What's in a name?
And then Calcutta. Or rather Kolkata as it has recently been renamed. Despite being very much an invention of the British, the city has been renamed in its original language Bengali. The British had difficulty with the local names and simplified them. Sometimes we are just so arrogant and lazy. For example I knew a guy from Calcutta whose name was Rabindranath. When he came to the UK everyone called him Robin. A friend has the surname Mukhopadhay.
"What's this fellows name?" the colonial thinking would have gone, "Mucker something".
"Jee. They're all Jees. Term of respect or something hey what?"
"Sounds about right. Muckerjee. Mukherjee. Much simpler".
Despite the official change in name, several of the daily papers are still headed with the edition name 'Calcutta'. And for the cool cats in the city it will always be Calcutta, or, as they prefer to call it 'Cal'. 'Kol' just doesn't roll off the tongue. Or maybe it's because it's not Kolifornia they aspire to.
For me Kolkata often feels like my second home. As a student spent a year in the city. Ostensibly I was based at Kolkata University, working in a factory trying to demonstrate how ergonomics could improve safety and efficiency, but I was a fresh-faced student and all at the factory knew this and failed to take me seriously. So I spent my time discovering the city, working with various charity organisations and socialising with their volunteers. I worked in Mother Theresa homes, I spent time with a project for street children, and I put medicines in bags for Dr. Jack. I saw the underbelly of the city. The railway stations in the early hours of the morning. It was not unusual to see dead bodies lying on the platforms with the commuters stepping over them in the rush to the office. Dying people who were put on the train by villagers to be treated by Mother Theresa, only to die en-route and be thrown off the train at the terminus. Victims of violence, mafia vendettas. Hideous amputee accidents and always extreme poverty by the tracks. I visited hospitals bringing patients food. Hospitals devoid of cleanliness and hygiene. The corridors washed down with buckets of water and disinfectant sloshed down them then the water and detritus swept along leaving a slippery and hazardous surface to walk along. Naked men tied to bed with catheters inserted in their penises, tied up so they couldn't remove them. Hospitals remain hazardous places. During our stay in Kolkata one of the papers led with the story that a healthy woman went to one hospital for a check up and was killed by the hospital, literally.
'Some time later, they heard a thud and rushed out with several others to find their mother lying in front of the building, felled by a chunk that had come off a portion between the forth and fifth floors. She was still clutching the prescription that had been given by the cardiology department.'
In the UK I had an eye test. My vision was perfect. In Thailand I had an eye test. The left eye is slightly weaker than the right, but no need for glasses. In Kolkata I had an eye test. "You have only fifty per-cent power in your left eye."
"Does that mean I am blind?"
"No, but if you don't wear glasses you soon will be."
Hmmm, I need a second opinion. The opticians that gave me that dire warning were straight out of forties Britain. A long wooden counter and glass and wood cabinets behind. The interior was gloomy, with dust smothering flat surfaces and cobwebs claiming squatter's rights in the ceiling corners. When I asked for an eye test I was led into a back room. The optician was a dour faced man who was particularly uncommunicative. He pointed at the ancient electricity board with exposed wires, dust and cobwebs, a board that would be held up in the UK as a perfect example of dangerous electrical work. Clearly it wasn't his job to switch the electricity on. Or maybe he considered the risk of electrocution too great so he called for the assistant behind the long counter to do it for him. The room was barely illuminated with dim bare light bulbs. It was home to various apparatus that would not look out of place in an antique auction house. He nodded towards a chair. It resembled a dentist's chair with more than a hint of an electrocution chair. It instilled the fear in me. The tubular metal frame was battered with chipped paintwork and rusty patches. The leather seat was worn and cracked, with the horsehair filling escaping from one corner resulting in lumpy and uncomfortable support. He asked me to read the letters from a chart at the other end of the room. He gave me barely enough time to read the first row before he brought chunky round frames that looked like a torture device towards me and placed them on my face. He then dropped different lenses in the slots and asked me to repeat the letters. He grunted. "Go to counter" he said. "So do I need glasses?"
"Go to counter."
"So no discussing the results? No doctor-patient pleasantries then?" He waved me away. I went to the counter and was told I needed glasses. As the assistant reached into a cabinet to show me a hideous collection of NHS tortoise shell frames I said "I need another opinion".
The next opticians were far more professional and chatty. The optician talked through what he was doing and convinced me that my left eye was weaker than the right, a marked deterioration from eight months travelling, and that glasses would probably be a good idea. For driving and watching the football. Choosing frames was a minefield. My original choice was round wire frames. But in the land of the man who popularised them, Mahatma Ghandi, they are seemingly unavailable. Eventually I went for a rimless pair of specs that set me back little more than twenty quid. After thirty years of being perfectly sighted, I am now on the road to blindness!
During my year in Kolkata I stayed in Dormitory number two in the Salvation Army hostel on Sudder Street. This time it was full. The budget hotels in Kolkata are to be found on or around Sudder Street. Each has its own character and is populated by different long-term volunteers. Salvation Army is popular with Mother Theresa Volunteers, the Modern Lodge, a dark and grimy place is popular with Dr. Jack's volunteers. The Paragon is not popular with any long-term volunteers. Probably because it is the noisiest of the lot, being inhabited by Israeli and Japanese backpackers. Everywhere else was full. We stayed in the Paragon.
Our room was basic, although was cleaner than most having recently been decorated. Two beds and a small table were all the furniture in the room. A fan in the ceiling and a strip light on the wall that gave a harsh light that quickly induced a piercing headache behind the eyes. It faced onto a rooftop courtyard where several Japanese sat around a kerosene stove cooking food in a communal pot. The other room that was offered to us faced onto a courtyard where a motley crew of Israelis sat around smoking pot, beating jembe drums. It was no contest in which room we should choose. The bathroom was behind a low portioned wall that rose a meter short of the high ceiling. Such an arrangement was little different to having the toilet in the bedroom with sounds and smells floating through the gap. The toilet constantly dripped. The shower was cold, although buckets of hot water were available. Unlike Agra where there was a constant chill in the air, December in Kolkata this year was surprisingly mild. Usually the Bengalis tie scarves under their chins and over their heads, wrap up in thick rough wool blankets and wear hideous tank tops that are straight out of a seventies nightmare.
The Paragon is on a lane just off Sudder St. Turn right out of the main gate and the lane twists and turns, passed the junkies chasing the dragon and sharing needles, dogs nuzzling through the rubbish piled high and the subtle hum of urine with a detergent perfumed base note from the nearby laundry. Turn left and the stench of male wee is stronger as you pass the open urinal on the street. At the end is Sudder Street. Ishmael, the taxi driver I knew as a rickshaw wallah, as ever lies sleeping across the bench seat in his Ambassador taxi. Abdul the Muslim card seller says hello, welcome back and shakes my hand. Maybe this time I'll buy some postcards from him at a few rupee a card. Emaciated men stand in front of their rickshaws, glorified wheelbarrows with wooden wheels and long handles to be pulled by the rickshaw wallah on foot. They are shoeless, wearing tatty shirts and lungis (pieces of clothe wrapped around their midriff) rattling their camel bells hissing "rickshaw." No thanks, I'd rather walk. The women ignore me now. Sudder Street is home to a posse of women who work the street, thrusting babies in unsuspecting tourists, persuading them to part with cash to buy milk powder for the children. The shopkeepers are in on the scam, the tourist buys the milk, leaving thinking he has done his good deed for the say and the woman later returns the unused milk to the shop keeper and receives have the profits from it. The women share their babies, often leaving their own in the village. "You are like a baby factory," I say to Keema who is cradling a young baby, "how many is that now?" "Ten" she replies, "too much jiggy jiggy!" she adds. Much too much.
You can chew the air in Kolkata. After a few days it congeals at the back of the throat as black phlegm and in the nose as black snot. It gets dark early, by night vehicle headlights slice through the black fumes and illuminate the suspended particle matter. The chief culprits are the busses. Lorry chassis' with wooden frames covered with thin aluminium sheets. They hurtle round the city, racing each other as the driver and conductors salary is based upon commission. Get to the bus stop first and you'll pick up the most passengers. Accidents are not uncommon, and are a major cause of traffic jams. If a driver knocks someone over it will be a hit and run. He won't hang around; the passengers are likely to lynch him. With no bus driver to vent their anger on, the bus is torched. With their wooden construction they are soon blazing and traffic grinds to a halt, blocked by the inferno.
We spent a busy week in Kolkata, meeting old friends and doing shopping. The plan had been to stay for Christmas, then visit the Andaman Islands. But something upset our plans. Circumstances had interfered with them. Circumstances had changed. Time had run out. You see it was soon time to go to the airport.
Circumstances can be like a sexy thief in the night who wishes to rob you of nothing more than your nightie and pyjamas. Circumstances had left us that way, stealing our original ambition, leaving us sleeping naked with a wardrobe of opportunity lying by the bed to don in the morning. A wardrobe to take us forth into a new symphony in the theatre of life. For a change the symphony's first movement were not bowel related (although the stools were loose after the beef rolls at Abdul Khaliques washed down with a glass of Calcutta tap water- the fail safe Calcutta diet at its best). The first movement of the new symphony was a premature end to the trip. As the two thousand and second year after the Christ child was born in the stable drew to a close, we donned the new clothes of circumstance. Ishmael drove us to Dum Dum airport in his taxi; we boarded the plane and took flight BA 0146 home.
The night before Christmas when all round the house, not a creature was stirring not even a mouse…. We flew home. And no one knew about it. Perhaps I'd better explain. To do that I must go back to when we started. And tell a new story that has been waiting to be told.