I boarded the train at a way station north of Madras; and it was still called Madras then, not Chennai. I had managed to avoid buying anything resembling a Madras shirt—those myriad colors swirling in soft fabric worn so ubiquitously by the Sixties flower children. Perhaps now they are called Chennai shirts, but I hope they’ve retained the name Madras. The word defines an era well beyond a fashion statement.
Traveling third class, I stepped over dozens of feet—in sandals, sneakers, one foot bloated with elephantitis—and found a spot on the wooden bench. I stowed my backpack under it and sat down. Across from me was the strangest man I had ever seen: stick skinny, smeared with green paint, naked except for a revealing loincloth, and fingernails so long that they had looped back on themselves. By contrast, I could not have been more ‘normal-looking’ in my jeans and button-down blue Oxford shirt.
And everybody on the train was looking at me.
The day passed into night and back into day before we arrived at Calcutta’s main station. The platform teemed with travelers, vendors and beggars, and inside the hall whole families had camped out. It was an obstacle course to escape to the outside.
The morning sun reflected on the broad river. I shaded my eyes to observe the bathers spilling water over their heads. Women wore saris, while men slapped their loincloths on the water’s slow-moving surface. A boat slipped by, its captain squatting splayfooted on the deck. Incense insinuated itself in the muggy air. No moment could have been more quintessentially India.
But then, I hadn’t experienced Calcutta yet.
I wandered ceaselessly in that city. It was intoxicating. It accosted my senses. I couldn’t get enough of the sights, smells and sounds of too many people living so close together. Every moment seemed more exotic, more colorful, more extraordinary than the last. I took nonstop snapshots with my mind’s eye:
Ash-covered sadhus chanting on the steps of marble temples.
A girl in shiny satin pants walking on a tightrope stretched above market stalls.
Beggars at the gates to palaces.
A whole block of condom shops advertising their singular ware on big yellow placards with how-to-use sketches.
Snap! Snap! Snap!
I rented a room for a week, payment demanded upfront for a flea-ridden cot with only partitions for walls and a feverish, bawling baby next door. It cried all night, so I’d leave and continue my wandering. Confronted with an energy crisis, Calcutta timed its brownouts for the hours between dusk and dawn. No one’s fan worked, and many had no water because the pumps had stopped. Everyone poured into the streets. They chattered noisily until their heads grew heavy on their tired shoulders. Some went back inside to brave stifling rooms, but many stretched out where they were, eventually spreading into the road and exiling traffic. The stubborn rickshaw drivers finally gave up when the bodies became too many to maneuver around.
A week later, I returned to the train station, by then a veteran of Calcutta, inured to its intensity. A banner hung over the entrance. ‘Work More Talk Less’ it read, but when I returned to Calcutta twenty years later, I didn’t notice any less talking. More cars, yes; and ticker tapes on airport TVs.
No two-dollars-a-night cot on that trip; instead a room in the city’s grandest hotel. As soon as I checked in, I was back to my old habit of wandering with no greater aim than to revisit as much of Calcutta as I could. Its name had been changed to Kolkata, but not much else was different. The old Calcutta had endured with its energy and holiness, and of course its crushing poverty. It would always be quintessential India, only exponentially so.
Photo by Michael Honegger @ www.michaelhoneggerphotos.com.
Also published on Priyanka Roy Banerjee’s blog, One and a Half Minutes.
#calcutta #kolkata #india #timothyjaysmith