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Cornwall to Calcutta and a Quick escape to Shantiniketan.
The overnight train from Cornwall to London is great! It has a slightly old fashioned feel to it, with a bar and attentive staff in a carriage set aside for passengers in sleeper class. I half expected Miss Marple to be sitting quietly knitting, drinking tea and watching.
This is an effortless, comfortable way to get to London and a great start to an adventure; I talked to a woman who was flying to the Grand Cayman Islands to tend her dying father who had retired there years ago and now she is on a journey to an island paradise for a very sad reason.
Tucked up in my sleeping compartment, where linen, towels and even toothpaste await the guest, I even got a few hours sleep before the hurly-burly of Paddington to Heathrow and the new terminal 5.
After a smooth 9 hour flight surrounded by Indian software engineers, and with very edible veggie food and plenty of orange juice courtesy of BA, we touched down in Calcutta on time at 1.15am and I cleared immigration and changed £300 for 21000R. I got a rattletrap prepaid taxi into the city and found a hotel still open at nearly 3am! It was not even in the running as a good choice, being too expensive at 2900R (£41) but needs must at 3am! – I have since been told that what I did was ‘unwise’.
Calcutta and a quick escape
The hotel turned out to be fine inside albeit with an off putting exterior, encased with tarpaulin and bamboo scaffold poles. But next day I checked out at 8.30am and took the 10.10 train from the giant Howrah station bound for Shantiniketan (2.5 hours) and found a reasonable hotel (Hotel Shantiniketan) for 400R £5.70 per night with a indifferent restaurant downstairs (breakfast 30p, dinner about 90p and great spiced black tea at 7p a glass!). I will stay until Monday, when I will return with recharged batteries to face Calcutta which seems to be extremely full on!
One of the main set of pictures I want to do is in Calcutta so I will have to bite the bullet. I am not a city person and Calcutta is quite a city!
Exit stage left to Shantiniketan!
Thoughts on Shantiniketan
Exploring Shantiniketan, first by cycle rickshaw to get my bearings and then walking I have got some quite reasonable shots. A street sculptor was making four foot high Kali statues out of clay over a straw filling.
I have been twice to Visva-Bharati, Rabindranath Tagore’s campus. The present Campus houses a University specialising in art and design, and drawing students from India, the Near and Far East. Around the campus there are Tagore’s famous Open Air Classrooms, where students sit under tall trees in a circle with their teachers. There are also schools for younger day and boarding pupils. The campus itself has a few good rules, a lot of it is off limits to powered vehicles and it is a plastics free zone. Walking around, there are many sculptures and other artworks such as 3D reliefs and mosaics, some done by professional artists decades ago and some new pieces by students. Some of the campus buildings are now a bit dilapidated, but there is an ongoing program of renovation. I noticed a new thatched roof going up, carpenters making doors and a team of builders that included women in very colourful saris and headscarves apparently laying a clay floor for an outside teaching area with their bare hands.
The town seems friendly, and benefits well from the Tagore connection with visiting coaches of Indian tourists; but like everywhere in India, it is busy with traffic. The more so because of road works in the main street, where a large road roller was causing quite a tailback of hooting buses, lorries taxis, cars and cycle rickshaws.
Typical of India, road rolling is a game that all the family can play. Dad was driving, up in his cab, whilst pretty wife and daughter kept the roller clean of sticky tarmac bits with cloths soaked in paraffin. Both wore only flip-flops, their toe ringed feet inches away from, Kali knows how many tons of steel roller, as dad rolled forward and backwards. What health and safety rules? I can’t see any.
It already seems much longer than 6 days since I put the van away in its secure lockup back in Cornwall.
I enjoyed today – after sending the above to friends and family in an internet room with rickety computers that wouldn’t attach pictures – the network expired with many groans from the other users, just as I had looked at the forecast back in the UK and Normandy and noticed low temperatures for Wednesday next -4 on the Caen page. Maybe my friends have already cranked up the central heating. Reading the online Guardian and the Archers update will have to wait.
I went to the campus again, got some more shots and watched a group of students rehearsing a Gujarati folk dance with live music – when I talked to the teacher afterwards, I was told that it was an extra-curricular performance piece for an upcoming festival. There were 4 male and 4 female dancers two drummers, a sort of loud horn thingy and a talented young man playing a traditional wooden flute. He obliged me with a repeat of his solo and very good it was. It will be an excellent piece when they get everything right. The girl dancers were having a go at the musicians about bad timing.
The West Bengalis in the town seem to be a friendly bunch, though the cycle rickshaw blokes find it incomprehensible (and probably quite annoying), that I tend to walk everywhere.
The sculptor on the road into town has got on with his clay models, Kali now has a pretty face, hands/feet, skull necklace and chopped off human arms to protect her modesty. I will be gone by the time he paints her black and colours in her red tongue! He is a very skilled man.
November 2016 – Going through the Rawfiles, I couldn’t resist adding these three images of the campus.
I met an artist who lives downstairs from his gallery on the campus, he must be quite old. There were photos of him with Tagore and Nehru and copies of his work that had appeared in Time Magazine. All the originals were on the walls. They were very good indeed – portraits including Tagore, landscapes and paintings of the buildings on the campus, mezzotints, pastels and life drawings in pencil. Prof. Selim Munshi is a lively interesting and friendly old chap. I told him about the upcoming closure of Dartington College of Art (he had met the Elmhursts on a few occasions).
I have been having tea at the hotel with a couple of chaps from Calcutta. An ex Indian air force pilot who is 65 with health issues and his friend a much younger man of Mauritian extraction. We are going back on Monday on the same train to Calcutta and Eugene the younger chap is going to help get a good rate in a hotel that he knows in Sudder St. Very central. On suite and 400R (£5.70) a night! – I’ll believe it when I see it.
I really like the campus at Visva Bharati university. Some of the teacher’s houses are super and the gardens around them are colourfully verdant. I would swap a teaching job in the UK for one at Shantiniketan any day. And the girl students are absolutely stunning in their saris especially on their bicycles! – Naughty Troll – I had a chai with two fine art students (male) from Iran. I was able to give them some facts about Dartington and the Elmhurst/Tagore connection that they didn’t know.
I had lunch at a dhabar for a pound, with a load of Calcutta coach tourists who were fascinated that I used a spoon and not my fingers to eat. Better than the hotel food – more spice!
After breakfast ‘the Captain’, Eugene and myself arranged 2 cycle rickshaws and set off – first to the temple in the main street, where PK (Captain) prostrated himself before the deities (I didn’t recognise them) and received a talik on his forehead and the priest beckoned to me so I did the same and got a talik and a handful of water and a sprinkling of sugar! So for the rest of the day I have been a Hindu impersonator. PK told me the deities were Laxmi/Nirian who are a form of Krishna and Radha (or as my spellchecker says Rhoda!).
The rickshaw driver said there was a church, (Eugene is a Christian) so we set off for what turned out to be a fairly large Adivasi enclave of– church/school/farm/convent et al. We walked around (I didn’t notice Eugene doing any praying). Adivasis are a tribal people who are Christians. I think the whole kit-kibudal is a government funded scheme for what is a scheduled cast. The place was very well kept, with a fantastic farm/garden area. Lots of smiley faced, lovely children. I took some pictures.
Off to the station to reserve 3 seats on the express to Calcutta (Poor Eugene stood in the queue whilst PK taught me how to recognise a Rajasthani woman from a Bengali. Bengali women wear their palloo (long bit of their sari) over their right shoulder and a Rajasthani over her left. Or have I got it the wrong way around!
Anyway I have since learned that whilst there is a code of palloo/sari wearing it is not that simple, which might explain why the Captain is a lifelong bachelor. But I still plagued him with yet more questions. The poor chap is more than a little deaf and is sometimes repetitive, but has his wits about him and dwells in the past a trifle.
Back in the rickshaws we headed to the dhaba where I had eaten yesterday, as my description had whetted the appetites of PK and E. I said lunch was on me (PK was paying for the rickshaws) so we headed for the dhaba and PK decided to pay off the rickshaws and walk back to the hotel.
An almighty scene broke out with the Captain standing his ground over the price of the rickshaws. The Captain from the warrior cast (Kshatriya) got more than a little agitated and finally irate with the hapless drivers who also stood their ground over the amount of their fare. Negotiations were broken off after a lot of shouting and swearing by the Captain (I kept well out of it and went into the dhaba – again excellent food much better than the hotel, where I am running out of veggie options).
The drivers went back to their base without their money and negotiations were postponed until we returned to the hotel. It was afterwards settled by compromise at 100Rs £1.42 per rickshaw. A lot of shouting over very little – at least until Eugene told me that the Captain is not as well off as he appears. His pension is £28 per month. Eugene has suggested that he changes his flat for a 2 bed one and that he takes the Captain in as his sharer. I reckon that would be a good idea as, according to Eugene, the Captain was found hardly able to move about 2 months ago and was taken to the infirmary to emerge a little better a few weeks later.
We had to walk very slowly back to the hotel as the Captain is not too nimble on his pins. I showed him some photos on the laptop in the afternoon. He was amazed at the technology, dazzled by Adobe Lightroom and thought the pictures should be in the National Geographic! (If only!)
Its 7.30pm and I’m giving the dining room at the hotel a miss tonight as I have noticed a restaurant down the road called the ***** cafe, now I wander what veggie delights might be there.
I’m sitting in quite a nice room in the Ashreen Guest House in Cowie Lane in the Chowringee area of central Calcutta. I had to wait all morning for the management of the Ashreen to, a.- Work out if they have a room after I went to the trouble of booking one yesterday, and b.- Tell me, show me and book me in! They know that I want to stay for 6/7 days but when I returned from an evening snack, they still were pissing around as to whether there was a non AC room available or if “I will have to stay in this Ac room.” I don’t like AC it’s too noisy. Guess what the AC rooms (880Rs) are almost double the price of the non AC. No prizes for guessing what the answer will be. But there seems to be a constant supply of hopeful would be customers asking at the desk. Arjuna the receptionist is an expert at hedging – “maybe – come back in an hour or two or six.”
All this absorbs a great deal of time and going to wait at the Blue Sky Cafe around the corner. I lost the morning light with his faffing. However, last night I put up in the Capital Guest House and paid 450Rs for a room that was a trifle depressing, no, it was bloody depressing! I took a picture of the grimy walls and soulless yuck. My new room is a quite flouncy, yellow themed en-suite (Although I can’t make the hot water work), and has a telly, though still not as good as The Shantiniketan Hotel with its balconies overlooking the garden.
The train journey from Shantiniketan was very good – as good as I remember from previous train trips in India. Only three hours long the Shantiniketan Express only stops twice and gets into the giant Howrah station in the city about 3.30pm.
The Captain had arranged the seating and the Troll had the window seat – and the view! Mile after mile of the most tantalising, manicured farmland. Dotted with large ponds with villages on the banks – straw roofs with pole or stone construction, these look idyllic but maybe the reality would be different. Isolation, ignorance, superstition on one hand, family ties and the security of connection both to the land and to the community on the other . We (the western visitors) can never know the reality; however much we may read Tagore imbibing his stories of village life in a Bengal of the past, but it sure looks wonderful from the train but —. The splashes of colour of the women’s saris both being worn and spread out on bushes to dry are like punctuation marks in a fanciful tale of the Garden of Eden – from the train!
The Captain was in a good mood, chatting to the family opposite, and he obviously had the munchies, because he kept buying snacky things from the numerous hawkers who prowl the central isle. He insisted I try a few morsels of his delights. I have no idea what it was, but after a tiny nibble, I surreptitiously threw the offending salt laden offering out of the open window whilst he was looking the other way. I have developed a liking for black tea with lemon and spiced black tea, but the potion the Captain handed me was black tea with lemon and what seemed to be a desert spoonful of salt. No prizes for guessing where that went, again whilst he looked the other way. It was not all one way though, I had bought a kilo of mixed Clementines and apples and a packet of chocolate bourbon biscuits that are the Captain’s favourites. He solemnly announced to Eugene that I must have bought a stash from England (in the Captain’s book anything English is fantastic, reminding him of when he trained in an RAF station in Surrey.) In fact they came from around the corner from the hotel in Shakeodobbridumdum. Ok I had to try several places before I remembered where I had bought the first packet.
When we arrived at Howrah, a taxi with the three of us sped into the Chowringee area, it became plain that neither the Captain or Eugene really did know of this mythic hotel in the centre. Eugene raced up the stairs and raced down again saying that this hotel had a single room for 300Rs. I went upstairs whilst the Captain stood guard over the Troll’s worldly goods, I wasn’t gone for long, it took precisely two seconds to see the dirty, windowless coffin. I went downstairs and said “Don’t worry chaps, I will find a place with the aid of my trusty, three inch thick (and bloody heavy) Lonely Planet Guide”. I paid off the taxi and with much handshaking, we went our separate ways. I know Eugene works locally and I am sure I can find the Blue Dolphin if I try, ‘cause otherwise I am off the Captain’s radar somewhere in the tourist ghetto, being hassled by 1001 hawkers and the 10,001 touts.
The Troll lost his patience today with all the hassle and the incessant rickshaw wallahs and the hooting relentless traffic of taxisbusseslorriescars. The most dangerous part of Calcutta that I can see is – crossing the road without being mown down. It’s worse than Delhi and 1000million times worse than the main road in Shakeodobbridumdum, even if it had a legion of road rollers with their attendant families.
The Metro however is a different kettle of fish. It is clean and free of hawkers and gets you to and fro quickly, and this afternoon I went to meet Ma Kali.
Kurseong, West Bengali Hills, south of Darjeeling -1st December 08
Hurray and Hurrah. The laptop is working from the mains at the same time as charging the battery, courtesy of the new English 3 square pin to Indian 5amp 3 round pin adaptor 35Rs (50p) from an electrical and DIY shop in town. The boy in the first shop turned out half the stock to try to find an adaptor that worked, only giving up after admitting that new stock was coming next week.
Kurseong is a pleasant little town, but busy with endless 4WD shared taxis taking the hair-razing journey on the switchback road from Siliguri to Darjeeling. There are so many of these things coming through the narrow streets of this town that it nearly spoils it – but not quite. But the diesel fumes are, not to beat around the bush, unpleasant.
Also coming through the streets is the famous Toy Train, the small steam locomotive, and its diesel powered brother, running to Darjeeling. A remnant of the British Raj, when Darjeeling was a well favoured Hill Station, drawing English Ladies and Gentlemen from the heat of the plains and the squalor of the city of Calcutta, the chaos of which, I left with mixed feelings yesterday, on the overnight train from the enormous Howrah station to New Jaipalguri junction and a shared taxi ride to this little stopover town that seems to be a centre for the education of middle class kids from the North West of India and neighbouring states. There are so many schools that I lost count today on my exploration of the town. Children of different racial types wander the streets in a variety of smart uniforms. Sometimes the bolder of these say “Hullo – where you from?” or some such question. The local people are similar featured to Nepalese but they are Ghurkhas, famous for being the steadfast, brave soldiers, who fought for Britain in the Second World War, and for climbing Everest of course!
I saw Ma Kali in Calcutta. We had Darshan or at least I did, I am not sure if She saw me! She was at her usual stamping ground (burial ground – no Ma, I am joking!) at Dakshineswar. I crossed the Hooghly from Belur Math, in a smallish (about 40ft) open ferry which one sat on rather than in, and arrived at the temple the way one should, rather than by road.
I put my sandals in the shoe depository and got the little plastic tag that would enable me to reclaim them, and set out with hundreds of barefoot, expectant, men, women and children, through the tight security, into the temple complex, where Sri Ramakrishna, the 19th C Indian saint had, in his hour of extremis, seen Ma Kali standing before him in all her terrifying beauty. I knew that the chances of that happening to me was something it was much safer to bet against than for! So I was quite happy to join what was a surprisingly short queue to go up the steps and into the temple to see the famous Dakshineswar deity statue, with her black body and four arms and red tongue.
So near and yet so far! I suddenly remembered; I had forgotten her flowers! (She likes red and orange ones!) The thought of seeing her with nothing to offer as a token of my admiration was too much. So around I turned, back through the tight security, I strode barefoot to the market where middle class women were playing the vendors’ game and buying pretty little wicker baskets full of flowers, incense, food etc. a game I didn’t want to get into. She would know that my string of orange flowers was sincerely meant. Back I went through the tight security, into the temple complex to join a long queue (now how exactly did that form so soon?) The queue of eager people neared the steps and up the steps and into the temple, where I told a bloke off for pushing in front of me. And a priest whisked my string of flowers from me and threw it and Yes! there she was! A momentary unrestricted glance of the Black Goddess of Dakshineswar! I had barely enough time to utter an Om Shanti, Shanti Ma, then the queue moved inexorably onwards and she was gone. Had she seen me? Had I had Darshan with the Goddess who drove a most saintly person mad with love, until he was at the point of ending his life with her own ceremonial sword? She came to him in his hour of doubt and desperation and proved that she returned his love – and he, a saint fulfilled, started a movement that spread to many corners of the world and is still going strong to this day. And that movement evolved into others and other saints took the reigns and the movement spread and the words Vedanta and Yoga became known the world over.
Out in the temple yard and looking about me, I took in the row of Shiva temples and felt happy despite the rule of no photography. I wanted so much to photograph Her temple in all its candy striped glory. I noticed people taking snaps on their mobile phones, the Hindu men looking more than a little guilty the while. I didn’t want to offend Her who I had just seen, so the Leica remained in its bag and I went for a small puja in one of the Shiva temples, where the Pujari, asked Lord Shiva to look kindly on myself and Dominic.
Not being able to take pictures over at Belur Math on the other side of the river, was a bit galling. The whole site is sacred, ‘everything you see is sacred’, said the notice at the entrance to the museum of the Ramakrishna Mission. Nonetheless the museum, tracing the story of Ramakrishna from his birth through his struggles, his enlightenment, his marriage to the beautiful Sri Sarada Devi whom he worshiped but never had, his death and his followers who became gurus to millions, is excellent. Careful reconstructions of the rooms that the saints lived in as well as their everyday objects from musical instruments, to worn shoes, is poignant in the extreme. I wander however, if Ramakrishna who believed in the validity and co-existence of all religions, really would have minded if I had taken a few architectural exterior shots of the temples that have been erected in his and his wife’s name. And would his disciple, Swami Vivekananda, who travelled to the USA and Britain using the media to help spread the message, mind a photo of his temple being taken 100 years after he was welcomed back to India as a national hero for spreading the word.
Now it is a few days after my exit from the City of Joy and I am still getting my head around the contrasts and extremes of sight and smell and taste. A lot has happened in a week. Airports have been closed, the city of Mumbai has been assaulted, innocent people are dead and their friends and relatives cut to the quick. The media around the world has been on 24hr rolling status. The very rich Kolkatans are still very rich and the beggars on the streets still have nothing, the piles of garbage are still in piles, the stray dogs are still stray and the cows are still holy and the traffic is still mad. The international travelers are still walking around the Sudder Street ghetto wandering what to do and which cafe to go in next and the rickshaw and taxi drivers are inventing evermore complicated ways to part the travelers from their rupees, yen, dollars and pounds. The trees in the botanical gardens are waiting to see if the park authorities will cut them down for having the temerity to grow in a flower bed and the biggest Banyan tree in Asia is forever getting bigger, although its central trunk has rotted years ago. Changes, changes, changes – no change. The population rises by the day – by the hour. The diesel fumes taste bitter, the winter fog gets more and more dense, and the curries are nice and spicy and the chai is too sweet.
The City of Joy is an enigma – I have never seen anything like it in my life – until I spent five days in Calcutta.
Back to the Poush Mela at Shantiniketan – https://chriswormald.wordpress.com/the-poush-mela/