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THE LABYRINTH OF INDIA
by P Lindahl
There is most definitely something inexplicable about India, an atmosphere which is hard to define and yet unmistakably omnipresent. Already on the morning after a long nights flight as the plane is tearing through space over some alien south Asian desert, my wife Carina and I bump into a fellow passenger who being of Indian decent opens up conversation with such a directness that a North European would almost instinctively hold his breath. This Hindu man chats about this seemingly endless and anonymous stretch of sand below and it suddenly sinks in to me what great distances there are between his world and mine, between the subcontinent of India and northern Europe.
Some hours later we fall through the clouds like a leaf in the wind to land in Delhi, then bounce up again and dwindle down in Calcutta airport an hour later. They said it was a direct flight so I´m not too happy at all about this being so sensitive to the movements of the plane as it goes up into the air and down again. As McCartney sang in "Back in the USSR" about that paper bag on his knee, well I must certainly be giving the air stewardesses a hard time for all I´m worth!
Finally touching down at our destination, Calcutta´s international airport, are all these old men sitting writing down notes and performing mathematical staples in parched up, old log-books. No computers anywhere, just pencils and paper. And all the questions we have to answer! The name of my father and where he was born and will I refrain from seeking employment within my stay of this country? It´s obvious that English bureaucracy has rubbed off on the establishment and its officials! It´s a reminder of what once used to be in the heyday of the great British empire but sort of back to front. It´s almost like a cosmetic makeover to cover up for the inefficiency that seems to rule here, not that this causes us any problem happy as we are to finally get a breech from the meticulously overindulgent way of life and logical thinking in our own part of the world.
Most striking in this sense are the hand made signs cluttering the walls inside the terminal of which one sample tells us that "in case of a fire one is instructed not to create panic but rather to run around and shout fire on the top of ones voice!" That certainly doesn't make much sense to us but it does in a way provide us with that feeling of having left the west world mentality behind us. Now we are free atlast, a bit like Alice as she passed through the mirror, to look at our planet and all its splendour from a totally different perspective! This is the place to do it. This is the topsy turvy world of India!
INTO THE CITY
Immediately as we try to catch a cab into town we´re caught up in a painstaking game of haggling. The latest edition of the travellers bible (Lonely Planet) suggests at the most twenty-two roupies to be the standard rate for this route into the city but we are offered a ride for ten times the amount! Ending up somewhere just a bit lower than the first offer, we get inside the cab and make it down town.Later, as we close in on the city centre, entire cascades of polychromatic light bulbs hang over the walls of high story buildings and occasionally strange, intertwined ornamentations of fluorescent tubes drawn out in gaudy patterns confront us on the sidewalks. It´s hot and hard to breathe although it´s late at night. Incense fills the air along with numerous, unknown odours. There are people everywhere lying on the pavements or moving idly about as we pass from the taxi to our hostel. Rikshaw drivers drowsily say "hello" at us while slumped up on their vehicles or in front of hand drawn carts. We pass into our hotel and turn our backs on the world, at least until next morning. Jet lag gnaws at our bones. We've got to get some rest.
But where on earth is the city? Is this supposed to be Calcutta? For an hour or two it´s more like passing through a lot of interlinked little towns and shabby looking urban districts, along streets that are hardly more than beaten tracks or laden with gravel at the most. The air is humid and the night is dark, sparsely illuminated by dimly shining street lights, copper red in colour. We frequently pass people camped around fires that blaze right along side of the road. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of florescent tubes glowing in bright green colours and hanging disorderly up in the tree crowns which we pass by. They apper to have been thrown up there in any old manner, as long as it adds some light and colour!
NOTES FROM MY DIARY
6/ October 1997:
The rikshaw wallahs chase us ruthlessly around the place, almost as if we were of royal heritage! It´s so strange! We´re not more than insignificant lower middle class people back home or even that! And yet, these poor vendors see glory and riches in our very beings. They're tattered and worn, living right there in the filth and the grime, all of them pushing to get by, while we at least have newly washed clothes and a bunch of travellers checks in our luggage to get us where we want to go. For them it would have meant luxury to live in the quarters we have chosen even if it´s only a rock bottom hotel with rats, cockroaches and stained sheets. The air inside is hot and sticky, the fan spinning noisily around beneath the ceiling. It´s not exactly a Maharadja´s Inn but we at least have some sort of protection against the outside world and its virtues. All they have is the street with the pavement, the sewer like gutter and the waist and the litter.
After night fall we walked to the Eden gardens out on the huge plain of grass called the Maidan. Here dozens of fire flies scintillated in the darkness among the flower beds and shrubs, almost like little stars in the night. At last a bit of silence! The traffic surrounding the park is like the roar of an ocean in the distance. The wallahs, the vendors, the wild seething traffic and all the curious faces are far away in the distance. It´s just this welcoming silence and all these little hovering lights bobbing up and down among the bushes.
Once back in town we´re caught up in the madness again, tumbling head over heels down the Chowringhee road where the carbon monoxide perfume surrounds us once again. Battered old busses with far too many passengers pull right in out in the middle of the street, conductors hanging out from the side screaming out destinations at the top of their voices. They come in swarms, one after the other looking a bit like the school buses that picked me up each morning when I was a kid in West Australia, though more like they´d just passed through a war zone!
IN THE CENTRE
As we get nearer the centre we´re confronted with something which looks like trolleys but appearing more like old tin cans with hundreds of dents and buckles all over them. The conductors inside appear to have maintained that old imperial stiff upper lip. Maybe they have to exaggerate to keep their dignity in this decaying environment?
We move along streets which are packed beyond ones imagination. At one point, a gang of workers carrying sheets of corrugated steel move swiftly through the masses shouting some Bengalis words invoking it´s best to keep out of their way. The next moment we are piled together by a gang of woman beggars who while pressing themselves onto us from all sides at once try to empty Carina´s handbag. We nearly didn´t see that tattered girl slipping in from our left hand side. All we saw was her hand as she made a very swift plunge at us from behind this wall of straddling, pushing bodies.
These poor women often carry little children with them who in reality aren't their own biologically speaking. Rumours say that the Mafia supplies them with orphans to make it look a bit more convincing. A mother and a child would normally not impose any danger on the unsuspecting and why should they? Yes, it´s a mean way of going about it but necessity owns no law in a world like this where poverty reigns. Though even worse off are the one legged beggars who roam the streets in the midst of the traffic. On Sudder street where we live there is a little girl who runs after us clamouring for roupies, grabbing at us and getting in our way. The more we give her the more aggressive she becomes. It can just go on and on. Then when you least expect it, you´re surrounded by a dozen equally tattered and torn little children and begging women all working at your guilty conscience, which sooner or later is bound to either break down or recuperate as you get the hang of looking straight through people as if they don´t exist.
On the other hand, the paradox of this is that Calcutta must surely be the friendliest city we´ve ever been in. Young men walk up to us on the middle of a crowded pavement and greet us welcome to India with a firm handshake or ask us where we come from, what our names are and where we´re heading. Everybody wants to share a word with you, not necessarily for the task of ripping you off but because they´re simply delighted to meet with someone from the West. It´s the "city of joy", unbelievable as it seems, this huge, filthy place with its colonial architecture, its omnipresent smog and crumbling pieces of British empire.In our hotel there are several young men who apparently have immigrated from Bangladesh. The tenants (who run the place) tell us unpleasant things about these "peasants" and if we´re not careful we will inevitably get dragged into their little rows which seem to be going on almost for ever!
In the alley down below, dobhi wallahs do the laundry all through the hot sticky day crouched down by primitive devices or none at all. Sometimes there are shouting voices as somebody gets beaten up for not being obedient.The crows swarm in thousands on thousands and big, beautiful eagles circle up above. They must be hundreds up there encompassing Calcutta from skyline to skyline. I´ve never ever seen anything like this. It´s so amazing! Like having the jungle move right in with the traffic and the turmoil
of the city. Unbelievable!