Guest Post: A Passage to India, Calcutta Day 2 (by Matt Faherty)

Calcutta Day 2 – Post-Apocalypse

Frankly, I’m a little let down by India. My speculation going into this trip was that India would be the worst country I’ve ever been to. I had been forewarned by others who had traveled through India about its filth, its chaos, and it annoying people. One of my friends had to spend hundreds of dollars when his travel plans turned out to be booked by a non-existent travel agency. Another friend, a woman, had been sexually harassed by a bellhop at her hotel. I expected India to have the bureaucracy of China, the poverty of Cambodia, and the predatory people of Thailand.

Meh, it’s not that bad. It’s not that good either, but Bangladesh was a baptism of fire. Calcutta is filthy, chaotic, and noisy by Western standards, but it feels like a toned down version of Dhaka. Yeah there’s garbage everywhere, but not that much, and huge piles are pushed in the corner instead on the sidewalks. Yeah there’s tons of traffic, but it mostly consists of cars which are far too large to form the swarm of rickshaws and took-tooks of Dhaka. Plus there is a McDonald’s a Pizza Hut, two Subways, and an Au Bon Pain of all places within ten minutes of my hotel. This is child’s play.

Calcutta is generally ugly, but has a unique aesthetic that I really like. It looks like there was some ancient civilization (the British) who for some reason perished off the face of the earth. So a new civilization (Indians) moved into their old ruins centuries later. It really does look like the post-apocalypse. I’m in the New Market District which is a massive market crawling between and inside of old colonial buildings. Beneath the rust, mud, and grime, the building which line these streets could have been built in London, Paris, or New York City.

Matt’s unapologetically pro-imperialist architectural musings

Broad classical facades and spindling towers sit next to mosques and brick hovels. Gorgeous marble balconies protrude into the streets, ignored by hundreds of Indians going about their business. These buildings once housed the elite of the British Empire when Calcutta was the capital of the East Indian Trading Company, and later the British Raj. Today an old train station has been hollowed out to be filled with stalls selling shirts, silk, and all manner of tacky crap. At the center of the station, where the tracks used to be, is an Indian butcher shop. I wouldn’t advise going in there.

The British ruins aren’t confined to my hotel’s district, they sprawl the entire city. One of the busiest parts of the city is two massive high ways on top of one another. One highway is on the ground, the other is built on pillars directly above it. Running the entire length of the highways are stunningly beautiful British estate homes. They are a bit run down and now house union offices, government agencies, and private clubs, but they still possess a sense of majesty in the middle of a grey city overgrown with lush vegetation.

Most of the non-British buildings are pretty ugly, but there is at least a much needed injection of color. The overwhelming color motif of Dhaka was brown, with maybe some hints of grey thrown in. But in Calcutta, buildings are painted green, blue, orange, red, gold, silver, and all manner of color. The rainbow houses compliment the pitch black pavement of the street well, and with some refurbishment and new money, Calcutta could become quite pleasant in a few decades.

I woke up at 5 AM as usual. There haven’t been too many times in my life when “waking up too early” was a problem, but now it is. After taking a shower, brushing my teeth, and going on line for a bit, it was 7 AM and I wanted to go out into the city. Unfortunately, the guy who ran the hotel had locked the gate covering the front door, and I didn’t feel like waking the grumpy old man even as he slept on a cot three feet away from the door. So I sat in my room for another hour.

My first objective was to get a city map. I walked to a nearby book store and purchased the only one they had. The map is annoyingly huge, but at least it folds well. I asked the book store owner about some interesting places nearby and set off upon his directions. It was two hours later that I learned his directions were horrible, and made worse by my worthless sense of direction.

He seemed to have sent me north, into the poorest part of the city, instead of southwest, towards Calcutta’s parks and main attractions. The first think I noticed in the poor area were dozens of chickens being kept in baskets on the ground. In one pile beside the baskets were a pile of dead chickens with their blood running down the side walk. That was the first time I saw a dead animal(s) today.

The scenery here was pretty similar to Dhaka. Merchants selling ultra-cheap street food lined the sidewalks while hundreds of people crowded the street going to wherever they needed to be. Many of the pedestrians were carrying goods in huge baskets on their heads. For the first time I saw a few of Calcutta’s notorious rickshaw drivers. These weren’t the type of rickshaws one sees in Dhaka or parts of China with a bike attached to a cart. These are old school rickshaws where the driver literally runs. According to Wikitravel, Calcutta outlawed these things a few years ago because it made Indians look like a bunch of 15th century primitives. However, the 30,000 man rickshaw union ignored the government’s command.

There are lots of dogs in Calcutta. They are smallish and seem friendly enough towards humans, but they fight each other constantly. I was awakened at 1 AM by dogs fighting outside my window (which doesn’t close). The dogs I saw on the streets were often wounded, some had big scratches, and occasionally they were missing ears. While walking I saw a tragically filthy tiny puppy on the side of the street. Any animal person would want to immediately adopt this dog and take it away from all this poverty. As I got closer, I saw two more tiny puppies and an older dog who looked like the mother. One of the puppies was lying on its side with an eye outside of its socket, but still attached by a few strands. He was mercifully dead. The other three dogs were standing around it. I stopped dead in my tracks at the horrible sight and looked around to see if anyone else had noticed. If they had, they didn’t seem to care. That was the second dead animal I saw today.

Just to get it out of the way, the third and final dead animal I saw was a massive rat about four blocks away from the puppy.

Due to the book store owner’s directions, I was completely lost. I was standing at the corner of a major intersection trying to get my bearings when pure evil hit me in the face. It was a communist flag. There was no mistaking it: red background with a yellow hammer and sickle. These flags were lining all four corners of this intersection. It’s amazing how the most destructive ideology in history still finds a following among so many.

What does it look like?

Truly lost, I finally asked an older gentleman where I was on my map and he helped sort me out. He advised me to take a bus to my intended destination (the row of mansions along the highways). That’s easier said than done. As in Dhaka, there are no bus stops in Calcutta, people just jump on at intersections when the busses stop in traffic. And when there is no traffic… people just jump on anyway.

I thanked the man for his assistance, and he asked me where I was from and how long I would be in India. This was nowhere near the amazement in Dhaka or China, this was mere curiosity. He asked in the same manner that I would ask a random European in New York City who asked me for directions. I answered his inquiry and went on my way.

Getting on the bus wasn’t too bad, and it only cost me 6 rupees (10 cents). Once on the bus, things got a bit more complicated. Due to his accent, I didn’t really understand the man’s instructions, so I just asked a bunch of people on the bus when to get off and the money collector said he would help.

At one point, there was a commotion outside on the side of the bus and the bus suddenly slowed down and a bunch of the riders started yelling angrily at the driver until he sped up. At first I thought the bus hit someone. I asked another passenger what happened and he told me “they are angry because the bus is too slow.” What I think happened was someone tried to get on the bus, so the bus driver slowed down, but the passengers weren’t having any of that shit. If you want to get on a moving bus in Calcutta, you run for it. So the passengers yelled at the driver until he sped up and left the person behind. Did I mention how friendly India was?

After about 30 minutes, I got off the bus (while it was stopped in traffic) and marveled at the wondrous British mansions for a while. Then I made my way past the double highway to approach a cluster of parks. One such park called the “Scenic Citizen’s Park” had the insane business hours of 5 to 9 AM and 3-8 PM so I couldn’t go in. I also passed the Indian Fine Arts Academy. I always found something funny about prestigious organizations in poor countries being housed in dilapidated structures. The Olympic Committee of Bangkok is based out of a Soviet-style concrete apartment building. The Bangladeshi national bank badly needed its windows cleaned. Now, I can add the Indian Fine Arts Academy to this prestigious list for being housed in what looks like an abandoned elementary school.

OK, that might be too mean. To make up for it, I will lavish praise upon the adjacent building, St. Paul’s Cathedral. St. Paul’s is a gorgeous pure white marble episcopal church which soars high above the jungle of foliage around it. While the other English builds I had seen thus far had been structurally beautiful, they were all run down, and I was pretty much admiring carcasses. This was the first English building I had seen which was well maintained and at least almost looked like new.

Inside the cathedral was equally nice, with the exception of the dozens of fans hanging down over the pews from the vaulted ceiling. I don’t blame the Cathedral for them, I’m sure it gets unbearably hot in there, but all the same it does detract from the structure.

Matt gets taken for a ride–yet again

I left the Cathedral and made my way north towards Calcutta’s most beautiful sight, Queen Victoria’s Memorial. But before I could reach it, I had to get sidetracked–or possibly, horsetracked.

One of the alleged parks was actually just an empty field, which, in typical Indian fashion, was filled with goats. As I walked beside the field, a man on horseback galloped up beside me and asked if I would like to ride the horse. Of course I would. He said it was 200 rupees ($3.21)  for a “small circle”and 400 rupees ($6.42) for a “big circle.” These are high prices for India, so I was immediately hesitant, until I remembered that we are talking about single digit dollar amounts. I fully acknowledge that it was incredibly stupid of me to not inquire as to what a “small” and “big” circle consisted of. I chose the big circle.

I’ve only been on a horse a few times in my life, but I happened to have ridden English style on two separate occasions over the last few months. I noted that this horse here was also set up on English style, so I wanted to see how my skills had developed. This was an even dumber thought than you might surmise. Not only did I barely know how to ride English style, but I had also forgotten how murderously painful it is on your legs, since you have to squeeze the horse with your heels (whereas Western style relies more on the reins). Thus it was the worst possible thing for my legs to be doing after having been doing nothing but walking for the last week straight.

Needless to say, I didn’t do a very good job riding the horse. To be fair, it wasn’t just my lack of skill and my soar legs, but also the horse didn’t have a saddle on it, just a folded blanket. So I was constantly almost falling off one side or the other whenever the horse turned, thereby necessitating even more painful leg squeezes.

Then I tried to gallop the horse. In a civilized land, a horse owner probably wouldn’t let some random guy gallop a horse by himself for fear of killing the rider and/or getting sued. But this is not a civilized land. So I kicked the horse’s sides and squeezed him till he took off. I got about forty feet until I fell off, though due to my remarkable agility, I managed to land on one leg rather than my head. The cost of preserving my skull was feeling like I had ripped my leg in half.

I actually got back on the horse despite my leg pain and rid him a bit further. After getting some bad-ass horseback photos, I settled my bill. The guy demanded 800 rupee ($12.85). He claimed that I had made two “big circles.” I guess that was true, even though he didn’t exactly announce that I was beginning a second circle, he just told me to start galloping. Considering that I was only on the horse for about ten minutes, I’d hate to see what the “small circle” looked like.

But this guy was not done yet. I handed him two 500 rupee bills, and he made a joke about the horse needed 200 rupees, then smiled and did nothing. I asked for my change. He smiled some more, said some more stuff about how good the horse was and did nothing. I demanded my change. He finally fished through his pockets and said he only had a 100 rupee bill to give me. I held my ground. After about two minutes of excuses, he finally emptied his pockets and gave me an extra 70 rupee in 10 rupee notes. I rolled my eyes and took it, accepting the fraudulent loss of my fifty cents.

I vowed to myself that the horseback riding would be my only dumb purchase of India. Or at least of Calcutta.

The Raj redux

Finally I arrived at the Queen Victoria Memorial. Whatever other bad things I said about Calcutta cannot change that the Memorial is spectacular. It looks like a mini-Taj Mahal in a multi-acre English garden. It consists of a large central dome with four squares extending outwards. The whole building is made of sparkling white marble. Facing one side is a large artificial lake. Another side has a statue of one of the British kings on horseback atop a small arch. Surrounding the rest of the Memorial are straight walking paths shaded by flowering trees. It really is beautiful.

Within the Memorial is some artifacts and paintings from the days of British rule. It’s a bit odd that it’s all in the spirit of how wonderful the British Empire was. There are transcriptions on the walls from Victoria’s speeches about how great of a subject India is and how it will always be protected by glorious Britain. I doubt I’ll find the same sentiment throughout the rest of India.

Queen Victoria and her most fervent Indian admirer

I left the Memorial and continued walking north to find something called the Command Museum. This turned out to be a bad move. I was trapped amongst a bunch of massive, long, straight avenues with nothing to see for well over a mile. One thing I did see was a horse eerily still in the middle of one of the avenues, holding his back leg up. There was no one on or near the horse and it just stood there as cars weaved around it. It was not a great day for me and animals.

While I stood by the side of the road worrying about the horse, a car pulled over on the opposite side of the road. The driver got out, urinated against a tree, got back in his car, and drove away.

I got tired of walking around and opted to get a taxi. Taxis completely flood the streets of Calcutta, and they all look like charming yellow cars from the 1950s, though I can’t really describe why. Maybe it’s the raised hood.

I stood at a roundabout near a military base where four other guys were also trying to get a taxi. Three guys were clumped ahead of me, while the forth was twenty feet behind me. In one of the weirder moments of the trip so far, a taxi slowed down to approach the three guys in front of me, but then the driver spotted me, so he sped up and blew right past the three guys to pick me up. I told the driver to take me to New Market, where my hotel was located and he told me to get in. Twenty feet later, the fourth guy stopped the taxi and said something in Bengali. The driver told him to get in, so he went along for the ride.

I made a bit of small talk with the new passenger for five minutes until he said goodbye and got out of the cab. He didn’t pay the driver anything, so I guess I ended up covering his ride.

My twenty minute ride ended up costing me 107 rupee ($1.72) which was a great deal. Unfortunately, I didn’t know exactly where my hotel was within New Market (taxis don’t know addresses or minor streets) so I got dropped off in front of one of the hollowed-out English beauties and wandered the area. In possibly my proudest moment of the trip so far, I used bits and pieces of what I remembered from last night to trace my way back to the hotel.

After resting for an hour I set out to explore New Market. I’ve loved markets ever since I went to my first one in Italy. There really isn’t anything like them in the US. I guess flea markets come the closest, but they could never capture the hectic energy of the markets in Istanbul, China, and the rest of India.

For the most part, New Market is nothing special. It’s filled with shoes, cloth, luggage, t-shirts and hand bags. Most of the goods are absurdly cheap, but I don’t really need a $5 pair of jeans right now.

While walking down one of the stall-filled sidewalks, I spotted a sign which read “Wine and Luggage.” Curious, I entered the store. I don’t know what I suggested, but the sign was honest. Half of the shelf space was devoted to wine, and the other half to luggage. Enough said.

I had hoped to dodge one of the biggest annoyances in Southeast Asia, but it appeared here in spades. Unbeknownst to me, I am everyone’s friend in New Market. Or at least that was the impression I got since I was constantly harassed by people saying “Hey friend,” “Friend, look over here,” “You need silk, friend?,” etc.

These guys deeply offend me on a personal level because they prey on cultural differences. I, like pretty much everyone in the West, was brought up my entire life to be respectful to other people. If someone in the US approaches me and says, “excuse me, sir,” I will turn and hear him out. If what the person says doesn’t interest me, I will inform him politely and turn away.

These predators know this, or at least have figured it out heuristically. Every time one of these guys approaches me in the market and says, “excuse me, sir,” my instincts are to give him my attention. If I hadn’t already gone through this nonsense hundreds of other times in numerous countries, I would doubtlessly be sucked into their game. Once they’ve got a person, they invite you over to their stall and try to sell you something. This would be harmless, accept they don’t take no for an answer. They will endlessly throw pitches and products at you knowing full well that it’s awkward for a Westerner to turn away from a person talking because that is considered to be very rude back home.

I’ve seen this work on other tourists, and arguably it worked on me at first. These days it truly angers it me. It is a low-life, borderline coercive tactic designed to get money out of unsuspecting tourists by making them uncomfortable.

Anyway, I also spotted a random cow walking around the market. It had a collar on, but no one was nearby to claim it. So I just walked side by side with a cow down a road in India. He should count himself lucky that he wasn’t made into one of my beloved cheeseburgers.

I can add pigeon to my list of dead animals today. Add a rat to my list of live ones.

Katie, Holi, Kip, and the girl who got away

Finally, the night ended with a bit of excitement. I was at the edge of New Market in a somewhat swanky part of town as denoted by the presence of McDonald’s and Au Bon Pain, when I came across a crowd of people blocking the side walk. I walked on the street alongside the area the crowd was looking into, and saw a guy in a Hurt Locker-style bomb disposal suit looking at a closed brief case. Maybe this was a dumb move, but I took out my camera and got a few shots as he opened the suitcase rather than take cover.

Nothing exploded. The suitcase had no bomb in it. The guy took off his helmet and started talking to some cops. A helpful bystander explained to me that someone found a random suitcase lying on the sidewalk and called the bomb squad. Much ado about nothing. Unlike Dhaka.

One thing today has made me realize is that Calcutta is not a very walkable city. It is massive, sprawling, and the landmarks are too spread out. Given how cheap the taxis are, I’m going to be relying on them over the next few days.

I wrote that last part a few hours ago, evidently the day did not end with a fake bomb scare. I’m currently sitting in my hotel room covered in powdered dye. I got off what I could, but the grumpy hotel manager got mad at me for wasting water, so I’ll have to remove the rest tomorrow. But that’s completely pointless since even more will take its place. I’ll start all over again.

At 9 PM I was sitting in my hotel room when I heard some drums outside. It was that fast, tribal music, far too loud and out of place to be some random street performer. I walked outside and found a crowd gathered around an unlit bonfire in the middle of the street. The following two hours were a blur of color, dancing, and random people wanting to take pictures of me.

I didn’t plan this, but apparently I am in Bangladesh during “Holi,” a Bangladeshi holiday to commemorate the dead. The festival basically consists of dancing around a bonfire while people cover each other with brightly colored powder. At its height, I had a blue neck, red cheeks, and blue lines on my cheeks and forehead.

Because my hotel is on a major hotel and hostel street, there were plenty of white people mixed in with the Bangladeshis and Indians around the bonfire. There was lots of picture taking going on back and forth between the groups, yet, due to my paleness and blondeness, I still got a disproportionate amount of attention. One random white tourist sarcastically asked if I was a celebrity.

I ended up meeting a lot of new people. First, there was Katie, a Minnesotan studying in Calcutta who was currently hosting her own family. Then there was a big Bangladeshi guy and a scrawny Indian guy whose names I’ve since forgotten. Next was a group of Indian children roughly aged from 8 to 13. Finally, there was Kip, a Bangladeshi businessmen roughly 25 years of age.

Katie told me what was going on with the dancing and the bonfire. She is a theology and gender’s studies major from a small college in Minnesota. She also told me there was an even larger festival tomorrow on this very street which I absolutely had to come out to. I am going to be covered by colored powder from head to toe. That seemed like slightly more fun than seeing Mother Theresa’s leper house, so I agreed. She then invited me to attend the festival with her friends tomorrow, so that is the current game plan.

The big Bangladeshi guy took a selfie with me and then asked for my name so he could friend me on Facebook and share it with me (I gave him my real name). He was extremely impressed that I had been to Dhaka and just thought it was the coolest thing for an American to do.

The scrawny Indian guy kept asking me about the Freedom Tower in New York for some reason. I asked him if he had been to New York, and he said he hadn’t.

The Indian children were a blast. They danced with the white girls, ran around the fire, and then covered everyone with paint. For some reason this group took a special liking to me. It might have been because I was the youngest white guy in the crowd. They all kept saying something to me which I couldn’t understand. After about a minute, I finally made out the word, “Wrestlemania.” I said, “wrestling, WWE, John Cena, Undertaker, Triple H,” as I struggled to think of every wrestling fact I knew. Their eyes lit up and they started yelling more wrestling things with joy. They got into a mini fun argument over who was the best wrestler while I smiled and agreed with whoever asked me my opinion.

At one point, a pretty tourist girl walked by and one of the kids asked me if I knew her. I said I didn’t. He immediately grabbed my arm and pulled me towards her: “I introduce you, you meet her.” I smiled and thanked them but tried to stop them. They were very adamant about their intentions but I repeatedly tried to laugh myself out of the situation. Finally, I told the oldest kid, “maybe tomorrow” and he was content.*

Friend, if you’d gotten some silk, you’d have gotten the girl, too. But imperialists never listen. 

Kip speaks English better than any other Bangladeshi I’ve met. He’s a good looking guy with shoulder length hair and wild look in his eye. He was also impressed by my visit to Dhaka and we discussed at length where in Dhaka I stayed and where he lived. Eventually, Kip invited me to have drinks with him, a strange sentiment from a presumably Muslim Bangladeshi. I stood outside his nearby hotel with Kip and one of his friends and we drank orange juice with vodka (I explained to them that it was called a screwdriver). I asked Kip how much he drank at home, and he got this daring look on his face and said, “never.” Then he took another sip of his watered down screwdriver and flinched like a gunshot had gone off two inches away from his ear.

Kip desperately wanted to go to America, and even had an uncle living in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, the US government had blocked his tourist visa request (I didn’t ask why), so he said a work or education visa were almost certainly out of the question.

I exchanged contact information with Kip and then he asked if I wanted to do the festival with him tomorrow. I told him I was meeting another group but invited them to join. I hope I wasn’t being to presumptuous towards Katie, but this whole festival sounds like total chaos so I doubt it will matter.

*Editor’s note: WTF? See photo caption above.

One thought on “Guest Post: A Passage to India, Calcutta Day 2 (by Matt Faherty)

  1. Matt,

    I think you’ll be gratified to hear that (1) I’ve been teaching a unit on the “ethics of price gouging” in two of my classes at Felician, and I’ve been using your Dhaka and Calcutta stories as teaching tools there; (2) the top search string on the blog is currently “white guy matthew in kolkata.” So you’re famous on two continents.

    PS, I decided to use your Nepal story, too. Hope you don’t mind. It’s all in a good cause!


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