Sunday, 2 May 2010

Supermodels, Slumdogs and Millionaires

Life on the Streets of Calcutta
(Extended version of Evening Post article, July 2010)

It sounded too good to be true: earlier this year a small article in the Evening Post was advertising a free trip to India in exchange for participation in a clinical trial aimed at reducing the effects of traveller’s diarrhoea. All that was required of the subject was to wear a small patch for a few hours and record any adverse effects while on holiday. I rang the company the same afternoon to book my place.

Six hundred people took part in the trial and were provided with free travel and accommodation for seven days. I was getting the chance to visit a country I could otherwise never afford to see: even if I had to spend a few nervous hours on the toilet I thought it was a small price to pay.


From the Himalayas in the north, to the vast mangrove swamps prowled by man-eating Royal Bengal tigers, in the south, the East Indian region of West Bengal covers around 100,000 square kilometres, with Kolkata, a daily festival of human existence, at its nexus.

Simultaneously desolate and chaotic, dynamic and depraved, Kolkata (as it has been officially recognised since 2001) is a city full of intriguing contradictions: immaculately dressed women negotiate sleeping corpses in the slums; Tibetan monks in maroon robes sit texting by the roadside; prayer flags protrude alongside satellite dishes; and the smells of incense, peeled guava, pressed sugar cane, cut marigold blossoms, urine and diesel fumes compete for your attention as they mingle in the air.

On the flight to Kolkata airbrushed airhostesses handed us warm, scented towels to cool our necks and chilled lime juice to drink. So the impact was doubly intense when, stepping off the plane into the mid-afternoon frenzy, we were bombarded with a whirlwind of heat, colour and noise that was unlike anything we had ever witnessed.

If you’ve never visited India the first things that becomes apparent are the incomprehensible extremes of pace at which its cities operate: millions upon millions of people lie or crouch in small patches of shade, their dusty shacks made of cardboard, branches, bits of corrugated iron and strips of cloth, form a motionless backdrop to the yellow and grey blur of speeding taxis and boisterous business men. The traffic, you learn very early on, is a perilous, steel river of horns, mayhem and near-misses. Despite this the drivers’ expressions have hardened over the years into unflinching masks of silent concentration.

It is difficult to talk about Kolkata without constantly referring to its slums, much to the distain of many Kolkatans. Around half of its five million residents live in roadside slums, that stretch for miles in every direction. The residents fashion their existence out of whatever they can pull from the garbage each morning to stay alive. Their resolve is characterised by a permanent state of polite indifference. And their poverty is by no means a detriment to their pride; in fact it seems only to increase it. Their few possessions and humble surroundings are cleaned and swept every morning and there is a sense of order amid what we might call debris. It appears to be true that human nature often shows itself at its best in the face of hardship.

The discrepancies between rich and poor are stark and offensive. Huge white government buildings guarded by sleeping officials with AK-47s and dark sunglasses tower above crumbling, makeshift shrines and ramshackle wooden boxes that are home to entire families.

These configurations of poverty and colour, speed and heat, imprint themselves with absurd clarity on the western mind. But just as our bodies gradually adjusted to the searing heat, so too our brains subtly adapted to the intricate workings of life, and it didn’t seem strange after a while when we saw yet another family of five speeding along on a single Yamaha motorbike or a young child carrying a load the size of an armchair on his head or an old man shaving chickens in the middle of the road.

In foreign countries you communicate with more of yourself and see a different aspect of the world or, rather, see the world again for the first time. Where no one knows your face or your name, and your existence is governed by unfamiliar rhythms and habits, you often feel more at home on the earth. Perhaps this is why we choose to travel thousands of miles in order to find what is already there within ourselves.

Traffic lights are so rare in Kolkata that, when you stop, they stay on red for an eternity and every driver in a half-a-mile radius turns their engine off. When this happens a strange quiet falls over everything and the world momentarily becomes another place. You realise that there are birds in the city and you can feel time crawling over everything. Everyone listens to the absence of sound from behind a blank stare, before the whole cacophony of horns and chaos starts up again and you are plunged back into surround sound Wacky Races.

At night the city becomes quieter but no less strange. The streets and pavements are littered with shadows that your sinking heart realises are hundreds of human beings, asleep on the concrete. Many own only the rags they happen to be wearing. A few others have a mat or a box to lie on. The lucky ones have a small stretch of pavement they call their own.

Shantiniketan (Abode of Peace)

Just as the magnitude and strangeness of the slums remains hard to comprehend, so too does that of the rich green plains and clay and straw townships that stretch for miles between our train and the horizon. Small girls dressed in bright colours glinting in the sun, stand beside huge black bulls in the open fields; women carrying impossible loads on long bamboo stems walk the dust paths while their children bathe on the banks of the river in the rising sun.

We were on our way to Shantiniketan – the once hometown of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore – situated among shaded palm groves and quiet chalk paths. Other than air-conditioned restaurants, it was the first place of peace we had come across. Tagore had been a notable influence on W.B. Yates, who wrote the preface to the English translation of his Gitanjali. We were taxied around the poet’s village by bicycle rickshaw, taking in the open-air classrooms, sun-dappled avenues, Bengali Bowel Poets and, what had become a pleasantly familiar sight, cattle walking alongside beautiful girls on the road.

The skill and daring of the taxi and rickshaw drivers is unsurpassable. Though the streets are permanently swelled with vehicles, no gap is too narrow, no speed too ferocious and no oncoming vehicle too much to worry about. After a while we stopped hearing the sound of car horns, they became their own kind of silence. Amazingly we didn’t see a single scrape or bump (other than the bamboo-cane thrashing the police guard gave our taxi to speed the driver along). Although the Indians are tremendously placid, and sometimes friendly, when it comes to matters of money there is nothing they won’t do to squeeze an extra fifty rupees out of you. My goodwill eventually wore thin; though my guilt on encountering the beggars did not.

Despite the time of day and the open windows, the night train back from Shantiniketan to Kolkata was interminably stuffy; clouded with dust and heat and a dull feeling of oppression. It was nearly impossible to breathe or think or sleep for the three hour duration. When my friend Jamie and I took out some paper to play Hangman, over half the carriage gathered round to watch us, leaning in and smiling with unabashed curiosity. In the more rural villages the people we pass stare at Jamie’s red hair with an unrestrained look of terror and amazement. I still don’t know if they thought he was a big Hollywood actor or a Hindu devil.

When we arrived home just before midnight the sleeping shadows of the slums had become animated. Dressed in pink and yellow robes they took to the streets chanting and drumming in celebration of “Pohela Boishakh” the Bengali New Year’s Eve. The smell of incense filled the air which, at 11pm, was still above thirty degrees.


We had desperately wanted to travel to Darjeeling but couldn’t fit it into our plans. But fate sometimes plays funny tricks. Thanks to the Icelandic volcano eruption we were left stranded in Bengal for an extra week and, after the initial rush of thoughts about what the boss back home would say, we took the first rickshaw to the train station and bought tickets to the hilltop where the British have been escaping the heat of the plains for over a hundred years.

As the evening sun glistened from the leaves of palm trees, the polished chrome of yellow taxis, the ankle bracelets of supermodels and the cutthroat razors of roadside barbers, we jostled our way through the swirling masses outside Howrah station to the waiting Darjeeling sleeper train. By the morning we would reach our destination and, as we stepped off the train above the cloud-line, watch the sun rise over the Himalayan foothills.

The incessant chattering of cicadas and Indian men, the warm balmy winds and the rumbling of the tracks beneath our feet made it impossible to sleep. The misleadingly named ‘sleeper’ train was peopled with chai wallahs (tea vendors) bellowing “chai, coffee, chai” throughout the night – more as an order than a question – souvenir sellers and shoe shiners, with sacks of rice and mail filling and remaining space. For breakfast we bought four somosas for 10 rupees (15p).

There can be few better places to watch the sun rise than from the open door of an over-spilling, mile-long mail train, gazing out over endless green plains, a few ghosts already making their way through the tall grass to pick tea or flowers or to simply squat in the shade of a tree.

When we arrived in the cloud-hugged 3000m high village of Darjeeling, we looked out over the valleys to see tea plantations and leafy groves stretch for miles in every direction, teaming with mist and shafts of light. Tiny Tibetan women resembling immense snails walked for miles, their banks bent beneath enormous loads of tea or rice that were strapped to their weathered foreheads with belts and bits of old rope. When Mark Twain visited Darjeeling at the turn of the nineteenth century he was astonished to hear of the young women who would carry pianos to the tops of mountains with the air of people “out for a holiday”.

The Darjeeling locals possess the Indian resolve along with the irrepressible Nepalese cheer, so it’s no wonder they are often said to be found sitting in dense fog watching entire football matches without knowing what is happening on the field!

That night I was awoken at 3am to find my friend standing over me, his face glowing with enthusiasm in the candlelight. He told me there was something I had to see and I could tell he meant it. We wrapped ourselves up in blankets and I followed him up the creaky wooden steps to the roof of the monastery where we were staying. The night sky was lit up like a huge diamond: the stars brighter and more numerous than I had ever seen. In the blinking of an eye our humble Tibetan wood-hut had become a million star hotel. There were no lights anywhere around us, just the distant silhouettes of the mountains and a few prayer flags fluttering in the wind. The silence became sublime. A few subtle sounds emerged from beneath us: the beating of our hearts, the chirping of a few cicadas, the flowing of a nearby stream. Then, on the eastern horizon, about two miles out, a powerful lightning storm struck up which lasted for over an hour and sent flashes into the sky every 5 seconds, lighting up the edges of the mountains with tremendous flashbulb-like explosions of light.

We also visited the Japanese Buddhist temple and took a ride on the Himalayan Mountain Railway, which is now a World Heritage Site. As it ascends from the plains, the temperature drops dramatically and you crawl past tea gardens and teak forests with spectacular views of the Himalayas and the world’s third ¬highest peak of Kanchenjunga. You can travel 2nd class for around 50p for the five hour journey.

The Saint Disguised As A Banker

My story would be incomplete without mentioning Patrick, an I.T. technician from Kolkata who I’d asked for directions. He told me he was going my way anyway and knew a shortcut. Tightening my grip on my wallet I followed him down a few quiet backstreets towards the marketplace when he asked me where I was from. This either meant he was curious and friendly or that his brother owned a shop somewhere nearby and wanted me to go.

As we talked more it became clear that Patrick was a gentleman like no other: one of the nicest men I have ever encountered on this earth. He was a pure natured, polite and principled man – think Gandhi in a Lloyds bank uniform – and when I told him about my suspicions of Indian sellers he mused about the pointless of cheating when in fact you’re only cheating yourself in the end. He bought me some water, saying I was a guest in his country and, when I tried to pay for it, he said he was happy to, because good deeds always come back round. He had a remarkably ordinary way of speaking but a dazzling honesty and genuineness shone through his eyes. I found simply being in his presence very inspiring. In fact, I haven’t been able to speak of him to others without a knot of tears rising up in my throat. He was the only man in the whole of Calcutta to move aside and let others pass. He gave me advice on bathing, buying goods, places to visit, simple rules to live by – smiling widely and graciously throughout. I have no hesitation in calling him a saint.

As for the medical trial, I assume the vaccine was a success as neither my friend nor I ever encountered the infamous Delhi Belly on our trip. The vaccine patch left a vague mark on my arm but nothing compared to the lasting mark that India left on me as a person.

The company who ran the study is trialing the vaccine again in Mexico later this year. For more information you can visit: