forced to stick your ears to a high-power loudspeaker – it’s loud and there’s nothing you can do to avoid it. The deafening sound of the traffic is enough to drive anyone insane & give them a splitting headache, but the locals are accustomed to it & walk on nonchalantly. Kolkata is a city of sensory overload – too many sounds, sights, smells and sensations. The sound of the siren of an ambulance is omnipresent and ever audible. The aroma of fish, pakodas and kababs, plus the stench of the sewage. The humidity rise to the point of intolerability. In all this, you soothe your nerves with chai in clay pots and the ever-famous Kolkata rolls & soda-shikanji.

Again and again, I find my senses assaulted in the most brutal of ways. Voices & hands are beckoning me to unbelievable deals. The buildings are majestic, relics of the colonial era; utterly neglected and the paint on the fa├žade that has peeled off ages ago has never been relinquished since. Traces of past grandeur are all that remains – an illusion. The reality stinks as bad as the repulsive odor of urine that permeates almost all the buildings, as if every pore in the walls were bleeding urine. Offices and shops have been constructed upon existing structures. I see one such office with cubicles so tiny that I ponder whether the employees would die of suffocation or claustrophobia!!!! The boss’s office door has a beam of wood passing before it in such a way that anyone who desires to see the boss has to bend and bow, literally. I have my doubts that the beam had been placed by some sadistic ex-boss who desired to see his subservients bow before him. Later, I am told that that is not the case. The beam was actually one of the main supporting foundations of the building eons ago. Once they reconfigured the building to accommodate more businesses, this beam came in between but they couldn’t remove it, lest the whole building come crashing down. I am amused by the story!

In most of merchant India of yore, appearances aren’t all that important and it is deemed OK to conduct businesses in shady alcoves & unattractive offices. The merchants are always draped in formal clothes, albeit very old fashioned and often unwashed or stained forever by the air of the city, with gold chains peeping out innocently through shirt buttons left open deliberately – to beat the heat & to display chest hair. Garbage is everywhere, and yet, ironically, mere meters away from all this filth & grime is located the All India Institute of Hygiene & Public Health, itself as shabby & filth laden as the BurraBazaar. The heat of the day has reduced me to a bumbling dehydrated idiot, and it just gets crueler with each passing day. It’s a bath in sweat after a morning bath and the done-to-death A/C shopping malls begins to sound like a good idea. It is easier to paste a smile on your face all day long like an idiot in Bangalore, but the sheer heat of Kolkata wipes it off your face! Increasing heat means more A/C’s, which consequently mean more CFC’s and even more heat – a vicious cycle from which it seems too late to get out of. Come evening and mosquitoes the size of dragonflies are eating me alive. I buy a really good looking imitation watch for a hundred bucks & immediately regret it as the watch literally comes apart in my hands, the battery chokes to death & the dials move at will or when I tilt the watch a bit!!!! It has been put to proper health now, but as to how long it will last, your guess is as good as mine.

The public transport system of every town and city has a story of its own to relate. Kolkata runs on the archaic support beam of its buses, carriers and rickshaws. Travel by the groaning, dark & dingy buses makes me thank the efficient & clean bus system in Bangalore. Autos, cabs and private vehicles offering transport on shared basis are in abundance and offer very reasonable rates for a good distance. Of course, maximum is the norm here, and autos plying with 8 passengers when it’s meant only for 4 are a common sight. The number of passengers usually depends on how generous or greedy the driver is feeling on the given day. All Govt. cabs here are Ambassadors – an ambassador invasion, to say the least. But what impressed me the most about Kolkata was its underground Metro service – the first in the country, and it shows in the falling paint of the coaches. Still, the stations are clean (apart from the inevitable paan stains) and the service very efficient, though very loud (as with everything else here) and ruling out any possibility of conversation. My friend & I stare blankly at each other for the duration of the journey…

There’s a way in which every form of transport in Kolkata swerves uncontrollably from side to side, demanding a super sense of athletic balancing act from the passengers. Conversations of cricket are adrift everywhere, given the World Cup frenzy. In spite of that, children come out in the evenings to play football. Mind you, not cricket but football, the craze here. A group of girls are collecting donations for the Nandigram victims. The insincere smiles on their faces plant a doubt that the money collected is not going to be put to good use. Dwarfs. Eunuchs. Street barbers. Barbers flirting with the eunuchs. Truckfulls of Trinamool Congress cadres (Mamata Banerjee’s party). People playing cards outside what in the morning had been a fish market. The stench lingers on but most people are accustomed to it. In most other towns or cities, buying fish, if at all, is a morning affair, but the Kolkata fishes are not bound by time. They slither into the buyer’s bag anytime of the day – the staple diet for most inhabitants and akin to shopping for your daily aloo, doodh and other veggies. An entire street is dedicated to people selling only egg noodles, and there are innumerable stifled and openly displayed yawns. Scores of television, phone and electricity cables decorate the skyline. Blatant white faced lies are dished out to further businesses. Mother & children ravage the non-existent contents of their plate – there’s so little for some to eat that an empty plate & a full one look the same. It is a very disturbing sight. In the massive juggernaut of the crowd, they were just three souls groveling at our feet…

I notice a unique system of buying vegetables online – literally!!!!! The flat owner lowers a bag on a nylon line till the ground where the vegetable vendor sits. The exchange of money for vegetables takes place through this online bag. I wondered whether this was because people were lazy to come down for the vegetables or whether it was something with casteism as I had read in a book recently. Fortunately, a friend assures its plain laziness. Meanwhile, the sunlight plays gently with the silvery surface of the lake. The two man made ponds outside the house are frequented by boys, men and women on a daily basis. It’s a free-for-all instant heat-beater! The women stay close to shore and bathe completely clothed. The men folk have no qualms about undressing and dive right in. The boys don’t know how to swim yet, so they improvise. They collect empty plastic bottles, thermocol blocks and make their personal floaters out of it. Sheer glee, noise and the pleasant splashing follows. The constant exercise has given the boys a well toned body and an enviable stamina. Unfortunately, as a result of their daily ablutions & clothes washing at the ponds, the water has turned a murky green brown.

It was both amusing and disturbing to come back to Kolkata, and for many reasons. The thought struck me like a sledgehammer. Why do most young Chinese in Kolkata find participating in Chinese New Year celebrations a waste of time? The few times that I’ve been here at that time of year, the young crowd that I met had absolutely no interest in New Year festivities. When probed, they scowled that they’d rather spend that time in a pub guzzling down beer or in a disc, dancing the night away. They actually sneer at the non-Chinks who gather out of curiosity to witness the world famous dragon dance, as I had. What’s wrong with a slice of your own culture? Spending time with your own family? And what is wrong with someone else admiring what is yours? If one cannot respect what they have, at least another can. Does every celebration have to have drinks and dance? I don’t think so. Unless there is respect for one’s own culture, there can be no celebration without a tinge of guilt…

Karnataka is so much better. I talk not only of Bangalore, but also of the villages and smaller towns which I’ve had the fortune to travel to for Dental Community camps and or personal trips. Would you believe me if I told you that the slums in Karnataka are cleaner than the city of Kolkata? Than most North Indian cities? Kolkata seems just like one big slum, and a dirty one at that. Open lakes and canals have been overrun by some Brazilian plant, rendering the water & sludge underneath invisible to the naked eye and creating a perfect death trap. There is an all pervading smell in the atmosphere that one can’t really explain. It’s not those of what a coastal city smell is made of. Flies and dogs hover around the mounds of trash, and among this are brought up the children of tomorrow – filth ridden but astonishingly resistant to most diseases. Obviously, something is very wrong with the civic sense of the people and the responsibilities of the Municipal corporations. What appalls me is the irresponsible habit of littering any & everywhere by people- even the educated ones. The Municipal Corporation comes later, but its first the responsibility of the public to maintain cleanliness. People here aren’t as courteous and the number of smiles on their faces are fewer and often forced ones. However, my previous image of Kolkata changed tremendously on this visit. No way is it a lazy, laid back city. There’s activity enough to give Mumbai a run for its money! Just before leaving the city, I try to lunch at a popular Chinese restaurant, but get there way past lunch hour. So I walk a bit, and reach another favorite – Sabir. The food there has to be savored to know why I love it so much. In all the grime, there are still a few saving graces.

There are, of course, more glamorous & cleaner parts of Kolkata. The upcoming New Kolkata is going to be a posh, well-planned extension with hopefully much lesser traffic congestion and more green blocks. That is the rosy picture of tomorrow’s Kolkata, but what I described here so far is the ground reality of most of today’s Kolkata, the real face of the city’s underbelly. There are flashes of optimism here and there. Just minutes away from BurraBazaar stand beautiful Victorian buildings, and these are well maintained, mainly since they’ve been taken over by privatized banks for their offices. The high ceilings, sturdy infrastructure, predominant stone & iron skeleton and unsurpassable beauty are some common features in these goliaths. You’d be excused if for a moment you felt you’d been transported into the glorious past. There are pockets of Kolkata where the roads are wide, clean and very well maintained. It’s like another city altogether!!!! This is what I’ve seen and it may differ from the other faces of Kolkata, but this is my account of the city.

BIKELESS IN BANGALORE




Close on the heels of the now popular Bookless in Baghdad comes a piece by aspiring but little known part-autobiographer by the name of Mr. Chang. The title of this piece has nothing in common with the best seller except for the first letters of each word of the title, Bikeless in Bangalore, the city travels and travails of a rudderless soul handicapped by the sale of his bike. This is the only chapter, and the author claims no responsibility for any torture to your senses or the waste of your time.




It now boils down to this.

Just a week left in Beloved Bangalore. A lot of work yet to be done. Dues to be cleared. Sending of the hulk size luggage package. And finally, the bike has to be sold. Once accomplished, Chang finds himself bikeless and decides to try the public transport system on his way around the city – both for the first time in four years. The first leg of the journey is easy. Buses are easily available and empty enough to park himself comfortably. He gets to the proposed area where he has someone to pick him up and take him around. The return, however, is eventful. The desired buses are not forthcoming, and an alternate route is chosen. Once at his destination, he runs helter-skelter to find his bus. All that registers is numbers blared out at him. Numbers, numbers, numbers! 19, 22, 300, 129. It goes on and on. He’s not the only one having a tough time. The locals struggle as well. The station is a picture of chaos. But he doffs his hat (!) to this system, which with all its faults can still handle the demands of India. The public transport system in Bangalore is effective. The buses are neat and clean, comfortable and connect every corner of the city. The level of efficiency is very commendable if one considers that the public transport carries more than twice to thrice its capacity at any given time of day.

Back to our protagonist, who finally boards the right bus, one of the last for the day. The conductor makes hay while the moon rises – securing more passengers than the bus can handle. The bus creaks, groans and stalls a few times. He travels, hanging on for dear life with one hand on the railing and one foot on someone else’s foot!! Half his body is in free-fall. He almost loses a shoe and the book in his hands to the bizarre situation he finds himself in and promises to work hard on his forearms to aid him in the future. The river of people is in full swell and all he can do is stand perfectly still and bide his time. And then someone casually remarks that if they are caught by cops, a fine would be forthcoming for “hanging on”. The stench of alcohol on the passengers’ breath overpowers other odors of sweat & cigarettes. Chang realizes that in the frustrating rush of everyday travel, pent up frustration and a crude sense of humor floats around freely (“You can get off at Bamboo bazaar and do seva[service] to a woman with the bamboo all night long.” “No this bus does not go to Shivajinagar. If it goes to Kashmir, will you come?”). It’s easy to get frustrated, but he appreciates the humor, however crass, as it helps the passengers drive away the monotony of daily travel.

The conductors and bus drivers in most cities use some sort of a code-system, & only they understand the true meaning of it. When the bus must stop, the driver whistles at different pitches (God knows what each one means). And when it must depart, the conductor shouts something which sounds like “Reeyah / Ray-it / Reigh” [pronunciation differing from person to person]. Chang knows it means nothing in the regional language, so he assumes it means Right!!!! Let’s go! Many a times, the dynamic bus duo of conductor & driver stop the bus for insane reasons, and to get them going the passengers imitate the conductor and shout reigh, reeyah, ray-it but to no avail. It’s as if the driver is attuned only to the voice of his partner-in-crime. Public transport truly provides an intense study of human behavior.

Finally, the bus drops him a few kms from home. He waits and waits and waits for the connecting bus. Finally, giving up, he takes an auto home, tired yet rejuvenated by the amusing experience, probably one of many to come in his stint of being Bikeless in Bangalore. He looks forward to more…….Back to our protagonist, who finally boards the right bus, one of the last for the day. The conductor makes hay while the moon rises – securing more passengers than the bus can handle. The bus creaks, groans and stalls a few times. He travels, hanging on for dear life with one hand on the railing and one foot on someone else’s foot!! Half his body is in free-fall. He almost loses a shoe and the book in his hands to the bizarre situation he finds himself in and promises to work hard on his forearms to aid him in the future. The river of people is in full swell and all he can do is stand perfectly still and bide his time. And then someone casually remarks that if they are caught by cops, a fine would be forthcoming for “hanging on”. The stench of alcohol on the passengers’ breath overpowers other odors of sweat & cigarettes. Chang realizes that in the frustrating rush of everyday travel, pent up frustration and a crude sense of humor floats around freely (“You can get off at Bamboo bazaar and do seva[service] to a woman with the bamboo all night long.” “No this bus does not go to Shivajinagar. If it goes to Kashmir, will you come?”). It’s easy to get frustrated, but he appreciates the humor, however crass, as it helps the passengers drive away the monotony of daily travel.

The conductors and bus drivers in most cities use some sort of a code-system, & only they understand the true meaning of it. When the bus must stop, the driver whistles at different pitches (God knows what each one means). And when it must depart, the conductor shouts something which sounds like “Reeyah / Ray-it / Reigh” [pronunciation differing from person to person]. Chang knows it means nothing in the regional language, so he assumes it means Right!!!! Let’s go! Many a times, the dynamic bus duo of conductor & driver stop the bus for insane reasons, and to get them going the passengers imitate the conductor and shout reigh, reeyah, ray-it but to no avail. It’s as if the driver is attuned only to the voice of his partner-in-crime. Public transport truly provides an intense study of human behavior.

Finally, the bus drops him a few kms from home. He waits and waits and waits for the connecting bus. Finally, giving up, he takes an auto home, tired yet rejuvenated by the amusing experience, probably one of many to come in his stint of being Bikeless in Bangalore. He looks forward to more…….Back to our protagonist, who finally boards the right bus, one of the last for the day. The conductor makes hay while the moon rises – securing more passengers than the bus can handle. The bus creaks, groans and stalls a few times. He travels, hanging on for dear life with one hand on the railing and one foot on someone else’s foot!! Half his body is in free-fall. He almost loses a shoe and the book in his hands to the bizarre situation he finds himself in and promises to work hard on his forearms to aid him in the future. The river of people is in full swell and all he can do is stand perfectly still and bide his time. And then someone casually remarks that if they are caught by cops, a fine would be forthcoming for “hanging on”. The stench of alcohol on the passengers’ breath overpowers other odors of sweat & cigarettes. Chang realizes that in the frustrating rush of everyday travel, pent up frustration and a crude sense of humor floats around freely (“You can get off at Bamboo bazaar and do seva[service] to a woman with the bamboo all night long.” “No this bus does not go to Shivajinagar. If it goes to Kashmir, will you come?”). It’s easy to get frustrated, but he appreciates the humor, however crass, as it helps the passengers drive away the monotony of daily travel.

The conductors and bus drivers in most cities use some sort of a code-system, & only they understand the true meaning of it. When the bus must stop, the driver whistles at different pitches (God knows what each one means). And when it must depart, the conductor shouts something which sounds like “Reeyah / Ray-it / Reigh” [pronunciation differing from person to person]. Chang knows it means nothing in the regional language, so he assumes it means Right!!!! Let’s go! Many a times, the dynamic bus duo of conductor & driver stop the bus for insane reasons, and to get them going the passengers imitate the conductor and shout reigh, reeyah, ray-it but to no avail. It’s as if the driver is attuned only to the voice of his partner-in-crime. Public transport truly provides an intense study of human behavior.

Finally, the bus drops him a few kms from home. He waits and waits and waits for the connecting bus. Finally, giving up, he takes an auto home, tired yet rejuvenated by the amusing experience, probably one of many to come in his stint of being Bikeless in Bangalore. He looks forward to more…….


[This post was drafted in March, when the author was a week away from leaving his beloved second home, Bangalore. Circumstances prevented him from posting this...until now]