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:
Anyway. 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