Preston writer Michael Molyneux on life in the streets of Calcutta
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 attention.
The streets were an endless frenzy of heat, colour and noise unlike anything we had ever witnessed. The traffic, you learn very early on, is a perilous, steel river of near-misses, horns and mayhem.
Around half of Kolkata’s five million residents live in roadside slums that stretch for miles in every direction. The population fashion their existence out of whatever they can pull from the garbage each morning to stay alive.
But their poverty is by no means a detriment to their pride; in fact it seems only to increase it. Their few possessions and decrepit surroundings are cleaned and swept every morning and there is a real sense of order amid what we might otherwise call debris.
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 can 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 straw townships that stretched for miles between our train and the horizon.
We were on our way to Shantiniketan the once hometown of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore situated among sleepy palm groves and quiet chalk paths. Tagore was a notable influence on W.B. Yeats, who wrote the preface to the English translation of his Gitanjali. We were taxied around the village on bicycle rickshaw.
In the rural villages the people we passed stared at my friend Jamie’s red hair with unrestrained terror and amazement. I’m still not sure if they thought he was a big Hollywood actor or a Hindu devil.
As the evening sun glistened from the leaves of palm trees, the ankle bracelets of supermodels and the cut-throat razors of roadside barbers, we jostled our way through the masses outside Howrah station to the waiting Darjeeling mail 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.
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, teeming with mist and shafts of light.
The 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!
We were also lucky enough to take a ride on the Himalayan Mountain Railway, 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 second class for around 50p for the five-hour journey.
Michael Molyneux’s blog is at: http://alternativepreston.blogspot.com/