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India

Still Calcutta

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URDU/HINDI VOCAB USED

Ach-ah - OK/Really? (General affirmative phrase)
Namaste - Standard Hindu Greeting
Shukria - Thankyou
Mehrbahnee Jee - Special Thanks
Maaf Keejiye - Excuse me
Jaanab - Sir
Jee - Yes
Na - No
Yahaa - Here
Vahaa - There
Mera nam Andy hai - My name is Andy
Naan/Roti - Bread
Aande - Eggs
Paratha - Ghee coated bread
Murgi - Chicken
Chaval - Rice
Ghosht - Meat

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in India Comments (0)

Calcutta Day 3

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A highly successful, functional day got off to an early start with my visa application at the Bangladeshi High Commission. Strangely the business was done out on the street and I arrived in good time to find sizeable queues already strung along the pavement, fortunately the one doling out the forms was not slow in going down. Inside beyond the meshed window sat bundles of previous applications tied up in bundles with string, piled high to the ceiling, it was India personified. The service holes in the mesh were so small that the guy had to roll the forms into a tube to pass them through, just one more ridiculous affair. I hadnt waited too long in the other queue either before an anonymous soul prompted me to go back to the first one, though unmarked it was allegedly a dedicated foreigners ie. non-Indians counter, with just one Japanese guy ahead of me. In the end, there was remarkably little bullshit considering the potential for it. I handed over my straightforward form, passport, photcopies and 3 photos, together with the small matter of Rupees totalling a whopping 40 quid. That was a bit steep for the standard 15 day allocation, I had requested a month but knew better than to dispute it, it was about all I had time for anyway. Walking back, priority number 2 for the day was now to bag a guidebook. Now that I was going to Bangladesh, I had to establish just exactly how and where. I had already made an early perusal of the local bookshops where the one 2nd hand copy of the required title was going for a pushy 800 Rupees, I had resolved to shop around. It was a blessing then when literally the first shop I tried this time round proferred another copy asking only 600, and readily accepted my offer of 5. That was a result indeed! The perfect formula was complete when I grabbed a rarely available chance to do laundry, and I polished off the day with another stab at my diary, these words right here! Back at the Paragon I arrived to find that another ingredient had been added to the mix, a hoard of French kids had materialised to compliment the Japs and Hippies, and poor little me stuck in the middle.

8th March

My job for today was very simple, head back to the Bangladeshis and fingers crossed pick up my visa, a task I achieved after a while of a wait but relatively painlessly. I was eventually ushered in the door by a midget man who was perhaps a candidate for the smallest human being I have ever seen in my life, though everything was in proportion he could not have been more than a metre tall and befittingly wore thick rimmed glasses like Joe 90. Picking up the phone, it was clearly a job for him to lift the receiver and the mouthpiece was too far away from his mouth, bizarre. The lone Jap guy I had queued with the day previous was there too, as was a strange female creature who turned out to be an American. Her deportment left me puzzled as to whether she was either Amish (unlikely), a particularly alternative new age freak or perhaps even a nun. She had had to shell out 5000 Rupees for the visa since the Americans were not in favour at the moment she explained. So whats new?! 15 days of Bangladesh in the bag, I celebrated the occasion in a quality Barista coffee shop and then checked out the buses to Dhaka. I could either leave immediately or wait 4 days, that was not so good.

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Calcutta Day 2

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Another foray out into the big city, this time northwards, revealed a surprisingly dynamic mix of shopping options with the typical grungy hole in the wall vendors side by side with department stores and fashion houses. The pavement hawkers were particularly vehement here too and drugs were a common offering. First on the list up by the traffic snarl of the Esplanade area was suitably the Scottish inclined St. Andrews Kirk, a dark empty haven with circular pews. It acts as home to the memorial plaques of many passing Scotsmen. The 2nd battalion The Royal Scots Fusiliers had lost a surprising number of men 1919-1931 and the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders lost even more. With no explanation offered, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders managed to lose 26 men 1902-03, I could only deduce that it was testimony to the prevalence of disease in this nick of the woods. Perversely, another was to Donald McLeod of Invernesshire, Inspector General of HM Hospitals India. Certainly the mosquitos had enjoyed my presence thus far, maybe my name would be next! Across the busy Chowringhee Road I caught sight of one of the citys premier wonders, the 17th century Writers Building, built very stylishly in red with white trim. The cops stopped me walking past it, but from the other side I was better able to appreciate it anyhow, as well as the fact that it was absolutely crawling with security. I queried another gawping passerby who told me that the Chief Minister was expected, there were attendant traffic cops, regular khaki clad soldiers, riot police and guys in cammos sporting machine guns who looked ready to use them.

Just a block away was the very unusual GPO building which resembles St. Pauls Cathedral (the London one), you walked inside the open dome to find post office counters in a circle where pews and fonts would have looked more befitting. This is the reputed site of the notorious Black Hole of Calcutta, wherein colonials captured during the 1756 city siege, another earlier native insurrection, were interred in a cramped impromptu prison and were soon accidentally suffocated. Its infamy obviously meant that the incident was not allowed to pass without retribution. A memorial to it erected by Lord Curzon now stands in the nearby grounds of St. Johns Church, my next port of call. It was here also that I discovered the now sadly neglected memorials to Job Charnock of the East India Company, the founder of the city, and many unfortunate Brits who seemeded to have succumbed invariably at a very early age. There were numerous wives lost in their early 20s, besides infant deaths and cases of smallpox and "malignant flux". A large collonaded cenotaph woed those soldiers lost in the long forgotten 2nd Rohilla War of October 1794, whatever that was about. A similar sad tale was inscribed on a stone inside, a Capt. R.W. Anderson had lain it to record how his wife and 7 month old daughter succumbed "through sheer want of proper nourishment" during the Siege of Lucknow, 1857. Despite being Calcutta's most notable church, there was not another soul around.

Outside another anonymous carbuncle, a curious army of pavement typists fed India's insatiable bureaucracy, rattling away on old style hammer printers. I walked a further block West where I soon hit the river, the mighty Hooghly, and caught my first glimpse of one of Calcutta's defining symbols, the Howrah Bridge. The largest of its type in the world, it was built hurridly during WWII in order to faciltitate supply to the Burma front and was until recently the rivers only crossing. As commuters streamed off the many cross river ferries, poor people performed their ablutions on the neighbouring bank, just one more of the paradoxes of India. In waiting for a boat to take me across to Howrah Station, another squat but massive architectural marvel in red and white, a grisly procession chanced by. An archaic looking police launch towed a small fishing punt, which in turn dragged a body behind it, a rope looped around one ankle so that little but a protruding leg was visible. The locals tutted but I was left puzzled as to the details. I thought better than to ask, it was probably just another ordinary day in these parts. Surely they didnt still keelhaul people though!

Reckoning that crossing the Howrah Bridge to get back home would be an experience in its own right, a cop stopped me to predictably warn of not taking photos of it but I already had, in reality it was just a ruse for his mate to try blagging a fag off me, I was not the first I assumed. The bridge, which might be a candidate for the worlds busiest, bounced up and down as it took a constant hammering from 5 lanes of bus infested traffic, whilst the pedestrian walkway was a conveyor belt of coolies portering huge unwieldy loads of all descriptions on their heads. My hitherto exemplary navigation waned in the writhing labyrinth of West Calcutta and so the Armenian Church was nowhere to be found, though a lone high profile sentry strangley guarded a fenced off and seemingly disused edifice akin to a columned Roman temple. There were some fantastic photo ops as I encountered people living in squalor, men camped atop mounds of water melons and manual rickshaw wallahs awaiting their next bout of drudgery. All done, the metro was a welcome respite in getting me home just in time for my guts to explode, not so much Delhi Belly as the Calcutta Quickstep! I arrived to find that a friendly neighbourhood gecko had set up camp in my room for the 2nd night. Well, it was always nice to have company!

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Calcutta (Kolkata)

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First things first, having located it on the map at the last moment I checked out the Bangladeshi Consulate this morning, quite a trek, where the boy on the desk seemed suitably friendly and assured me that it would be a doddle to bag the visa if I so wanted. Happy with that, it was time then to take in some of Calcutta's architectural wonders and first stop on my intended tour of the southern sights was St. Paul's Cathedral, a grand twice rebuilt structure in plain whitewash in and out. Whilst the standard stained glass windows and idolatory were minimal, it was fascinating wandering round to read the numerous memorial plaques left to long gone colonial figures, notably the Rt. Hon. James Bruce, Earl of Elgin and Kincardine, Viceroy and Governor General of India, who lived 1811-1863 and died at Dharamsala. Another betrayed colonial bigotry in memorial to a Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence who "taught how kindly subject races should be ruled"....."and who fell in memorable defence of Lucknow, July 1857" (the Indian Mutiny). Capt. George T. Gowan was also killed at Tapore, "he fell whilst endeavouring to recall the mutinous sepoys of his own corps to order and obedience". A brother and sister aged just 20 and 21 escaped mutineers and endured "many months of privation and suffering" only to subsequently perish in the massacre of Lucknow. By a remarkable coincidence there was also a plaque to P.A. Vans Agnew and William Anderson, those buried under the memorial obelisk I had visited at Multan, Pakistan. Some were lost in battle, others to disease, drownings and shipwrecks. A girl of 9 died at sea.

Too late for the impressive Victoria Memorial building, a superbly ostentatious chalk white palace, I admired it from the outside then crossed the road to the Maidan, one of the largest city centre parks in the world, akin to the Padangs of K.L. or Singapore and New York's Central Park. Fountains danced to music here and crossing the considerable length of it I had to dodge umpteen rabble bands of enthusiastic cricketers and footballers. Across the other side I spied my first of Calcutta's trams, now sadly a dilapidated and dwindling force, and the population of this city was epitomised in a veritable constant stream of buses. Further on I came across the suspiciously Scottish sounding Ochterlony Monument (named after a certain Sir David), a 46 metre tall white obelisk resembling a minaret which the Indians had tried to decolonialise with a forgettable local name. It had been erected in 1828 in commemoration of his leadership of East India Company troops to victory in the Nepalese wars 1814-16. Given the distances involved in discovering Calcutta that was quite enough for one day.

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Chennai to Kolkata

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A foray northwards in search of Georgetown, the original colonial area and Britains first toehold in India established in 1640, revealed a few architectural wonders of notably Islamic influence but all in all Chennai in 36 degree heat was more work than it was worth it seemed. It was a shame that I had almost accidentally reached this far south and yet with a plane to catch had no time to do the place justice. But then as was noted during conversation at Broadlands the night previous, travel wasnt necessarily that hard in India, it just always required lots of time. Chennai Beach station revealed hints of a working port rather than more sand and so out of time I jumped on a local train for Trisulam and the airport after a halfway pit stop to grab my bag. The shiny A320 of IndiGo looked brand new and the uniquely short skirted hostesses commensurately inexperienced. The seat backs read "Use Seat Bottom Cushion for Flotation", which was a departure from "Life Belt Under Your Seat". I couldnt tell if it was just a colourful translation from the Hindi (dubbed Hinglish) or if it was another new cost cutting measure that you didnt even get a life vest these days, you grabbed a cushion and clung on!

And so I was swapping one rather demanding Indian city sprawl for an even bigger one, Calcutta. Calcutta had a special place in the hearts of Indians as the original capital before Delhi, the base from which the Raj had eventually ruled all of India after the establishment of the first East India Company post there under Job Charnock in 1690, building Fort William in 1699. It was then in 1715 that a negotiation with the Delhi Moghuls sealed its rise. It was only with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 that Bombay then began to find favour, Calcutta lost the opium trade and her moment of glory was over.

In spite of it already being dark in Kolkata though a more welcoming 24 degrees, I pursued another exercise in bloodymindedness by walking out past the persistent rickshaw and taxi touts in search of a bus. Despite the promises of the guidebook, the metro had not yet been extended out to the airport and so I fell upon the advice of some Tourist Office bureaucrat short on help but not lacking in bullshit. He wanted me to sit down and fill in his guestbook just for handing me a useless map, sprinkled liberally with advice on how to buy a bus ticket ie. give the boy your money, just so that seemingly it might prove that he actually did something to justify his post. Disorientated in the dark, the wait for the correct bus afforded me just enough time to appreciate my madness before it materialised. Just an ordinary battered affair from the outside, the bus turned out to be like no other I had ever seen, and I have seen a few. With seats only along the walls facing inwards towards each other, people sat amid brightly painted and ornate wood panelling, twinkling multi-coloured lights and with a Hindu shrine pride of place behind the cockpit. Tired and intimidated I should have been, but moreover the suitably brightly dressed local women were fantastic, I could have been riding the stairway to heaven. I was eventually thrown off too late for the metro station at Dum Dum but found it anyway, this is where the infamous exploding headed bullets of WWI notoriety were manufactured and hence retained the name.

Calcutta's metro was showing its age, it had been cutting edge back in 1984 for India, but it still got me to Sudder Street the main backpacker hangout where the scum factor was as surprising as the plethora of street dwellers, barefoot manual rickshaw wallahs and giant cockroaches. With rooms at a premium I endured a real hovel of a dorm that night where the skeeters provided a hearty welcome along with street noise, fighting cats and my neighbourly mosques 5am wake up call. The Maria Hotel, muslim owned, had a no booze policy and 11pm lockout, you had to wonder if they understood who their customers were, and it actually proved to be an insight of sorts as to just how bad things could get. All the more reason not to stay. The descent into absolute squalor was rather betrayed first in its patronage by the stereotype of a loose gaggle of young oriental guys, it was strange how young dudes from affluent Japan or Korea always seemed to travel on an extreme hardcore basis spending as little as absolutely possible. They hard certainly found their match in this place and you had to wonder how any kind of establishment could allow itself to descend into the blood and stain spattered walls, inch thick dust and hole peppered bedding, they would have struggled to make it worse. The bare floorboards lay loose and askew, and the beds themselves looked to be improvised from random fragments of wood scrap slapped together.

From the rooftop balcony I could see people imbibing next door at what had been my first den of choice due to the name alone, the Paragon, at one time my regular pub back home. The travellers scene here seemed to have attracted a particularly grungy alternative crowd, if you werent Japanese then you had dreadlocks, and it was with one such character I had a passing chat, informing me that the "no longer required" permit for Meghalaya State was needed after all. That could take a week or more and so one more dream was dead. Also my proposed 2 week tour of Bangladesh allegedly didnt merit the hassle and expense he reckoned. I was already beyond optimum time to be in Thailand and with a date to be in Kuala Lumpur on April 8th, only a madman would have attempted my originally intended circuit of Laos and Cambodia beforehand. The build up to the monsoon was imminent too and I had a lot to think about.

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