Sunday, February 12, 2006

A Calcuttan's Kolkata travelouge: II

Right, getting back into the happy ‘I went walking!’ mood will take a little effort after the previous post, but here’s the attempt. Two things: the first is usually always the best *wink wink*, so don’t expect too much of this post. And, this goes without saying, huge post ahead!

Phase I: the Calcutta in my head:

Now, since I brag about my excellent road sense at every chance I get, P left the route entirely to me. So I started down Brabourne Road, because I’ve always sort of thought of it running parallel to MG Road (yes yes, I know every city has one. This is the Calcutta Mahatma Gandhi Road) and Central Avenue. See, since real maps are SO crowded and confusing, I have a very simplistic plan of the main city streets in my head. It’s something like this: (er, tried to draw it with Paint. clearly not my thing. Shall draw on paper and ask someone to scan and upload later)

1. Circular Road (APC and AJC Bose Road), Beadon Street (Bidhan Sarani), Central Avenue, the road on which Kumartuli is, a part of which road is B.K.Pal Avenue, along with a less conspicuous road that runs from Dumdum through Paikpara and Gouribari right up to Rajabazaar, after which the Sealdah flyover cuts it off – all run parallel to each other and to the Ganga up to, more or less, Esplanade.

2. At regular points, there are roads at right angles to these roads, linking them to each other. Most of north and central Cal metro stations in Central Avenue are located at such points, like Shyambazaar, Shobhabazaar (whose connector runs from Ultadanga to Chitpur Ghat), Girish Park (Nimtala/Burrabazaar/Howrah to somewhere near Manicktala) and, our target for the day, MG Road (connector from Howrah to…erm, it twists and turns, so it’s a little difficult, but roughly Sealdah).

The equation changes after the roads change direction at Minto Park – Chowringhee Road, Landsdowne off left from Lower Circular Road and Alipore on the other side, but the Metro equation remains more or less the same. I’m leaving the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass connectors out of this.

Phase II: Brabourne Road:

So we started down Brabourne Road, and this was just past twelve in the afternoon. Jesus! The rush! It has the unruliest traffic I have EVER come across, and that’s counting the killer traffic during the evening rush hour at Hatibagan crossing! The minibuses from Howrah rush towards you, and though they veer away at the last minute, it’s still highly advisable to jump a foot away, just in case. And then there are the ‘cycle- vans’, carrying iron and steel rods or piled high with colourful packs of Sunfeast Marie and Maggie and Clinic All-Clear shampoo and an assortment of such things for the face and hair and body and tummy, wrapped crudely in sheets of gunny but tied securely with jute ropes. A kid usually sits on top of the whole load, making sure no one snitches anything in the distractive craziness of the buses honking, conductors screeching the destinations of their routes (“’Splned, Park Ishreet, Mintu Park, ayyyy! BallygonjGoriahatDhakuriaJadobpur!!! ”), shouts of “Hatio!” “Chal chal!” “Daine ja!” and assorted abuses that seemed to be casual punctuation to everyday speech.

(“Behench**, tiren ka tera baap ka hai?” yelled a wiry pan-chewing dirty dhoti-clad supervisor at one of the younger boys loading a van with those mysterious boxes packed in brown, who had stopped midway and was staring at P and me, adding a “Harami saala” in an undertone as he sized us up in a brief glance and the boy resumed work)

We were almost-hit quite a few times by these men carrying high-piled broad-based wicker baskets (beter jhuri) on their heads. I don’t know if you've noticed women carrying stacks of wood or kalash on their heads; they move with what is traditionally a dancer’s gait – a faster version of the ‘gajagaman’. The hips swing from side to side, while the upper body, and especially the head, remain absolutely still. It’s weird that it didn’t strike me as weird then , that these bulky, sweaty, ungainly, smelly foul-mouthed men in dirty short dhotis and torn ‘ganjis’ with a reddish cloth tied around their waist move in exactly the same way. Perhaps I was too busy
dodging potentially fatal accidents and pretending I wasn't aware of the attention we were drawing, in our jeans and P in her midnight-blue-with-tiny-designs-in-matt-gold khadi wrap-around top (which I swear I’ll steal any moment she looks away) and me in my sleeveless low-backed broad-curvy-V necked white kurti. P, however, seemed to be her usual unconcerned self, walking ten paces behind me, staring at buildings and clicking her tongue at the ruins of cosy old houses. She told me later I get more ‘grab-attempts’ because:

1. I’m smaller and therefore an easier target.
2. I’m wearing sleeveless , which means they can see two and a half inches more of my arm than they can of her, which must mean I’m more of a ‘asking for it’ slut-type.

So I switched to what P calls my “move, bitch!” body language, and went up twice to speak to the cops on the streets, ostensibly to ask for directions to Kalakar Street. There was a visible backing down of the lecherous kind. Little tricks, but they work. During the day.

The rush makes it impossible to saunter casually and stare, but you cannot not notice the buildings. There are these old, lovely colonial buildings inside the little side streets, most of them colourless and peeling, with the stout old thick red bricks peeping out. I don’t know if you noticed, but just like clouds, bits of bricks from under the plaster and paint seem to make quaint patterns, if you’re looking at them the right way. However, there are also these hybrid houses, which, when their owners presumably fell on hard times or wanted to ‘modernise’, had the front bits broken down, and ugly new structures with no pretensions to aesthetics built. Most of these front bits are steel and iron shops. Incidentally (we noticed this because one of us needed to buy sanitary napkins) there are NO medical shops on Brabourne Road! What the hell do the people do when they want medicines urgently?

Lining the footpath of the main road – on which you can’t walk, because they were either dumps of rusted iron rods or brown cartons midway between the carrier (usually one of those small trucks – ‘tempos’) and the shop, interspersed with shacks selling tea and meals of rice/roti and a basic curry – are these hideous newer buildings, on the ground floor of which the shops are, which go up absolutely straight , with no relief in the form of a balcony or a sunshade that usually marks Indian windows. The windows are tiny, sometimes meshed. The really tiny squares at a higher level than the other windows on a particular floor and meshed with cement instead of wires marked, or so I thought, the lavatories of that floor.

Phase III: The Armenian Church?

Oh, and by the way, we tried to get inside the Brabourne Road church too, but it was closed. So we lounged around a bit, taking snaps of the plaster statues, which, with a little work, could be passed off as snaps of marble statues taken in Italy, he he! I sort of remember someone calling it an Armenian church, but it looked like a Catholic church, so that can’t be right. Anyone know what church it is? I suspect the smart-arses call it an Armenian church because they’ve heard the term somewhere in context of churches, and the Armenian Street is behind the church. Just outside, the footpath is occupied by those who live on them. The women couldn’t stop grinning at P and me.

Swati has left a few links in the comments section on my blog, do visit the sites. The thing is, thanks to an optional I took last semester, my Church History up to the early 1700s is pretty okay, but beyond that I'm lost. And perhaps this IS the Armenian Church (will take pics next time), but the
décor is very Catholic.

Phase IV: Burrabazaar:

If you turn right just before the way towards the Howrah flyover, you’ll cross a very crowded stretch of road and come out on MG Road. Except that I wanted P to see Burrabazaar, where she’s never been. Incidentally, if you’re ever on that part of MG Road, there’s this guy under the almost-crumbling portico – next to the last pillar before you turn towards Kalakar Street – who makes the most amazing phuchkas. P had eleven first, while I chatted with the guy about the time when he first came to the city from Bihar, in the 80s, and sold eight phuchkas for one rupee, while he now sold them at six for five. We had almost reached Kalakar Street, singing the man's praises – not only does he make a killer potato filling, he’s got amazing PR skills – when, on cue, we stopped, looked at each other, turned and ran back. Heh, you guessed it. We lunched on phuchkas, swinging the plastic bags in which he packed it for us, nine each, walking down Burrabazaar.

Burrabazaar. It’s like Holi all year round. It’s dreadfully busy too, but not fatally so. The traffic here goes the opposite way, towards Howrah. And yes, very unruly. Still, walking into Burrabazaar at the Satyanarayan Park crossing is like having buckets of rainbow thrown at your eyes. It’s dazzling! There are rows and rows of red, blue, green, white, amber and purple rhinestone studded golden and copper hair clips, glass, metal and meenakari bangles, tinkling anklets, boxes of glittering rings, bags set with mirrors and sea-shells, embroidered mats, the glow of the soft yellow lights from inside the thick glass doors of the Gold & Silver shops, saris and lehengas more vivid and ostentatious than Satya Paul could ever dream of, entire gullis lined with street shops selling all kinds of dry fruits, seasonal fruits, pan-masala laid out on silver thalis and all manner of spices...

...people shouting for five stacks of blue silk to be sent to them by tomorrow, shop assistants running to the godowns to fetch stuff for the difficult customer, women and men haggling like their life depended on it, people sitting on wooden benches on the narrow street outside shops and shouting out their orders – “Do lassi aur yahan (indicating another customer) chaar kachauri garam! ” And the constant cajoling: “Ekbaar Dekh toh lijiye!” “Chudiyaan! Chudiyaan! Dus rupaiya darjan!” “Jutey chahiye medam? Dekhiye na, sabse achha eshtock hai…”

And there’s the food. There's nothing Bengali about this part of the city. You can smell fried ghee every now and then, when the wind changes direction. A lot of the houses are built along the lines of the houses you see in pictures of Rajasthan, only several stories taller. There are obscure, tiny shrines scattered here and there. There are kachauris, all sorts of fried sweets, the all-pervading smell of ghee.

Burrabazaar is the ultimate of Indian kitsch. Throw in the odd elephant lumbering down the narrow road, blocking traffic, and you’ll have the strongest ever case against accusations of stereotyping India/catering to ‘western sensibilities’ (though personally I think ‘preconceptions’ is a better word).

For those of you who're interested in such matters divine, there is an intricately carved temple near Ganesh Talkies – it's a 'Vaikunthnath' shrine. It has a pole of solid gold (or so we were told) around which people run, anchoring themselves to it by vividly coloured cloth-ropes. It's apparantly a part of 'raas'. The day we went, a 'Lakshmi Abhishek' was due to start in half an hour's time. I haven't a clue what that is, but apparantly it's part of the Vasant Utsav which almost always coincides with Mohorrum. If anyone has ever been to one of these utsavs, we'd like details :-)

Cross posted on my personal blog, whatever things

A Calcuttan's Kolkata travelouge: I

Fair warning: VERY long post. Skip, if you want. I won’t mind. But if you choose to read, be a sweetheart and read it all.

So you thought I only rambled in pen and ink? Or in invisible HTML, under present circumstances? And you thought YOU were the only one being tortured by it?

Here’s proving you wrong. For those of you who don’t know Calcutta, please click on this link (not my favourite, but he best I could find) and see the city’s map for better comprehension of this post.

Why Poushali and I bunked uni Tuesday:
1. There was a screening of A Day From A Hangman’s Life, a film arbitrarily and forcibly removed from Nandan by the authorities on the chief minister’s demands, followed by a pretty pointless panel discussion on ‘Censorship’ which Taslima Nasreen, the star of the show, was ‘unable to attend’ and which nonetheless droned on till eight in the evening. Poushali got bored with getting bored and taking pics of my cleavage with her almost-new camera phone. We needed a break.

2. My attempts at submitting my passport form had been jinxed for over eight months now. I had gone to the Regional Passport Office, I had gone to the Passport Extension at the GPO (six times in all), but I’ve NEVER been able to give it in. Tuesday, I wanted to. It was getting on my nerves.

3. Poushali and I had been talking about a walking trip through the unfashionable parts of the city for ages now. And since our exams start next week (and will go on, intermittently, till the end of this sem), we thought, what the hell, screw uni, we bunk too many classes anyway, let’s do this.

Phase I – GPO:

We’re supposed to meet at the Esplanade metro station – on the platform, where it’s easier to find people – between ten and ten thirty. I caught my train from the Shyambazaar metro (it’s roughly a 12-15 minute ride) station at ten thirty seven. He he.

We walk to the GPO from the metro statione (which Poushali pronounces ’Splaned and I, Es-pluhnade). It’s incredible. The rush around us, office boys running from one office to the other with sheafs of paper (they still do that? Excuse me while I check the century…), young men dressed in starched formals in pastel shades getting their shoes shined one last time before the entered the majestic colonial buildings with their ancient carved oak and brass doorways for job interviews, rushing cabs which managed to screech to a halt just before the stop-line, the amazingly laid-back body language of the cops efficiently manning these very important crossings, footpaths lined with people selling cucumbers and guavas and plastic folders and pens and second hand books and small stuffed toys and peanuts, and fortune-tellers and their shiny rhinestones and parrots, traffic signals changing lights and an immediate swamping of the roads with cabs and minibuses from one end or the other, people screaming for cabs, people trying to grab your boobs and disappear in the crowd…it was like you see in movies: the world rushing, rushing, rushing all around in a blur, and P and I the only serene, unhurried people stopping every two minutes to take pictures of a particularly impressive column or doorway or shining decorative doorknob or stairway.

We got a lot of looks. Stares. Advances. Most of them registered like a passing car does, perhaps less. Being an attractive woman with a sense of style spending several hours a day for years in busy city streets does that to you. And Poushali is and does :-)

GPO was a breeze. The lady at the counter fell in love with me. Asked me to call her ‘kakima’ and drop by at her place after college for lunch one day. Yes yes, I’m on of nature’s born charmers, and less of those discreet coughs, if you please! The much-agonised-over form was submitted in less than fifteen minutes. Woohoo! Now I just have to wait for the West Bengal Police rep. to come to my place to be bribed for a clearance.

PHASE II – ‘Oasis des Friedens’:

Then we walked past Writers – the single building ever which looks majestic in red – and I had to explain to P, in full hearing of the tons of cops and guards on duty outside it, why the street in front of it was so empty and clean and full of cops and why we weren’t allowed to use the footpath in front of the building. “But HOW can we carry bombs inside the kinds of clothes we’re wearing, even if we were terrorists?” she asked loudly, and ten heads on uniformed shoulders swivelled towards us. Darling, I love you, but sentences like that would have ensured prison, rape, torture and possible death even thirty odd years earlier.

Munching cucumber slices at the crossing in front of St. Andrew’s Church (Scotland, Kolkata), we stared at the streets, wondering which and where. Suddenly we realised we’ve gone past the church tons of times without ever going in. One of those things, you know? So we went in. There’s this visitors’ book right next to the front entrance, hardbound in dark red, now dirty, with a dirty golden label, lying on a polished wooden antique three-legged table. We stood for twenty minutes looking at the entries. “How weird are we?” mused P. “We’ve bunked college to look at what people we haven’t a clue about have written about a church we’ve never been in, at twelve in the bloody afternoon at the heart of crazy Dalhousie?” Well, you never know. Maybe we’ve walked past them on the ‘tourist zone’ – Park Street, Chowranghee, Victoria Memorial.

You never know, do you?

Here are some entries we saw. Most of the people had visited for nostalgic reasons:

19th January 2003: Finlay Moodie – Returned to see where I was christened in 1937. Thinking of my parents who lived here.

30th November 2005: Andreas Hansv – Today is my Name Day in Andrews. I’m from Germany (“Explains”, said P. I didn’t, I swear!). Bless me!

1st September 2005 (or is it 9th January?): Enrico Zabaglime of Calgari, Canada – If having the Lord is wrong, I don’t want to be right. Amazingly, P hadn’t heard of this one before. Am I the only one who gets a kick out of cheap rhetoric employed by people who think they’re such wits? Incidentally, “Hmmm…having the Lord, eh?”, said Poushali, who is incapable of thinking respectably.

15th January, 2002: John & Jennifer Fowler, 31 Lethbridge Park, Somerset, UK – Revisiting where we were married in 1968!

Both P and I found this incredibly sweet (what did you expect, we’re 21 and female). We tried to imagine the two people, not too old ( or perhaps) coming in from the disciplined stricture of Writer’s on one hand and the crazy traffic of Howrah-Dalhousie on the other into the sudden peaceful stillness of this church, and perhaps trying to see what has changed, trying to remember how the other looked 38 years ago at the altar, and how many there were that aren’t any more. Who knows, some of them might even be at the Park Street Cemetary. Except that we wouldn’t know which ones, even if we walked past their graves.

Who was John Fowler, I wondered? What kind of a last-bit-of-the-Raj was he? What did Jennifer think of getting married in India? Were they British? Were they/was one of them perhaps an Anglo-Indian? I'll never know, will I? But at least I had the chance to wonder...

19th December 2006: Dilip Pundit, Kumilla (he preferred Comilla), Bangladesh – WONDER that was Christian Calcutta and not a city full of demons. If any of you can figure this out, we’d be very grateful.

Then there was Michael Cannon of Hampshire, UK, who visited on the 1st of December 2005 (again, although he’s from the UK, it might well have been the 12th of January), revisiting the city of his birth, and adding, for reasons only he could best explain, that his great-uncle Roy Whitehorn was principal of Westminster College, Cambridge. Any of you know the family? :-)

On the 29th of December last year, David, Suzie, Charlotte and William Pepperell of Wessex Close, Thames Ditton, Surrey came to visit ‘David’s birthplace and where Granny+Grandad got married (Peter and Joyce Pepperell on the 1st of October, 1955)’.

Michael Pitcairn, who was born in Cal in November 1949 and christened in the church, where his parents were also married, and his wife Xandra, whose first trip to India this was, visited on 16th September 2000. While they wrote this, news was running along the phone lines to the serener parts of the city, whispering how the person dearest and closest to me than any other had given up living.

Not that I’m complaining. Some grief is past all that.

On the 22nd of January, 2003, Ranjita Dutta and Aruna Sharma wrote, ‘when people are in distress, they realise there is one place where they will find peace and belonging. We found this place.’ Bless their peace.

There were several others: Michael and Jenni de Jesús, who believe their address is ‘Heaven!’, Csige Ga'Bor who comes from Debrecen, Hungary and A. K. Bannerjee from Kanaipur, Hoogly, who visited the church on the same day. Joost Hoetjes from Holland who sat inside "...this quiet and holy place" and thought ‘pure thoughts’, like ‘Wonder what Don Preston would whip out of this one…’.

“Let’s mail him!”, said P. “I can just see the mischief in his eyes when he wrote this! Besides who’s Don Preston?”
“What if he’s dead?” I asked. You never know. He came in 2002. Anyway, we haven’t mailed him, of course. It’s one of those things you never get around to doing.

Then there are the handwritings. Sorry, this is quite possibly a negative generalisation, but the American and Canadian handwritings were almost illegible. A lot of them printed their words, clearly uncomfortable with joined handwriting. Plenty couldn't keep within the confines of the top and bottom lines. The British were mostly readable; the three from Germany were smallish with some letters indistinguishable from the preceding ones. Then again, there were Peter Packshin and Marks Andreya from St. Petersburgh, Russia, one of whom has loopy, large, beautiful near-calligraphic handwriting, which nonetheless (and oddly) didn’t soothe the eye.

Then there were our own entries, which became a conversation on paper. If any of you go to that church anytime, maybe you could look up what we wrote, dated 7th February, 2006. Maybe we’ll go back one day and check if the cute guy inside I mentioned in my entry read that and wrote anything in reply. Most probably we won’t. Does anybody?

Phase III – K.C.Pal:

On the ridges on the back wall of the St. Andrew’s Church, marking the outer limits of it’s territory, are alternate English and Bengali graffiti by a certain Mr. K.C.Pal. Tintinda had gone to meet him at his place in Howrah, apparently, and his house is covered with slogans against what he thinks is the delirium of the masses.

“The Sun revolves around the Earth.” He proclaims. “There is no life on Mars.” “Are the reporters one-eyed?” ("Surjo prithibike prodokkhin kore. Mongolgrohe praan nei. Sangbadikra ki kana?)

Apparently he has written to NASA claiming to have proof of the fact that the sun goes around the earth. I don’t know if NASA bothered to reply.

Another of those people, perhaps, who weigh stuff at the Customs Office during the day and translate Neruda by night. Calcutta, you know.

P.S: For those who've asked offline, I apologise for my friend's abject stupidity of buying a phone which doesn't have either infra-red or bluetooth, especially when she's lost her USB cable. So sorry, took lovely pics (my cleavage included), but ...

Cross posted on my personal blog, whatever things.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Off the Wall

In the land that was older than the hills, there was an old, old city.

And in the old, old city, there once stood an old, old college.

Well, its still there, but that is hardly the point.

And in this old, old college, there were some old, old walls.

Ah, this is getting tiresome!

The point of all this being that once upon a time in Presidency College, the walls of the Union Room and the Canteen weren't as blank as a slate, or as minty fresh as a Chlor-mint. In fact, they were daarty yellow kalar and looked straight out of occupied Basra.

They were also glittering testimonials to the collected aantlami of an entire generation.

Being ridiculously smart and scarily creative as we all were (and still are, I am told), the authorities viewed us with an apprehension only matched by that of Mr. and Mrs. Kent as they watched little Clark destroy Ayers' Rock with an ill-directed sneeze.

In lieu of a troupe of costumed supervillains to keep us busy, we were led to a section of campus and given carte blanche, as it were. On the walls of the canteen and the Union Room, we were told, we could do whatever we damned well pleased, as long as all works of art were duly signed.

And so it came to pass.

There you could find witty exchanges, like the following

Life is a Sexually Transmitted Disease

Death is Hereditary

Impotence is not.

(written by three different people, mind you).

There were plaintive pleas.

Stop the world - I want to get off!

And fashion advice.

The ends justify the jeans.

Some in jokes that made sense to only a few.

Pol. Science or bust

And some that made no sense to anyone at all.

Legalize Counter-Masculinity

Some expressed their political views.

All opposition is suspect.

Some expressed their views on politicians.

Don't vote - you'll only encourage them.

And there were those that expressed their view on the entire debate.

Lenin lives, but McCarteney ROCKS!

Potshots were taken at everyone - from the staff.

The world is full of creatures, big and small.
Some that creep and some that crawl.
And Presidency College employs them all.

To the faculty.

Where did professors come from?
From the West, because the wise men came from the East.

To our friendly rivals across town.

Those who can, do.
Those who can't, join SXC.

It wasn't just the outside walls. The long toilet behind the canteen, lovingly christened "Pakistan" (which is quite spotless these days - the toilet I mean, not the country), had the following scribbled at eye level above a urinal stall.

If you can hit this, join the Fire Brigade.

and at around knee level

Cutoff for SC/ST's.

And there were posters of all hues. Political mainly, but some others as well. A particularly clever one was put up in the immediate aftermath of the left-led protest against the setting up of a Coca-Cola fountain in the canteen. (Yes, young reader, there WAS such a time). The poster had a squashed Coke paper cup pasted on it, with the words.

Coke is Red.
We are not.

But my all-time favourite was the sight that greeted me when I walked into the canteen a few days before Election Day. Strung across the canteen was a huge banner, that had obviously taken a great deal of effort to put up. Written in large black letters across it was the following.

Do YOU suffer from Bad Results? Do you believe something needs to be done about your bad results?
Join us in the Bad Results Association.

I never found out who the mastermind behind this operation was, but I silently appluaded him. Not to be outdone, some other bright spark put up a poster a week later announcing the launching of a new party, the Presidency Association of Non-Terrorist Youth

Some of these attempts at humour did not go down well with the self-appointed guardians of Presidencian Virtue (no, really). A particular graffito that was painted over while I was still in college read.

Ashes to Ashes,
Dust to Dust.
If grass don't get you,
Acid's a must.

And there was my own attempt at wit, which backfired. A friend had put up a poster which read -
War is necessary for peace.

below which I thought it necessary to post -

War for peace is like sex for virginity.

Duly signed of course.

The friend in question found it hilarious. Certain illiberal leftist elder brothers did not. I was confronted in the Metro Station with the poster, and it was menacingly ripped up in front of me, crumpled into a ball and flung onto the tracks. I was also warned to never write such dirty things (involving the words 'sex', 'virginity', or any combination thereof) again. The next week I joined the 'other' party.

But thats a whole different story. Before this becomes "The memoirs of a Presidencian has-been", I shall sign off. But I leave you with the most telling graffito of all.

God is dead - Presidency

Presidency is dead - God

Attack them walls again, young 'uns, or that annoying know-it-all up there might just end up being right.