Leaving India. Even on the way to the airport on the bus, I was feeling ok with leaving and almost happy to be getting out of this crazy place. Then everyone on the bus was helpful, the women were dressed beautifully, and after disembarking I found that the official entrance to the airport is a crack in the wall, followed by a walk along a dirt track. I wandered past the last few tea stalls in the carpark, the last children wanting to know where I am from, then into an airconditioned departure hall. Suddenly, inside, there is no more chai, no more diversity in religion, ethnicity, transport modes and colours of clothing, and perhaps no more cheap good food. My skin crawled as I entered the clean white interior past glass-fronted shops, and I suddenly want to get back outside and rub myself in some Indian filth in the hope that it stuck with me.
But, I didn’t and continued in to the waiting area. I got there 3 hours ahead of my departure time, as suggested. But, there was one flight all night. And probably only about 80 people on that flight. But the system for processing us just did not work. There were no signs, and only when you got to one desk (or the seemingly optional security check) after 15 minutes of queueing would they tell you to go to another. There were more Indian staff than passengers, but it was a total debarcle with no love lost between the predominantly Chinese passengers and Indian staff. I would absolutely hate to be there when it was actually busy…
And then the flight was delayed by 6 hours. But no-one would tell us that publicly, only when we hunted them down to ask what was going on, and suggest that perhaps they should let everyone know. Planes are shit. I would forgive a beautiful old train for being that late, but not the plane…; )
Anyway, Kolkata. I actually was a bit scared about Kolkata as I had heard it was quite confronting. My trip, thus far, has been relaxed, low-key, not many tourists anywhere, and I never really got hassled or felt that confronted by what I saw/heard/felt. But, perhaps that is because traveling slowly is a bit more like being a frog being slowly warmed up, rather than thrown into boiling water so the unreal and surreal is never noticed as such.
Kolkata was as chilled as you like, and I absolutely loved it. There was poverty, but the whole place felt more proud, dignified and less hassly than even the small towns or the Buddha-blessed Bodhgaya.
Kolkata didn’t exist before the English decided to create it, and the colonial history was still there in the buildings and layout, but it was definitely India. The Victoria Memorial (a large white building standing above the grassy plains, beside the river) was actually a real highlight. I thought it was going to be crap – a testament to the horrors of colonialism. And, I think if I had not wandered through some hidden, unmarked doorways I could have missed the whole history of Kolkata, which was very very interesting. And, on the back of Vandana Shiva, Gandhi, Buddha, Arundahti Roy, and several othet activist / sustainability reads, it was a great source of anti-imperial energy for me ; )
What struck me most is the incredibly dense, complex, fast-moving and archetypal (as in, it must be the story of many colonies) nature of Kolkata’s development. The Victoria was filled with classic quotes from another era (I hope, but perhaps I haven’t read enough US-government press releases):
“We trust that the present occasion may tend to unite in bonds of closer affection ourselves and our subjects; that from the highest to the humblest all may feel that under our rule the great principles of liberty, equity and justice are secured to them; and that to promote their happiness to add to their prosperity and advance their welfare, are the ever-present aims and objects of our empire” [Queen Empress Victoria on assuming the title of empress in India 1877.]
Jeepers. I’m glad the English wanted the best for them, I would hate to see how many they would have let starve in the 1940s. Maybe 10 million, rather than just 2, would have perished in the streets of Kolkata as the English diverted resources to the war effort rather than let the Indian people eat?
Englishman Alexander Macrabie reported that he and his three friends had “110 servants for four men“, but even in his description it is clear the helpers hire helpers themselves e.g. “the coachmen had 5 horses and 12 helpers for no reason that I can learn” and “according to the cursed fashion of this idle country, has a further ten fellows to look after each of the horses“
James M – Travels in Europe and Asia 1771-81 similarly described in detail the typical day of a wealthy local who “makes no exertion, yet acquires a splendid fortune“. Everything is taken care of, from being washed and clothed to having different servants for fetching, welcoming and seating a guest. Not getting out of the house before ten, and having a massive supper at about 4!
But what was most exciting to me was reading about the battles over press censorship in 1789. That’s hundreds of years ago, and there was great civil debate and political wrangles thrown up by quality investigative and travel journalism that could all pass for the modern day. It made me think that anyone that suggests the modern, western, educated Homo Sapien is not capable of understanding difficult or complex political issues is only saying it because they want to keep the masses uninformed for their own purposes. We have been, it seems, capable of having complex debates about social justice, free trade, economics and media censorship and all manner of progressive issues for centuries.
So, another spur for me to champion local democratic processes, get back into staying abreast of current affairs, and get a bit more serious about learning more history!
My final, and more light-hearted quote from Kolkata is from the local newspaper. Under the headline ‘winter arrives’ it suggested: ‘the woolens can finally be taken out’ ‘ you may have felt it in your bones’ as the temperature dropped to…..15.7 degrees‘ (!!!) ‘this winter could be the most severe in a decade!’ [Is anyone in London reading this???]
I can not imagine what this place must be like in summer for woolens to be required when it hits 16 degrees. And I saw them – thermal underwear, woolen gloves and beanies. If you look closely at almost everyone in the photos in this post, you will see them too…