Kolkata. 18th February 2020.
Back in Kolkata I made my way to the rendezvous point that Saikat had given me. We hit it off straight away. It wasn’t far to where I was to stay, which was his mother-in-law’s apartment. She was away for a few days so I had some comfortable accommodation. There was safe parking for the bike too. We had some tea and chatted for a while. Saikat has a friend who lives in London, so he’s very interested in everything English and speaks the language very well. His friend says we’re nice, gentle people. No comment! He has a small company that carries out all kinds of work on websites. He’s also in the process of setting up a food delivery business. I’m constantly impressed by Indians’ entrepreneurship.
We went out on his bike, down to some food stalls, near a busy road junction. I met some of his friends and it’s clearly a local hang out. We had some Pani Puri. These are very light, hollow balls of batter which are then broken open and filled with meat and vegetables. They’re very popular and there’s usually a queue, waiting for the next batch to be cooked. They were very nice too. We came back via the beer shop, just managing to avoid the police crash helmet check. Yes, we weren’t wearing any! Hi wife, Moushna, came home and cooked us some very nice fish, veg and rice, served up quite late at about 10pm. As I’d discovered at Neel’s, this a common time for an evening meal, which probably explains the popularity of the Pani Puri as an early evening snack. A couple of beers each lubricated the conversation as we chatted on until 2am.
A good sleep, then a nice breakfast, before heading out on a marathon museum day. We got an Uber to the Indian Museum, which proved to be very good. I was amused by the display of fossils in the first section, all housed in wooden cases and display cabinets. They looked like they hadn’t been disturbed for fifty years, judging by the yellowing labels. I did like the skeletons of various elephantine animals too. Like re-reading a favourite book, I enjoyed the section on human evolution even though I’d seen similar at other museums. Other displays covered natural history, geology etc. A section that I really enjoyed covered some artefacts discovered at a temple site in Maharastra state (which includes Mumbai). Very highly decorated sections of sandstone walls and gates, covered in carvings of Buddhist themes, stories and legends. On some sections we could see the names of the sponsors of the carvings, scratched into the stone. No different to seeing photos and biographies of sponsors of modern day temples. Less interesting to me were the displays of pottery, cloth, coins and so on. Saikat said he’d last been there about twenty years ago, which probably would have been at the same age as the dozens of school kids that were running about.
The next place was the Victoria Memorial, built between 1916 and 1921 and dedicated to The Empress of India. It’s a fabulous building, designed by an Indian architect who was influenced by Moghul, Hindu and European designs. It has a large rotunda in the middle, and there’s a statue of Queen Victoria in the middle of the floor below it. There are wall panels below the roof, with murals on them, and we were able to go up to the gallery around the top. As well a display celebrating the craftsmen and workers who built it, there were some massive canvases, showing massive elephants, with massive egos riding on their backs. I found the most interesting display to be the one that told the story of Calcutta, from its early days as a Portuguese trading base, through to its time as the centre of British trade throughout their occupation of India. It retained that status even when the administrative capital moved to New Delhi in 1911.
Right, time for a bit of history. Calcutta (Kolkata since 2001), state capital of West Bengal, sits on the eastern bank of the Hooghly River and is India’s sixth largest city but its third largest urban area. It was originally three villages but became a trading post of the British East India Company in 1690. They built Fort William in 1712 to protect their trading factory against raids from the French. Over the years the British gave less and less regard to the local Nawab, ignoring his taxation demands. They reinforced the fort, against the wishes of the Nawab and he attacked and occupied it in 1756. Around 140 prisoners were squashed into a very small dungeon in the basement. By the morning only 23 were left alive. They suffocated in the extreme heat and very cramped conditions. This room was known as the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta. Within six months British forces had recaptured the fort and by 1765 had become the official tax collectors of Bengal province’s Mughal emperor. The city became the headquarters of the company in 1773. The Nawabs continued to rule the province but their position was abolished in 1793. The East India Company reigned supreme.
Between 1797 and 1805 the marsh land by the river was drained and the colonial area of the city that I visited was constructed. Industrialisation increased, as did artistic activity. The fusion of British and Indian culture led to an Indian middle class which was well educated and able to provide the skill that helped the trading activities of the company, and then the bureaucratic needs of the British Raj. Education was a key investment. In 1905 Bengal was partitioned along religious lines, leading to much political agitation. That action was reversed in 1911 but the agitation, along with the city’s troublesome geographic location – it was prone to damaging cyclones – led to the decision to move British India’s capital to New Delhi. Calcutta was at the heart of India’s independence movement too. Following partition in 1947 the city suffered, struggling to deal with the influx of Hindu refugees from East Bengal, as well as those who fled the Bangladeshi war of Independence. It lies only 75kms from the border. West Bengal had an elected communist government from 1977 until 2011, a very unusual situation. The modern city’s renaissance has been driven by its growth as an IT centre, as well as increased industrialisation. As usual, much more information is here.
Next day, and much to Saikat’s surprise I decided to walk down to the Science Park. I’m not sure whether he was surprised at someone my age being happy to walk that far, or just at the idea of walking at all. But it was only forty minutes away. He wasn’t aware of my previous twenty kilometre stroll. The science park has a main exhibition centre and various side attractions, requiring extra entry fees. I was pleased to see they sold a combination ticket, and then immediately annoyed to find that one of the attractions was closed so the combo ticket wasn’t on sale. Then I became happy again while looking at the schedule because I realised that the English versions of these extra events had been that morning and they were now all in Hindi. So they’d done me a favour in the end.
The main section was about India’s science history. It traced developments back about 9,000 years, when it’s believed that India’s first farming communities were developed in NW India and what is now Pakistan. They’ve been at the forefront of science and technology throughout the centuries. In was Indian mathematicians that first thought of the idea of a zero. Today, everything we know and use hinges on this digit. In the middle of the last millennium their ships were far bigger than anything seen in Europe. Their medicine and surgery techniques were also very well advanced.
The next interesting section included displays on how 4G technology works, and about how solid state storage works too. It seems that nano storage is the coming thing, where one bit of data can be stored on material of only twelve molecules in size. That’s hard to imagine so I gave up trying. There was another technology section which covered things I’d pretty much all seen before, such as optical illusions, gravity and so on. All in all well worth the forty minute walk each way.
On the way back I went down a street that was filled with ramshackle buildings, about big enough for a family to sleep in, but that was all. The rest of daily life took place on the pavement; cooking, washing themselves and their clothes at public water outlets etc. There were toilet blocks every so often. A level above the homeless people I’d seen elsewhere, but not by a lot.
Saikat’s mother-in-law was due to come back so I needed to move to a hotel. We went and looked at some but they weren’t much good. We ended up at one I’d found on the internet. A little dearer than I like to pay but it was nice enough and had secure parking. When it came to moving time …. I couldn’t. The bike wouldn’t start as the battery was dead flat. I started it with my jumper pack and checked the charging system, discovering that the regulator wasn’t working. It was only three months old. Saikat took the battery away to get it charged, so there was nothing to do but wait around. We got to the hotel eventually. Rather than order a new one from CCM I decided I’d get a second hand one and do whatever was required to make it fit. They all work in the same way, it was just the wiring that would need altering. Saikat came over later and brought his brother -in-law with him. We got stuck into more beer and had a great evening. When he learned my age he kept telling me how strong I was, something that often happens, and always amuses me. It would be very rare for almost anyone from Asia to be doing what I do at my age but, as I always point out, that’s because life is much harsher here and people simply wear out more quickly.
Next morning I did more checks on the bike, including testing the wiring, and when I started it up, everything was working again. That was good news. How long will it last? Who knows, but I’m not going to worry about a problem that isn’t there any more. It seemed to be a wiring fault rather than the regulator. But I had some other problems with the mess of wires behind the headlight. I needed some connectors to make a decent repair. Saikat had told me of an area that was full of bike shops, so I walked down there. I managed to walk half an hour it the wrong direction at first – stupid and annoying. I wandered around from shop to shop, but nobody had any 12 volt wiring accessories at all. Even shops that sold wire didn’t have any. Next to the bike shop area was another section which was full of electrical wholesalers, but they didn’t have any either. In the end I managed to buy some strip connectors. Not what I wanted, but they would do. While walking around I saw lots of shops selling second hand bits and pieces, and also workshops where there were guys stripping down old electrical machinery and rewinding the copper wire inside. Very little gets thrown away in this part of the world. If it’s repairable, it gets repaired.
I tackled the wiring the next day. It’s always a fiddly job, and the lack of room behind the headlight sometimes lead to the situation where I broke one wire while fixing another. But I’m nothing if not determined, and eventually all was right. A few other minor jobs were done as well.
Over the next few days I visited more interesting places. First was the Park Street South cemetery. A fascinating place, full of massive British egos, and the monuments that were built when they died. Labour and materials were very cheap and they took advantage. The cemetery is unusual in that it has no church because that was destroyed in a battle with the Nawab. It was opened in 1767 and was only used for about seventy years. It was quite a long way from the city at that time. The infoboard said that people typically only lasted for a span of ‘two monsoons’, meaning two years. The tropical diseases tended to finish them off very quickly. The dates on the memorials bore this out, and many of them were only in their twenties. While walking around I saw plenty of couples sitting here and there who would, mysteriously, move a metre or so apart as I approached.
There was a Royal Enfield showroom nearby so I called in to make enquiries. I was given coffee and had a nice chat with the salesman, asking him about various aspects of the bike, the price etc. He was just as interested in my bike, in fact. Later on I stopped at another showroom, just to get different points of view. It was here that I was told that in order to have a new bike put into my name, I needed to be registered at an Indian address. When I mentioned this to Saikat later, he said could easily arrange the documentation for me. The plan was evolving nicely.
Next was a memorial column called Shaheed Minar. It had been built by the British but in 1969 had been rededicated as a memorial to all the martyrs who died fighting for independence. It was a popular place for people taking their lunch break. On the way there I was stopped at some traffic lights and got waved over by a policeman. I was worried because I had no passport or bike documents with me. But all he wanted to do was talk about the bike. He’d been to London and wanted to know how I’d got to India. I got off my bike and suggested he sit on it for some photos, which he was delighted to do. Then I sat on his, just to make it fair, and also took photos. That was one of those nice little incidents that can never be planned.
Next visit was to Daksineshwar Kali Temple. On the way there I stopped at a stall for chai and biscuits. I chatted with the people there. They asked my age and one guy’s jaw dropped open and he stared at me for a good two minutes. I felt like an alien! At the temple, not only did I have to take off my boots and put them in a locker room, which is pretty normal, but I also had to deposit my phone. No photos allowed, which is really annoying at such a beautiful building. There was a very long queue to get into the main shrine so I walked around the grounds and peered into the smaller shrines, along the river bank. It’s common for people to bring flowers to temples, marigolds being the most common. They get placed at the feet of idols etc. The counterpoint to that was the guy I saw with broom, shovel and barrow who was walking around clearing up the unholy mess they always turn into as they get trodden into the ground. It was built in 1855 and is dedicated to the goddess Kali, Lord Shiva’s companion.
Across the river now, to visit Belur Math. This was a temple complex, built in the 20th century, which had a main building, with several smaller ones in the extensive grounds. I was very impressed by a carefully designed floral garden, which looked very colourful. It was being prepared for an upcoming festival. It was a pleasant place to walk around, overlooking the river. It’s dedicated to the Ramakrishna Movement. The temple is notable for its architecture that fuses Christian, Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist art motifs as a symbol of unity of all religions. As with many of these temples, there was no entry fee, although all the people visiting the shrines would have made donations.
The journey back to the hostel was a nightmare. I crossed the Howrah bridge but missed the turn off on the other side, so had to turn round, go back over it, turn round again and recross. I mean, it’s a nice bridge and all, but three crossings is rather more than I wanted in the evening rush hour. But this time I went the right way. So, plain sailing back to the hostel now? Oh no! I’d discovered something when I went to the cemetery earlier, which is that Kolkata happily reverses the direction of its wide, one way streets to suit traffic flow. And this is exactly what I rode into now. My GPS kept sending me into streets which were full of vehicles all coming toward me. It didn’t seem to matter which one of the several choices I chose, the situation was the same. My phone battery was flat, otherwise I would have used Google maps, which probably would have live information. But my GPS, with its maps on a memory card didn’t have a chance.
Eventually, after much fun forcing my way down narrow back streets, I came to a wide road and followed a car and a bus up it, glad, at last, that things were going my way. After a couple of hundred metres I got stopped by a policeman and we had a conversation of the “what do you think you’re up to, sonny” variety. It seemed that buses could go against the traffic and the car was an official one. He gave me directions down a side street and assured me I’d find a route in the end. While this was going on a small crowd had gathered to watch. In my frustration I turned on them and, using some very industrial language, told them where to go. They moved off, encouraged by a similar message from the policeman. I made it back in the end, of course. The star of the show was the bike, which handled all the heat and traffic with far more aplomb than I could ever manage.
After a much needed morning off off, I ventured out to visit the College Street Coffee House. There’s four hundred of them around India, run by the coffee growers co-operatives. This one started out as Albert Hall, 1n 1876, and becams a Coffee House in 1942. They’ve long been meeting places for people such as artistes, writers, journalists, students, politicians – especially agitators – and, generally, the chattering classes. It’s located in the university area and its entrance is surrounded by stalls and shops selling books of every kind. There’s a large room, up on the first floor, filled with small tables. The waiters wear smart uniforms and offer a limited menu of snacks and drinks. Looking round the room while enjoying my coffee and toast it was easy to imagine busy tables with people arguing and discussing the affairs of the day, in a smoke filled and noisy room. The kind of place where revolutions, big and small, are birthed. Over the years it hosted many of India’s famous and radical poets and literary figures. It seemed to me that their ghosts hung around the tables and their ideas seeped out of the walls.
On a more mundane level I visited Khaligat Temple, and came away unimpressed. The buildings are nice, but not spectacular, and it’s crowded in by the surrounding urban area, so isn’t very big. It used to sit on the Hooghly River, which has since moved away, and Kalighat is the village that Kolkata was named from, or so it’s reckoned. It’s a very important place within this particular branch of Hinduism, which worships Kali. A guy showed me around and pointed out the main shrine, far too special for me to be allowed to photograph. He also showed me a couple of altars, where they sacrifice animals. A large one for the annual buffalo slaughter, and a smaller one for the weekly goat killing. It’s the first time I’d come across this and was something that I thought a modern country like India would have left behind a long time ago.
Right, time for a bit of an explanation on Hinduism. Don’t worry, it won’t be a long one. After all, you could read a dozen books on the subject and still not cover it all. It’s been around for over 2,500 years and is really an amalgam of many local beliefs which all share the same central themes. In many ways, as with Buddhism, it’s a way of life as much as anything else. The core beliefs are: the proper goals or aims of human life, namely Dharma (ethics/duties); Artha (prosperity/work); Kama (desires/passions) and Moksha (liberation/freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth/salvation); karma (action, intent and consequences); Samsra (cycle of death and rebirth), and the various Yogas (paths or practices to attain moksha). There are many similarities with Buddhism in their beliefs about how to live life, and it wasn’t until Buddhism declined, in the middle ages, that Hindu beliefs coalesced into more of a unified religion. Some of this was driven by the occupation of India by the Mughals (Muslims). Many adherents don’t even see it as a religion at all. There are many books, many teachers and many ways to worship. Equally, there are many Hindu gods, or spirits, allegiance to whom is often based on local traditions. They are all subservient to Brahmin, who is seen as the essentials spirit of all living things. Although there are celebrations that all Hindus share, such as Diwali, there are also many local ones too. OK, that’s a quick overview for you. Looking this up has helped me to understand why I see so many temples whose themes vary so much. And also why there’s so many little shrines, all with different idols in them. As ever, there’s lots more information here.
The final visit of the day was to a bike accessory shop owned by Akash, one of the people who’d contacted me, wanting to meet. He has two shops and we met at his small one, out in the south of the city. He made me feel very welcome and when he shut the shop we went down to the local tea stall, where they all hang out. On the way we stopped at a bike shop where he got them to replace a couple of missing bolts for me. What quickly became clear is that there’s hundreds, at least, of small groups of bikers who meet up to socialise and go for rides. They’re very keen to meet foreign riders and will help out in ay way they can. Being made so welcome is a great feeling. Hanging around at tea stalls and cafés takes me back to my youth, when I first started to ride bikes. One of the guys had a Himalayan, so we spent ages chatting and looking at his bike. He said he could arrange an official Indian address for me too, and I came away with the decision made to buy one of these bikes. Akash gave me a ‘gift pack’ of some key rings, stickers and bike cleaning material too. A great meeting with new friends.
After my last experience of crossing the city in rush hour, I worked out a different way back. I still had one way street issues, but nothing like as bad. At one point I came upon a small supermarket, a fairly rare thing in India. I walked round with my basket, very closely followed by and toothless old fella who’d clearly been detailed to keep an eye on me. This is not so uncommon in Asia, where there will always be someone watching you, but not normally with quite so much attention. At the till I had a little moan to the woman about it, but when I left I shook the old fella’s hand and thanked him for all his help. Of course, he didn’t understand a word and sarcasm can’t really cross a language barrier either.
After a mostly lazy day I met up with Saikat in the evening and he showed me his business premises and introduced me to his business partner. They have a team of people who send emails to potential customers in most English speaking countries, looking for business. We walked down to the food area we’d been to before and enjoyed more street food of various kinds. These offerings are invariably deep fried, usually involve batter and are therefore very unhealthy. But they usually taste delicious, so I don’t care.
Saikat wanted to show me the football stadium so we walked down there and managed to talk our way into the grounds. It looks to be quite new and is absolutely massive. Unlike the rest of India, where cricket is the main sport, West Bengalis much prefer football. The Vivekanande Yuba Stadium, also known as the Salt Lake Stadium. Used to be the worlds second largest, with a seating capacity of 150,000. Since refurbishment, and becoming a multi purpose stadium, it now only seats 85,000. It’s India’s national stadium and has hosted many international competitions, as well as hosting two local clubs. It’s a pretty impressive place!
Saikat came over the next morning to wave me goodbye. He’d been a great host and I’d enjoyed his company very much indeed. Kolkata had been a great place to stay in and to visit. Easy enough to get to tourist places, even if it wasn’t always so easy to get back again. I hope to visit again sometime before leaving India.