Calcutta, land of the white buildings

Elliott’s small.We landed in Calcutta at Howrah station after a couple of days of travelling by train, and the first thing we did was drop of all our stuff at the cloakroom at Sealdah. The distance between the two stations is mere kilometres, but the taxi charged us Rs. 120 anyway. In any case, after we’d done all the formalities (you have to sign forms and stuff) and locked our luggage down tight with Suraj’s chain, we proceeded to explore the city. The area around Sealdah is full of buildings, old buildings. And they’re all either homeopathy ‘clinics’ or jewellery shops. The last time I’d visited Calcutta I was really small, so this trip sort of defined my image of Calcutta – Big white British buildings, lovely old crumbly buildings selling homeopathy medicines and jewellery, CITU students asking for donations to the party in exchange for putting a red flag on you, a beautiful subway rail with Soviet style paintings on the walls of the tunnels showing sportsmen, trams, and Bengali.

We’d arrived on the first of May, which is May Day or International Worker’s Day, so the Student’s wing of some Communist Party derivative or the other was at the station. Suraj gave them Rs. 20 and as a result, we were all given one little red CITU flag and a pin to pin it on our shirts. No wait, Suraj was forced to give them Rs. 20 after they pinned the flag on each of us. So anyway then we went on to look at the city in the four or so hours left to us before our next train left. We walked around a bit until we got to Kali Ghat, a temple which annoyed Bikram and Suraj to no end. Those peaceful hill dwellers were used to the spiritual temples you find in Sikkim, for example, and the whole commercial bit pissed Bikram off. We bought the goddess some flowers and went inside the temple with one hand on our wallets and the other trying to hold the stuff respectfully in front of us. After some crazy flower throwing business we got out all grumpy (except me, I’m sad to say I’ve already seen this bullshit at the Jaganath Puri temple and so I thought it was standard) and found, to our surprise, that our sandals were still where we’d left them. After some more handing over of money we were finally free. Maidan smallWord of advice: Don’t go there. Useless place. They don’t even let you see the temple, you have to go throw flowers. In any case, I’ve lost the photo roll that we took there, so no luck.

After that we went to Elliott’s park which is a pretty nice place, big lawn, birds flying down to that pond like place in the background. On the other side of Elliott’s there’s Maidan, which is this big field with people doing all sorts of stuff and with horses, lots of horses!
It was a rather nice place and we walked around a bit till we decided we’d go see St. Paul’s and the Victoria Memorial. At St. Paul’s we were ten minutes before visitor’s timings so we had to wait a bit. It took us that long to fit the new roll into the camera, but soon we were in. It’s a lovely building, simply beautiful and it’s very tall. Inside there was this big set of pews and every few rows there was a flag with one of the Indian provinces and their coat of arms (I saw Madras :) ). There were also lots of plaques for poor people who’d died one way or the other many decades ago. At the entrance, they’d turned Bishop Heber to stone and slightly down the way there was a board asking for donations to renovate the building (why? It looked poifect! Something about earthquakes). After that it was off to another big white building, the Victoria Memorial.

The Victoria Memorial was under renovation, sort of, when we got there (you can see that framework sort of thing on top). There was this funny guy at the gate. We asked him to take a photo of us and he said he didn’t want to cross the road just to take a photo, so we told him he didn’t need to, and then he was all happy. Inside, just at the entrance, the guard stopped me because I had my bag with me. He also asked me where I’d come from and was very disappointed when I said, “Madras, er Chennai.” Inside the Victoria Memorial, there were these lovely paintings by some guy called George «something», his paintings were really really nice, especially the ones depicting sailing boats in a storm on the Hooghly (I think.). Really good stuff. There were the usual rifles and artifacts, and one nice model of a ship. The Queen’s proclamations were on the walls in stone worked to look like scrolls. It had a dramatic effect, about the only good those British were good for. Right about now it was time to leave, so we took the subway to the station nearest Sealdah (I think it Central) and walked from there. Halfway to Sealdah, we tried hailing a taxi and he stopped, blocking a whole swathe of traffic and before we could ask for the price a cop chased him off. We walked the rest of the way and then waited for a long long while before we got our train.

The Subway:

This deserves its own section. It was wonderful, really fancy and modern, with escalators and central air-conditioning and those ticket checking machines you have to put your ticket through before it lets you pass. You aren’t allowed to take a photograph inside the metro stations, probably because their tubelights are of some exotic design. The trains are on time, which is to say they are right on time. Every train we took was there at the station just as the clock turned to that minute. That’s superbly efficient! If this government ever turns totalitarian, I can just imagine future historians saying, “But Buddhadeb made the trains run on time.” The paintings on the walls of the tunnels are the funniest. They seem to call on every person in Calcutta to feel pride in its skill at table tennis, football, wrestling, just about any sport, and all of that’s done in the style that you see on the walls of abandoned buildings in Chernobyl. Gives you a feeling, you know. A feeling.

The Slow Train to Calcutta

Remember when you were a kid, and the teachers used to tell you to write about “What you did this summer”. Of course you do, it was annoying. Anyway, that’s what I’m going to do. This summer I went to Sikkim, Kodaikanal and Ooty. I was supposed to go to Yercaud too, but unfortunately my experiment to cause a spacetime rift resulting in a duplicate of me occupying another place at the same time as me failed. To get to Gangtok we had to reach Calcutta Howrah and then take a train from Calcutta Sealdah to New Jalpaiguri (NJP). It took us a couple of days to get to Calcutta from Chennai Central, but fortunately we’d got tickets in the AC Three Tier coaches.

Inside the train. The train was quite comfortable, and the AC nearly managed to cope with the horrible heat. The cups in our hands once contained tomato soup, better known as ‘flaming lava that will burn your throat to a cinder’. Notice the view outside the window, it almost seems like a temperate landscape, except that it’s all due to the fact that our window alone (out of all the windows) was heavily tinted. Oh well, it preserved a nice feeling through the trip. Sharing that particular compartment were another family (a mother and two kids, one hyper active). The little boy kept stealing our pillows, and claiming that Bikram was intelligent but that I was not intelligent. His words, accompanied by a wagging finger. Thank you, boy, for your on-site instant IQ evaluation. I think the journey was two days. At this point in the trip I was thinking two days is a lot to be stuck on a train for. I mean, sure I’ve travelled by train lots but these multi-day journeys weren’t common. I wonder how Bikram, Suraj and I managed to stand each other for so long. Oh yeah, we didn’t.

Random station

Somewhere along the trip the train stopped for some 12-15 minutes at a tiny station. Wondering what was going on we stepped off on to the platform only to find that we couldn’t pronounce the name of the station. I can’t recall where it was now (in time or in space) and the only way that I can identify it is by mentioning that it had an odd platform which after a while (behind the camera in the shot) it did some strange things. To illustrate using ASCII, it went something like this:
=====\____/---- except smoother and without the extra parts sticking up above platform level.
Some drunk platform designer.

This photo also illustrates the difference between an Indian and a Nepali, Bikram the Indian is doing a “Ha ha, the train’s starting and you’re going to miss it.” while Suraj is telling me to get on. I’ll get you for that, Bikram! Also worth observing is that Bikram has an extra arm and leg of different complexion. It’s true, the stories about the campus hospital. I knew it! Anyway I did manage to get on (obviously!) because the train started surprisingly slowly. I wonder what would have happened if I’d missed the train. I don’t think I had enough money in my pockets to get to Calcutta (only some 300 rupees). That place was hot, as in the temperature there was higher than normal. I feel sorry for the poor souls who had to live there, it looked lost and lonely and there was a bulldozer in the background. Bulldozers are always a bad sign.

There were also a couple of middle-aged guys who got out of the train and went on rambling about something or the other. It was total rambling. I think they were Malayalis. That may explain it. Ramblers. And a fruit seller with only rotten plantains. It’s a conspiracy, you can get nothing but junk food and flaming tomato soup anywhere.

And because I can’t think of enough to fill up the rest. Here’s the other two photos from the trip.
1. At Vishakpatnam, where we paid for juice that tasted like crap and then threw it away. We nearly missed the train when it started because it went in the opposite direction. Hopeless!
2. The Mahanadi? Or the Godavari? No clue, in any case, it looked much more impressive in real life, like.

God damn you!

I know you, I know what you’re doing. I can feel you following me down the streets and up and down the rails on the train. I think I’ve seen you once or twice, both of you, and I will know the next time I have the luck to look upon your faces. Why do you track me? Why the eyes, always watching, always boring into the back of my head. You want my money, you can have it, I’m a poor college student, my bank account doesn’t even hit 5 figures. What is it you want then? Are you watching, waiting for a slip, a mistake which you’ll never let me forget, manipulating the courts to have me jailed? Why do that when you could just finish it now?

Or is it that you are as powerless as any other man, reduced to simply waiting because you’re too weak to do something yourself? Or are you waiting for the opportune moment, when something will seem like an accident, something which could happen to anyone, a little shove down the stairs maybe, or automatic doors whose sensors just seemed to fail? Maybe you’re looking over my shoulder this very second, reading the text that’ll disarm you, for what good is all your stealth if everyone knows how predictable you are. So be it then, they’ll all know, ha! We’ll all know, and then what good are you?

I know you…both, and I may be terrified, but there’s some things you’re just not going to take.