KOLKATA | INDIA
India. It’s true. All of it.
I have a book at home called Death in the Silent Places. Growing up I’ve always had a morbid fascination with monsters, and tales of real life man eaters (the animal kind, not the Lindsey Lohan kind). The book describes real life horror stories of attacks on people (again – the animal kind, not the Lindsey Lo- ah you get it). Most of it takes place in India. I feel sorry for the people of India. Not only is life a constant, everyday struggle against the traditional caste system, you can’t exactly escape to the countryside either because everything in it wants to eat you.
Naturally the sensible thing to do was visit this part of the world that had enthralled me in literature for so long. The Sundarbans is the world’s largest mangrove jungle, situated on the India / Bangladesh border where the mighty river Ganges empties into the Indian Ocean. Located a few hours from Kolkata, UNESCO describes it as the last remaining place in the world where tigers regularly prey on human beings. What could possibly go wrong?
As it turns out I had more to fear possibly from the urban jungle of Kolkata than the tiger infested Surdarbans. Having arrived at stupid-o-clock in the morning from the connecting flight in Dhaka, I soon found myself whisked through the darkened, deserted streets in one of those cute little yellow and green Indian taxis. I loved those things. Obviously British inspired they remind me of smaller, colourful versions of London’s famous black cabs. After a lot of confusion and turning through blind alleys I eventually made it to my hostel, which remains to this day the worst place I’ve ever stayed in, and will ever stay in – unless I’m thrown into solitary confinement in Abu Ghraib.
The “room” was a bare concrete cell, with a dirty mattress on a rusted bedframe. There was no real natural light, or windows except for a grate near the floor which opened out to the back alley. India being India meant it was sweltering hot, and as humid as Satan’s butthole. Obviously air conditioning was out of the question. Instead there was a huge fuck-off metal fan in the corner which made a noise like a jet engine taking off. Between that and the retina burning fluorescent light, it was hard to sleep at night. Instead of being a place of relaxation away from the bustle of everyday India I decided to stay purely as a challenge. This was India, so there was no point in complaining. Besides, after I’d made the mistake of lifting up the mattress a little to spot half a dozen cockroaches fleeing the light I was pretty sure my brain was going to block all this out eventually.
Kolkata is better known in the west as Calcutta, and is most famous over here for being the home of Mother Theresa, a woman recently beatified by the catholic church for espousing many of the catholic doctrines of hypocrisy and money laundering. Harsh? Maybe, but I was raised catholic so I’m allowed say stuff like this. It is a city unfortunately still plagued by poverty and inequality. It makes you feel like shit honestly. As bad as I felt having to spend three nights in Guantanamo down the road, it was nothing compared to the realisation that this is life for many people here, this – and worse. I can leave, but these guys can’t. There are many travel bloggers and writers who can write about these topics a lot more eloquently than I can. I’m more of a “useless fact and snarky comment” kinda guy.
Speaking of snark I was verbally abused and ganged up on by a bunch of kids in Victoria Park. India was really beginning to erode away my manhood. My only hope was a manly adventure: a Kipling-esque adventure into the depths of the jungle. Maybe I’d get lucky and a tiger would put me out of my misery.
The next morning once I’d choked back the fumes of the morning’s rubbish being burnt on the streets, I met up with my travel buddies. After hopping into a few rickshaws we transferred into a larger van and headed three hours further west to the port of Godhkhali. Here after another short rickshaw ride we jumped on the most densely packed boat I’ve ever been on. Pictures speak a thousand words, suffice to say I was convinced I was going to be on the news back home. At times like this a small smile creeps over your lips and you’re reminded of that immortal phrase “India, everything they say is true”.
The Sundarbans is an enormous delta comprised of countless islands. We’d be staying in a quiet eco-village attached to smaller traditional village. This became one of the highlights of India for me, if not the whole trip, the place was awesome. Surrounded by thick forest and muddy slopes, it was a tiny enclave of mud huts and thatched roofs. Inside the huts though was surprisingly modern complete with smooth floors, large bed (with mosquito net!) and even an ensuite bathroom with shower and running water. The place was powered mostly by solar and was an incredible blend of modern amenities with a coating of old tradition. Exactly what the doctor ordered after the confined, human-trap that was Kolkata city. Outside girls draped in colourful saris walked cobbled paths through bright green paddy fields balancing clay jugs on their heads. I was already dreading having to leave this place.
One thing I loved about India regardless of which part of the country I was in was the food. I could eat curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner, which was lucky because essentially that’s what happened. The evening meals here were cooked in pots in the ground and covered with leaves and coals. After that we were treated to Bengali folk music. It was all going well, the three musicians were putting on a great show in the candle light, but bizarrely no one thought my accompaniment on the drums enhanced the performance. Bengali culture is interesting, in so much as it is very different from the rest of India.
We tend to regard countries as large homogeneous masses but in a country as large as India there can be huge differences in language and customs between the various regions. Apparently the Bengali language is very different to Hindi, the most common language in India. In fact I remember hearing that our three musicians actually couldn’t speak Hindi. They couldn’t speak english either so it just reinforced the sensation that this was a particularly remote, and insular in some ways, part of the country.
After a gorgeous sunrise filtering through swaying palm trees, we set out into the jungle on our double decked houseboat. This thing reminded me of those colonial style boats you’d see chugging up and down the Amazon, or gliding through a mossy Louisiana swamp. The view over the Sundarbans from the top deck was amazing. The mangroves are a low lying jungle which spread out over the Ganges Delta. From the tree tops huge white cranes took flight, while bush pigs rooted through the undergrowth. Nature is beautiful and I couldn’t wait to see it get eaten by a tiger.
The Sundarbans Tiger Reserve is home to the largest population of royal bengal tigers in the world. There are a number of watch towers here which we would be climbing to the top of and looking out for something stripey in the bush. Posted at the entrance is a schedule where visitors can write down the days that tigers had been spotted. At Dobanki watch tower the last sighting was about three weeks ago. We were due a sighting so I was pretty excited. The problem with nature is that it doesn’t run on a schedule. Tigers are very solitary and reclusive creatures. Added to that fact they are perfectly camouflaged for a dabbled jungle environment. You could be within eyeshot of a tiger but not see it. Chances are it could see you though…..
The jungle here is hot and unforgiving. My mind flashed back to the previous evening when we went for a bare footed hike through the mud among the mangroves. Thick mud squelched up to our knees, and sharp roots threatened to cut your feet if your didn’t thread carefully enough. I became painfully aware I was a sitting target for a big cat. Now that my lower limbs were immobile I’d have to rely on my non-existent upper body strength to fend off an attack. I’d be snapped like a twig. Our small canoe was little more than a hollowed out tree trunk. Tigers are at home in the water, unlike me who has the grace of a bloated cow on a unicycle. Chapters of Death in the Long Grass were replaying in my mind, and I’ve rarely felt more vulnerable then I did in that silent forest that evening.
It’s not often my fear and paranoia are rooted in fact, but the jungle surrounding the Gulf of Bengal are haunted by man eaters. Several settlements here carry the monikor of “Widows Village” and it is said that 30 people are killed and eaten here every year. Men often venture into the forests to collect firewood, or fish, never to return. On those walkways, and while gazing out over those towers, a small part of me wished we wouldn’t run into our very own Shere Khan afterall.
It’s notable the reverence, bordering on fear that the locals have for the tiger. At the entrance to the Tiger Reserves are shrines to the diety Mother Narayani, where locals pray that they don’t encounter the wrath of Dakshin Rai – the striped lord of the forest. Be careful what you wish for. Hours of cruising the delta, keeping our eyes peeled for our felines friends, went by without the shout of “Tiger! Tiger!” From the relative safety of our Indian houseboat it was a disappointment. For those working in the forest, an undoubted blessing.
Back in the black hole of Calcutta I stumbled across a statue of Mother Theresa in the middle of a roundabout. Cursed to direct traffic for the rest of her life seemed a bizarre way to honour an increasingly controversial women who purportedly did so much to help the poor of the city. I was still on the hunt for my own Shere Khan however, so I popped into the India Museum, an imposing white colonial building on the street corner near the park. The place is chock full of fascinating artifacts from ancient India to modern times. There are dusty cabinets and cobwebbed rooms of dark mahogany furniture echoing the “golden age” of British exploration of the Indian subcontinent. The real highlight for me was the collection of stuffed animals – now bare in mind these things obviously haven’t been maintained at all since their original installation. As such it’s a hilarious nightmare gallery of decaying creatures and misformed animals complete with bulging eyes, faded coats, and deformed heads. Each exhibit more unintentionally grotesque than the last. After marveling at the mongoose with a “I think I just shit myself” expression, to the walrus who had genuinely shit himself and covered the bottom of his cabinet in rotten cotton wool, I found my adversary. Here, pride of place among the predators of the Indian jungle, I came face to face with my striped nemesis. “Kill me” his eyes pleaded. If I had a sewing machine I would have.
Indian Railways is the world’s largest employer with over one million workers. That’s got to cause a major headache on pay day. Regardless, no trip across India is complete without taking a journey on the famed train tracks. I found myself on a sleeper from Kolkata to Delhi. A trip that was long enough to start with and ended up arriving seven hours late. SEVEN HOURS.
It all became too much for the career criminal I ended up sharing the cabin space with. This cockney geezer spun yarns of dodgy deals in faraway places, even smuggling cars across the Turkey – Iran border. India proved the last straw though. After two weeks here, and a planned month more, he spent the last few hours on the train trying desperately to book British Airways direct back to London. If this cross between Indiana Jones and Phil Mitchel couldn’t hack India solo what chance did I have? Just like in a college exam I decided to let my mind float away to a happier place rather than confront the trauma in front of me. The constant chime of “Chai!, Chai!” coming from the aisle lulled me to sleep. Once I had a few glasses of chai of course.
Next time: Delhi, its associated belly, and the Taj Mahal is surprisingly smelly.