Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Oh Calcutta!

Howrah Hotel Photo ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

My first visit to India left many impressions, some physical, most mental. I wouldn't dare judge all of India from this one short visit to Calcutta but I must admit it shocked me a bit (sorry I am too old to make Kolkata stick in my mind). Such colors, smells and chaos, abysmal poverty, absolutely noxious exhaust fumes, uplifting beauty, wobbly heads, sweet smiles and nasty stomach problems - even Fellini couldn’t have dreamt you up. Calcutta was like a city long forgotten, an architectural Miss Havisham in a state of utter decay.

We arrived in the middle of the night on a China Eastern flight from Kunming and were driven to our hotel in a canary yellow Ambassador taxi. The Ambassador is like an old Volvo Amazon, shaped like a Glyptodon and the very personification of the Swedish slang word for a taxi (bulle). It drives like a tank and the engine get’s so hot you could fry an egg on the car dashboard. How Indian driver’s survive day in and day out inside these taxis during the height of the hot season is a mystery to me. Every ride with an Ambassador turned out to be a vehicular adventure-nightmare, juggling for position in the totally erratic traffic, racing alongside rickshaws (both bicycle and human), motorcyclists, scooters, food carts, enormous loads seemingly carried only by two human legs, cows and towering, monster Tata public buses, grinding their gears, revving their motors and belching out carcinogenic, nasty black fumes, ready at any moment to eat you up and spit you out onto the filthy pavement only to find yourself crushed under the total mayhem that is everyday life in this city.

I loved these taxis, cheap and so close to street level, where riotous scenes flashed by my window in an endless horror show of urban humanity: people bathing in water from overflowing pipes and storm drains, the water brown with filth from the human waste deposited directly into those very gutters. Squatter's slums and roadside chai stands and colorful sweet shops. The chaotic advertising and wonderful English in the newspapers, ”The Hurly Burly Gift Shop”, ”Frank Ross Pharmacy, Serving Humanity for 100 years”, ”We regret to announce the demise of Mr Aravind Muckerjee who has now gone to his heavenly abode”. The back’s of public buses with their handpainted signs: Please Honk! or My India is Great! Women in beautiful saris and salwar kameezes, made out of cloth the color of every butterfly species known to man. But of course, the fumes coming through the window of an Ambassador could bring down an elephant.

We stayed on a floating hotel on the Hooghly River (”inventively” named The Floatel) and then on the return journey in a much more downmarket dive called The Howrah Hotel, promptly renamed The House of Horrors. The HH is situated on the other side of the Hooghly by the train station and has been around for over 100 years. Several Bollywood films have been made at the hotel which does have quite a dramatic air to it - albeit a musty, crumbling air. (The local West Bengali variety of Indian movies are called Tollywood as they are made in the Tollygunge area of the city. This is of course the home of film director Satyajit Ray.) A faded picture of India’s most well-known actor, Amitabh Bachchan, was pasted to the wall, photographed in the courtyard of the hotel. The hotel must once have been quite magnificent but today it is both a boarding house (never a good sign, men in dirty singlets and dhotis lounging about, staring at you or into space) and a hotel. We got the ”fanciest” room for about 100 yuan/sek for four people. That price says it all, you can imagine what the room looked like. But we did survive the night with no problems and no bedbugs (which Burton had gotten at the fancy-smanchy Floatel). Emy laughingly pointed out the ancient ”Suggestion Box” in the lobby and wondered if we had enough time to write down all that we thought of the place. The HH did have lovely floor tiles though….

I read several books I will gladly recommend during my two-week stay in India:

Indien, elefanten som började dansa, Per J Andersson
Karma Cola, Gita Mehta
The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga, (just won the Man Booker Prize 2008!)
City of Djinns, William Dalrymple (about Dehli actually, not Calcutta)

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