Landing at Howrah train terminus, we knew we’d arrived in a city we would love. First of all, there’s a really clean coffee shop in the station, where you can sit down, eat something good, and think about what you’re going to do next. After twenty two hours on a train, it’s welcome, believe me.
We crossed the Hooghly river in a prepaid taxi (cheaper than bargaining outside, we learned), and set off to discover.
Kolkota is very different to Mumbai or Dehli. There’s a kind of groovy atmosphere drifting in the old alleys, filthy as ever, but full of West Bengal air, and a joy to explore. Former home to Mother Teresa, Rabindranath Tagore, Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, and many more people who’ve inspired me, this place is infused with the kind of spirit a writer can really feel in the bones. Best of all, you can zoot around the place on the Metro or city busses for Rs.4 – it’s truly a budget friendly kind of place. Here we discovered Heaven, Hell and Rock ‘n Roll.
At Hogg Market down Sudder street there’s a huge covered marketplace, offering all kinds of things: Cheap clothes and bags, materials, carpets, food, spices, and then, of course “fresh” meat.
The meat market is a slice out of Hell.
Less than three metres from a chopping block you’ll find an encrusted urinal. The stench throughout the vast, gloomy hall is formidable; the kind of stink that grabs you by the nostrils and tries to throw you out. It was a challenging photo shoot. Bloody Hessian bags are stuffed with bones. Skulls hang from rafters, peering, eyeless, into the foul void. Flimsy plastic sheets attempt to keep the crow *droppings* from the chopping tables – why bother? The mangy black rascals swoop down anyway, given half a chance. I’m convinced that dark legions of rats crawl over every surface a night, cleaning up whatever is left over. Surprisingly, there are no pools of blood anywhere – presumably the niche in the ecosystem for something unnameable.
Chop and slice. A gloomy man beheads basketfuls of chickens while sitting spread-eagle on the dirty floor, leaving bloody streaks across his forehead as he wipes away the sweat.
Insanely, we noticed someone taking a nap in there. I suppose one can get used to just about anything. Thankfully, we had been on a vegetarian diet since Mumbai, but after this, there was just no chance of trying a little meat.
On the other extreme, a little way across the city near the banks of the Hooghly, we found the Howrah Flower Market. This is more like Heaven.
We crossed a steel footbridge from the main street, and were greeted with a most pleasant odour. Hundreds of flower vendors line the crowded alleys displaying their wares in baskets, smiling, laughing and bargaining. Orange is the dominant colour, but there’s yellow, white, sprinkles of rose, and even blue. Some are on strings, like rosaries, some just bought by the handful, and some artfully arranged. Everywhere along the market streets you walk along on a bed of cut stalks, and a million sweet fragrances fill the air. Where do so many flowers come from?
The people here don’t seem to belong to the same universe as the ones at the meat market, let alone the same city. I guess there’s a lesson in that, somewhere, but damned if I’m going to spell it out. I bought Nicci a single rose, and we went on our way.
Nightlife in Kolkota is a mixed bag.
Between our backpacker’s lodgings in Chowringhee and the popular Park street area, we noticed a lot of people living (to use a euphemism) on the streets. We could see tell-tale needle tracks on many arms, and the far-away look in the eyes of the souls accustomed to wandering the lands of the gods. Meanwhile a skin-and-bones Rickshaw man pulls two fat Americans down the road…
But the food, great book stores and street life drew us in. We stumbled upon a pub that advertised live music, so we went to check it out. I would recommend any weary traveller who finds himself in this city to visit “Someplace Else”. It’s a British style pub, with an Indian twist. Though it’s going to put a dent in your wallet, if your budget is like ours, it’s definitely worth every Rupee. We were treated to some incredible music, care of a band called “KrossWindz” (I think). Indian music is incredible. The sense of improvisation on a theme, the mystical airs of devotion and spice, woven into musical phrases that evoke the higher states. But after a while, our ears, long since tuned to Western vibrations, longed for the familiar. That night we were blown away by some top class Kolkota Rock ‘n Roll. Who would have thought Classic Rock would find such an appreciative audience in a place like this. You live and learn.
We stumbled out in the wee hours, happy and alive, and drank in the agreeable Kolkota air.
All in all we spent three or four days in Kolkota, but given the chance I’d go back in a heartbeat. Our hearts were set on the mountains though, so we found out the best way to get to Darjeeling.
Thanks again to those of you who are faithfully following this story. I hope you’re getting a taste for travel, for introspection and for life. Stay tuned for the next instalment, Darjeeling.