Guest Post: A Passage to India, Calcutta Day 4 (by Matt Faherty)

[Skipping Calcutta Day 3, we move to Day 4. Background here.]

Calcutta Day 4 – Going Native

St. Matthew of Calcutta communes with the animals

Traveling around the US and Europe is great. Everything is always comfortable, even when it’s cheap. Everyone speaks English, it is easy to get around, and some of the most remarkable creations of civilization are on display. Asia doesn’t always have these perks but it has something else. Today was the day when I saw the best that poor Asia had to offer.

I woke up at 7 AM, later than usual. The jet lag is finally wearing off. By 8:30 I left the hotel to get breakfast at Au Bon Pain. While I was eating my delicious everything bagel with cream cheese and earl grey tea, I spotted a little beggar girl outside with a monkey on her shoulder. I imagine that the monkey generates lots of revenue, and even considered paying her for a picture. But where did she get it from? Are wild monkeys somehow caught and domesticated in Calcutta? Had someone purchased it for her? Do beggars consider the costs and benefits of capital investments for their industry?

I walked a little ways away from Au Bon Pain, and saw a guy walking a group (pack? flock?) of goats down the street. I love this stuff. At home (upstate new York) I rarely see exotic animals like goats; I never see them wandering around the New York City or Chicago sidewalks at all. But here I constantly come across cows, goats, dogs, cats, and occasionally horses.* And Indian animals are always friendly. Last night I even befriended three adorable puppies and their mother living outside my hotel, taking care not to pet them much, to avoid the risk of getting fleas.

I got tired of walking and took a taxi. The driver wanted 100 rupees up front, but I demanded that he use the meter and he eventually agreed. The ride took ten minutes and my charge came out to 57 rupees. I handed the driver a 100 rupee note and he returned 30 rupees with a pleading look on his face. I let him have my 20 cents as a tip.

Khaligat Temple: “charity terrorism” meets its match 

The taxi left me on a main road, so I had to make my way down some back streets to find the Khaligat Temple. This is the premier Hindu temple of Calcutta and the basis for the city’s name. It houses a shrine to the deity, Kali, the Hindu equivalent of a patron saint to Calcutta. Next door to the temple is Mother Teresa’s original Home for the Dying.

Whatever dignity these two locations once possessed have long since disappeared. Khaligat Temple Road is clotted with tourist trap stalls selling cheap statues and memorabilia for the temple and the Home. It is a poor area, even for Calcutta, and the locals are intent to milk their external revenue sources for all that they’re worth.

I arrived at the temple and initially thought there was a mosque next to it, but the small white domes on the nearby building belonged to Mother Teresa’s Home. I first made my way through the increasingly dense stalls to the temple. An Indian man in plain clothes spotted me from a distance and made a beeline to my location as I entered the temple. He identified himself as a temple priest and immediately began to lecture me about random trivia. After letting him lead me into a court yard, I tried to lose him by slowly looking around at the inner stalls, but he wouldn’t leave my side.

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Kalighat Temple, photo credit: Wikipedia

I turned to him and told him I didn’t need a tour guide. The man repeated that he was a temple priest and that everyone entering the temple was required to go with a priest. I found this claim to be literally unbelievable. Even if Hindu priests wore jeans and ratty open collar shirts, there were dozens of people packing into the tiny inner temple and there was no way the temple employed twenty or more priests simultaneously. After some more discouragement on my part, the man left.

I had successfully dodged another tour guide. Unfortunately, I kind of needed one. This wasn’t a normal Hindu temple where you can just wander in and look at the statues. There was some sort of event going on and people were packing into a tiny hallway in front of the main shrine while repeating prayers. Whatever: I figured I’d wing it.

I looked for a designated spot to leave my shoes, but there wasn’t one; people just left their shoes all over the place. I also spotted a sign warning about pick-pocketers. If the sanctity of the temple won’t stop the locals from pick pocketing me, I doubt it will stop them from stealing my shoes. I opted to carry them in.

I waited in line behind ten praying Hindus before I reached the shrine itself. As soon as I approached a guard spotted me and yelled “NO SHOES!” at the top of his lungs. I scurried out the way I came, accidentally bumping into numerous sweet old ladies.

For my second attempt at entry into the shrine, I decided to leave my shoes outside. I put them under a bench off to the side where I hoped no one would see them. As I walked back to the inner temple entrance, another Indian man approached me, claiming (once again) that he was a priest, and starting yet another lecture on random (albeit shrine-related) trivia. Having already screwed up badly once, I figured I would let this guy show me around, and since he was identifying himself as a priest and not actually asking me if I wanted a guide, I was under no obligation to pay him.

The priest told me that before I could enter, I had to buy some flowers to make an offering to Kali (the goddess). Yet again, this struck me as bullshit, since only a handful of people entering the temple were holding flowers. That said, the flowers only cost 20 rupees, so I bought them anyway. We walked to the entrance of the inner temple and the priest stopped and began to chant something. He asked me the names of my parents and siblings, then ripped off flowers for each of them and put them in my hand.

The inner temple was even more crowded than last time. The space in front of the shrine was only about five feet wide, but a dozen or so people were cramming their way into it anyway. The priest tried to get me a spot up front and in behavior typical of a priest, began shoving worshipers out of the way for me. But his pious pushing was not enough to part the crowd. Exasperated, he told me just to chuck the flowers over the heads of the worshippers at the shrine. I asked for clarification on this command twice. He confirmed it twice. I threw the flowers.

Next the priest led me into another part of the temple, an empty room characteristic of Hindu temples, where worshipers pray to a shrine. There he brought me to an older man who said he was the head priest. The head priest asked where I was from and then launched into a two minute pitch about how awesome Kali is. He told me Kali was the life force of the entire universe. It was not Islam, Christianity, or even Hinduism, but pure science. Kali is a deity with four arms which constantly beats up the evil around us so that we may all live happy lives.

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Hinduism, religion of peace

Inexplicably, Kali’s protective four-armed destruction of evil had not been bestowed upon any discernibly large portion of Calcutta’s impoverished population.** The head priest explained that the temple had always helped the poor in Calcutta and had even fed 2,000 people per day (Calcutta’s population is 4.57 million). He said in return for Kali’s protection, it is each and every person’s duty to help the poor. Just one sack of rice would be ever so helpful. Then he asked me for 2100 rupees.

            “I don’t have 2100 rupees.”

“It is everyone’s duty to help the poor. Everyone must feed them. It would be so helpful to the people of Calcutta.

“I literally don’t have 2100 rupees on me right now.”

“Just give what you can. 1000 rupees would be great. It is EVERYONE’s duty to help.

“I am a poor student-”

“Do not say you are poor! You can spare money for these people. It is YOUR duty.”

“I’m sorry, but I am a student and I do not have much money.”

“Just give what you can.”

“I cannot give you anything.

“Just give what you can.”

“I have nothing to give.”

“You are not going to give us anything?”

“I’m sorry, but I cannot.”

Telling people I am a student is a trick I picked up from Jewel to stop solicitations.

The head priest gave me a look of pure condemnation and suddenly turned away. The other priest quickly took me away.

Shocking, I know. The only white guy at the temple got a VIP tour and was then solicited for cash. Yeah, I get that it’s for a good cause (assuming that these guys were honest), but it doesn’t change the fact that I absolutely hate being constantly targeted for money. I simply was not in a good mood.

The other priest showed me a few more parts of the temple and then gave his own lackluster pitch as to why I should tip him. I told him that I did not ask for a tour and walked out of the temple.***

Matt assumes the missionary position

Having read Christopher Hitchens’s famous critique of Mother Teresa, I don’t consider her to be the figurative saint she’s made out to be (though I cannot deny that she is a literal saint). I always found it odd that she is one of the most famous historical figures on earth, is considered to be the epitome of selflessness and moral goodness, and yet most people know next to nothing about her. Basically she was a high profile nun who funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into her Indian charity network based out of Calcutta. On the one hand, she gave comfort to millions of dying Indians. On the other hand, she spent her absurdly large charitable fund to buy bibles and other religious items to convert sick Indians to Catholic Christianity on their death beds, rather than work towards any long-term structural changes in the Indian economy, or even among its poor communities.

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St. Christopher, reading Matt’s post with evident approval

Anyway, next to Khaligat Temple is the first of Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying. The purpose of these homes was mostly to give dying Indians a warm bed and some food during their last couple of days though I’m pretty sure they also did food and clothing distribution as well. As I mentioned, the outside of the building looks a lot like a mosque, but the inside looks distinctly Catholic. There are two main rooms, each about fifty feet long, filled with fifty small cots. These are the wards where the patients hang out most of the time, divided by gender.Crucifixes and pictures of Mother Teresa line the walls and the whole place looks like a hollowed-out Catholic school. I wouldn’t call the interior “comforting” but I suppose it is quieter and cooler than outside.

The Home is definitely a weird place to visit. A sign at the entrance says visitors are welcome, but there are no discernible procedures for going inside the place. The Home is still active (though not as busy as it used to be), but there are no brochures or information of any kind for visitors. When I walked through the front door, no one greeted me, so I stood awkwardly in the men’s ward. Could I just walk through the place? I wasn’t sure.

There were about five men lying in beds. Two of them were receiving medical attention, one from a nun, and the other from a volunteer (identifiable as such by virtue of being a young white person wearing regular clothes). All of the men had deformities of one kind or another, most likely indicating leprosy. I walked past them, trying simultaneously to get a good look and not to stare. The nun and volunteer didn’t notice me even when I was five feet away, so I slipped into the next room and found myself face to face with about twenty sick Indians. Most were old, nearly all had deformities. Everyone looked up at me and each grinned from ear to ear. I had forgotten that I still had Holi paint all over my face, and suddenly I realized that I must have been quite a sight to them.

I walked past a row of them sitting down and a few offered their hands to me. For a split second I considered that it might be a bad idea to touch a leper, but then I remembered that Katie had told me they were on antibiotics and not contagious. Plus the nuns and volunteers didn’t have gloves, so unless this was a martyr-run operation, I figured I would be OK to touch the lepers. I shook four or five hands and told them where I was from. They all smiled and laughed. One guy with only two teeth left and no right arm offered me his left hand and was delighted when I shook it.

I left the room and stood near the entrance to take some notes. Finally a young, female volunteer approached me and in an Italian accent asked if I was new here. I told her I was just visiting. She smiled, thanked me for coming, and turned away.

I went up the stairs to the second floor to find a sort of lounge for the staff.  Five volunteers were seated at the table and after a brief glance, none of them took notice of me, except for one guy. It was the quiet Italian I had walked around with last night. We briefly talked and he told me it was his first day here. I asked what diseases the patients had and he said mostly leprosy and that he wasn’t sure about the rest.

Near misses and direct hits: The Marble Palace, Tagore House, and more Holi paint

Next stop was a building called the Marble Palace. I walked for about thirty minutes during which nothing eventful happened besides being shoved by a drunk beggar (it would not be my last physical altercation of the day). After I got tired, I hailed a cab and spent five minutes trying to explain where I wanted to go before I settled on telling him “Mahatma Gandhi Road,” a location transcending all linguistic boundaries.

I got dropped off about a kilometer away from the Marble Palace in a district I had yet to visit. Yesterday Kip told me that we celebrated Bangladeshi Holi Day and that tomorrow would be the celebration of Indian Holi Day. Up until this point, I hadn’t seen any celebrations so I thought he was mistaken. It turns out that I was just in the wrong places. In this district, groups of individuals covered head to toe in pink paint (a different look than yesterday’s painting) were all over the place. While walking I was constantly being stopped to shake people’s hands and shout “Happy Holi.” Worse yet, I had to start defending myself against paint attacks. It wasn’t that I didn’t have fun yesterday, but the paint is absurdly difficult to get off, and I didn’t want to spend the next week looking like a crazy person.

Marble_Palace_Kolkata.jpg (2560×1920)

Another large and imposing imperialist edifice erected by the great and powerful Oz  Raj

At one corner populated by a gaggle of pink Holi Day enthusiasts, three guys approached me with paint. The code of conduct on painting other people isn’t entirely clear. The painters usually ask, but they don’t always take no for an answer. This was one such occasion.

Two of the guys accepted that me holding up my arms defensively, backing away, and saying “no” meant “no,” but the third guy didn’t. He sprayed me with blue paint until his two friends pulled him back. Angered once more, I stomped away in a huff.

When I finally reached the Marble Palace it was closed for Holi Day. This is again the dark side of my aforementioned “no planning” policy. It was really a shame, too, because the Marble Palace looked incredible from the outside. It is a mixture of a classical English estate and the Parthenon, built out of imposing grey marble. After the Victoria Memorial, it’s the most marvelous building in Calcutta.

I walked down a few back alleys looking for the Tagore House.**** The ground was literally pink from washed out paint and packs of pink Holi people roamed around. On a few more instances, I had to fend off paint attacks. On more than one occasion I had to dodge water balloons launched from high balconies. Progress was further slowed from constantly having to shake hands and yell “Happy Holi” every twenty feet.

I finally found the Tagore House (some sort of artist center) but the door was locked. Big surprise. I was walking around the perimeter searching for another entrance when I spotted a cute French girl and her American boyfriend I recognized from yesterday’s Holi Day celebrations. I asked them if they knew a way into the Tagore House but it turns out they were in the same position. We continued walking the perimeter together until we found the main entrance. It was locked. With their plans shot, the couple decided to walk to the Ganges River and asked if I wanted to tag along.

Camille and Blake were traveling around India for two months. He was born in St. Louis and now lived in New York City. Blake seemed like the traveling type, having taught English for a year in Vietnam and traveled through Calcutta the year before. Camille was very bubbly and found every little thing around us fascinating. Given India’s notorious reputation regarding its treatment of foreign women, I was interested in what it would be like to walk around with a girl, especially an attractive one. As mentioned in a previous post, a friend of mine had been sexually harassed while traveling through Southern India, and a girl at the University of Chicago had been so badly treated while studying abroad that she got an article posted in Time.

Camille certainly diverted attention away from Blake and me, though not entirely. The pink packs were more likely to target her, but they went after us with paint as well.  I asked them if they had any problems with her traveling and Blake replied that India is probably no worse than any other Asian country in this regard. Only a few bad instances had created a reputation.

Having traveled through here before, Blake searched for a ghat (stairs leading down to the river where people wash). Along the way we dodged pink packs and water balloons while gazing at more stunning ruins of old English buildings. In front of one building, an extremely scrawny man approached us and asked to do some Hindu prayer thing which involved rubbing yellow powder on our shoes and forehead. I refused, but Blake and Camille let him do it. After he was done, he made the universal sign for hunger. We walked away.

But this was no ordinary beggar. He followed us and wouldn’t let up. He kept repeating, “10 rupee, please!” I always ignored him but Blake and Camille alternated between ignoring him and saying sorry. He wasn’t getting the message. He followed us for three blocks. At one point, I stopped to take a picture of an English building while Camille walked on ahead. As I lined up my shot, I noticed a cop walking behind me out of the corner of my eye. Then I heard a WHACK! I turned and saw the beggar reeling in pain. The cop had hit him with a baton. Camille and Blake apologized profusely. As we walked away, Blake lamented, “that’s just the way things are around here.”

An hour later we arrived at a ghat right next to a bridge. It was one of the coolest places I’ve seen thus far on the trip. It managed to hit that sweet spot where it was dirty enough to be authentic but not too dirty that it makes me want to leave. Dozens of pink people washed themselves in the disgustingly polluted Ganges River. Being the only white people there, we got a lot of attention. A crowd formed around us to ask questions and try to give us paint. Camille and Blake succumbed while I held firm and blocked all paint. Over all, we had a blast talking to the half-naked locals and taking pictures of dozens of them posing by the scenic river.

After leaving the ghat we walked through a flower market under and beside the bridge, stretching about 150 yards. Blake wondered why such poor people would need an entire market for flowers.***** He had a point. I have no idea. There certainly weren’t any tourists around here, though Camille did buy a whole pile of flower necklaces. There were huge heaps of dead flowers rotting just behind the stalls. I can’t imagine how these businesses survive.

As we were nearing the end of the flower market, we heard music blasting nearby. The flower market was a single lane, and on the inland side were a row of houses. The music was coming from a courtyard of one of these domiciles. We got closer and saw about twenty pink people dancing and laughing inside. At the opening, a couple of pink children were playing with lowers until they saw Camille. Two little girls ran over to us, grabbed Camille’s hands and dragged her into the courtyard. Blake and I followed.

For the people living there, I guess this was sort of the equivalent of Jay-Z, Beyonce, and Eminem showing up to a random house party.****** However much fun they were having before, they were certainly having a lot more now. They flipped out. A bunch of guys ran over to drag me and Blake into the dance area. They turned the music up even louder. Different men and women kept jumping around to dance with each of us. Everyone was jumping up and down, screaming at the top of their lungs in Bengali.

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Typical ghat scene

Then they brought out the paint. Blake and Camille were covered immediately. I resisted for about thirty seconds until I gave up and accepted my fate. I was soon drenched head to toe in yellow powder. Next came the purple and blue paint smeared all over my face. I continued to dance and the locals continued to flip the fuck out. One especially energetic younger guy ran up to me and asked me if I wanted a beer. I thought it would be impolite to refuse.

Two minutes later, Blake, Camille, and I were sat down at a table. The energetic guy washed some cups in a bucket filled with undoubtedly disgusting tap water and poured us some beer. I looked at the bottles and saw the alcohol content was a shocking 8%. We all drank a half glass and before I could say no they poured me another. Meanwhile, Blake had walked away and Camille had been pulled back by the little girls to dance. As I sat there with my second glass the energetic guy rambled at lighting speed in broken English about how I was now his brother and we were all family. He said that I could stay inside his house, drink his beer, eat his food, meet all of his friends. He almost couldn’t control himself. He asked where I was from. I told him America and it looked like I had made yet another Asian man’s wildest dreams come true.

The energetic kid said something about food and ran off to come back with some mushy, unidentifiable meat stuff which I politely declined. He ran off again and came back with some nowhere-near ripe bananas which I again declined. He insisted that I couldn’t drink on an empty stomach, but I held him off.

I finished my second drink and he immediately began pouring me a third. I thanked him but said I didn’t want it. Another member of “our family” walked over and insisted I have another. I thanked them again and refused. That’s when things got a bit uncomfortable. They would not relent. The other guy literally picked up the glass and shoved it in my face while I put up my arm and held him off. For a solid minute they repeatedly insisted that I drink while I got more and more stern in my refusal. I was getting dangerously close to the point of actually shoving the guy backwards when a woman came over and yelled at the guys. I got up and walked away.

We partied with the family for another twenty minutes until Blake said it was time to go. I later learned that a particularly drunk older guy had tried to steal his wallet. We thanked the family and they endlessly took turns hugging us. Twenty pink people followed us out the gate yelling with joy, and inviting us back for next Holi Day.

Can you imagine something like that happening anywhere in Europe or America? It wasn’t always pleasant or even good, but yet again I had a blast. I was pulled off the streets and brought into a random family’s house to be painted, dance, and have drinks.

It was a good day.


*Irfan: Did I read that right? There are no horses, dogs, or cats in upstate New York?

**Irfan: It also seems problematic for claims about Kali’s efficacy that the Temple’s website is down at the moment, which is why I had to get a rather lame picture of it from Wikipedia.

***Irfan: Matt’s behavior here is a living exemplification of Robert Nozick’s famous critique of the so-called principle of fairness in Anarchy, State, and Utopiapp. 90-95.

This principle holds that when a number of persons engage in a just, mutually advantageous, cooperative venture according to rules and thus restrain their liberty in ways necessary to yield advantages for all, those who have submitted to these restrictions have a right to similar acquiescence on the part of those who have benefited from their submission. Acceptance of benefits (even when this is not a giving of express or tacit undertaking to cooperate) is enough, according to the principle, to bind one. ….

[But] even if the principle could be formulated so that it was no longer open to objection, it would not serve to obviate the need for other persons’ consenting to cooperate and limit their own activities.

****Irfan: Named after Rabindranath Tagore, the East Indian poet.

*****Irfan: They’re used for ritual purposes.

******Irfan: I’m inferring that Matt represents Eminem in this analogy? I’m trying hard to picture this. Of course, picturing him as Jay-Z would be harder.

One thought on “Guest Post: A Passage to India, Calcutta Day 4 (by Matt Faherty)

  1. Pingback: Guest Post: A Passage to India, Lucknow (by Matt Faherty) | Policy of Truth

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