Thursday, October 8, 2009

Oh Calcutta!

I went to Calcutta earlier this week to take my Rural Development exam – the least said about that the better - but I also had time to explore the place and, although I didn't do much traditional sight seeing, I loved it mainly because it felt strangely familiar. The shops are on the streets, as opposed to concentrated in shopping malls, giving it a much more European feel and, like London, it has a metro system making it much easier to get around – the Oxford Book store's on Park Street – great that's two stops from where I'm staying; meet me at Blue and Beyond bar in Esplanade – three stops. OK, when you get there the tourist map proves pretty useless because none of the streets are named and asking for directions is a hit and miss affair – you're confidently pointed in a direction but it's rarely the direction you actually need to go. Calcutta also reminded of New York – a combination of the yellow taxis and the multi-lane one-way system with the movement of traffic and pedestrians dictated by the changing of the traffic lights - I found myself marching to it's rhythm in much the same way as I do when walking up, say, Madison Avenue. Despite the familiarity, Calcutta is still very definitely Indian. The streets are lined with chai-wallahs, fast-food stalls, beggars, saffron clad priests and the general chaos that you experience everywhere else in the country is exacerbated by the one-way system changing direction at 3pm so buses and cars, who have started out going the right way, suddenly find themselves driving against the prevailing traffic causing the inevitable bedlam … every day. Exotic, mad yet familiar – I revelled in it.

One of my jobs in Calcutta was to buy batik printing supplies for one of the projects Antodaya is running, so I found myself in a wonderfully, old-fashioned art shop - chaotically run by three elderly gentlemen, it contained all those pastels, easels, hand made paper etc that I still childishly crave despite knowing that my skills in the drawing department don't merit them. I had to wait a couple of hours for the order to be compiled so I continued my aimless wandering but on the way back I decided to take a hand-pulled rickshaw – Calcutta being one of the last places in India to have them. I did feel slightly uncomfortable about the experience but it was also lovely to sit above the crowd and move at a speed that allowed a leisurely look at the architecture. I'm not sure I'd do it again, however, not least because having paid him handsomely (partly to assuage my guilt), I found I had been deposited further from my destination than I'd started from. My final dabble with Indian service was engaging a couple of porters at Howrah Station to carry all the batik supplies to the train. Although I was massively fleeced … again! … I rather enjoyed trailing behind them - majestically clad in red and with my luggage precariously balanced on their heads - they expertly ploughed their way through the crowd to the exact spot on the platform where my carriage would stop and, after a quick cup of tea served in terracotta cups, they escorted me to my seat and stowed my luggage beneath it. After an exhausting two days and it was nice to have someone else to, quite literally, carry the load.

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