My rider of the bright eyes,
What happened you yesterday?
I thought you in my heart,
When I bought you your fine clothes,
A man the world could not slay.
--Dark Eileen O’ Connell, 1773--
What happened you yesterday?
I thought you in my heart,
When I bought you your fine clothes,
A man the world could not slay.
--Dark Eileen O’ Connell, 1773--
Rome was not built in a day but Calcutta certainly was. Arriving at the Indian city of ‘joy’, one is suddenly aware that all the joy in one seems to evaporate from the moment he steps out of the plane. The heat and moisture is a slap on the face for most mammals accustomed to living in milder conditions. And then there’s the airport. Most city councils have been known to invest some money in their airports, not intending to scare tourists right back to their planes, but Calcutta is no tourist hot-spot; it’s a recruitment office for hell. With enough alcohol in their system or jetlag, passengers may be mistaken that they have landed on a different planet, in a galaxy far away. Perhaps that is why passengers are not allowed to drink on the planes to the destination. You open your window expecting to see those famous skies and postcard perfect landscapes but you notice that there are cows indolently standing on the runway. Already something within you knows something is wrong.
I was to meet a friend, a rather charming one, on my visit to Calcutta. Years earlier, she had gone on and on about the strange vibrations the city gave her. “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder”, she said, something I notice only restless people say. I was to meet her in a particular pub in the city but before our meeting, she insisted that I looked around the city by myself because she had a theory that it was visited best that way.
And so, not put off by the immediate headache the heat gave me or the heartache the early impressions made on me, I strolled to the baggage claim. I think it’s easier to claim insanity. The long queue made a bad taste in my mouth, a taste worse than the single-serving meal on the flight. Then when I walked out of the airport hope left me completely as I saw the slums aligned by the air-strip and the discoloured taxis and auto-rickshaws. At times like these, I often get lines of poetry running through my head, lines that usually manage to compose the demons that reality can unleash. ‘Abandon all hope ye who enter here’ was one that slid within my forehead and ‘Rather reign in hell than serve in heaven' was another. I decided that with the five hundred British pounds I was carrying, and what it meant in currency, I would become a mini-Maharaja and reign over this supposed hell. I hired a taxi and moved deeper into the city.
It was only when I was in the taxi that I began to decipher what my friend meant with her words. Beauty certainly lies in the eyes of the beholder but beauty is only skin deep; ugly on the other hand, is deep to the bone. And as I drew closer to the city, everything around me seemed to grow ugly in quantity and quality. I tried to make sense of the wailing woman on the radio, the rocking of the taxi, the loud and proud ranting of the famous Calcutta traffic, the thousands and thousands of people walking around…I understood then why people become hippies or join leper ashrams or follow cults; we are all born mad but perhaps some choose to remain so.
I checked into a hotel I just randomly chose and paid the driver. As I paid him he grinned immensely. It took me a whole day of further travel to make sense of his grin; he had gotten away with too much. The impact of globalization, world economics and currency exchange never hit the poor fellow for he didn’t realize that the five hundred rupees (a fiver in UK) he had duped from me, almost double, for the twenty odd miles was nothing compared to the to the thirty pounds I legally pay in London for a much shorter trip. I thanked my economics teacher for such worldly revelations and went to have the last laugh in my own little paradise.
This paradise was not my hotel room and the laugh had to be delayed. The room itself was not bad, most rooms are not because they are nothing but spaces between walls; it’s what the room held within that was disturbing. The bed smelt like the last tenant had been murdered there, the mosquitoes buzzing around made me shudder, the air-conditioning farted blasts of damp air and I think Dante was weary in a bathroom like mine, when he sat down to write Inferno. The television was an antique box and made you think you were not watching television but a vision. So, I thought I should venture out into the brave new world because it was a little too early for suicide.
Leaving my hotel, I strolled to the streets, streets that are world famous for their notorious states. I have travelled a lot but none where my heart primarily beat as fast as in Calcutta. One has to see it to believe it. When I used to roam in cities like London, Paris, Amsterdam and Rome, I looked out for great architecture and sleek cars. I used to amble down high streets looking for stuff I didn’t need. Here, everything was different. The only reason I would have called a street, a ‘high’ street would have been if I was on some sort of drugs. The buildings looked like they were stacked up by adults who never grew out of LEGO and the cars all looked like Coke cans. The buses were overflowing with people and yet more chased after them to hang from windows and roofs. The traffic seemed to be controlled by the invisible force of some crazy pied-piper who was determined to drive these tins and cans into some mad routine. The entire conurbation had a trademark smell; a sweet and sour reek of sweat, smoke and disease. People everywhere seemed to be meditating, with their faces not knowing where to begin and where to end. Everyone looked like they hadn’t slept for weeks.
To be fair, I did at once feel like I should run to the airport like I have never run before and get out of this hole of a city, back into the skies, to some former self or someplace else. And then on a footpath, I saw a kid polishing shoes. The boy looked about twelve but had a million dollar smile that even David Beckham couldn’t conjure up. I observed him for a while, as I smoked a cigarette and saw that his smile never left him for a second, like he had painted it on his face. His clothes were tattered and his face was as black as the shoes he was busy shining, but as more and more customers flicked coins into his tiny hands, I grew afraid that his smile would divide his head into half.
And it was then that I that I should cut the city some slack. If fourteen people million people could live there and not complain of the hellish living conditions, I reflected that I should be asking not how they live here but why.
There’s something about places like India, something very humane. With the right kind of eyes, even a lost man like me can find deeper meaning to things. Once you see so much life before you, you see differently. People there seemed to have this sense in their soul that whatever they were doing was right; a sense that it does mean something to be alive in this corner of time and place of the world, whatever it meant. All those children I used to see on my numb television back home were all suddenly right before me. I felt stupid that I was freely distributing empathy in my living room while here, the living seemed to need something infinitely more.
I wanted to stop being a tree-hugging hippie for a while so I decided that I would keep myself busy by visiting some landmarks in the city. I kick started my heart and went to try the city’s underground train system. This was a mistake. The crowd on the train nearly sliced me into half by keeping me between doors and just when it couldn’t get worse, it did. A pickpocket scooped my wallet but the funny thing is he picked it right before my eyes; I couldn’t stop him because my body was suspended in mid-air in some yogic positions. Fortunately, I hadn’t put too much money in it. The train took me to Kali temple, which I heard had a very remarkable history. The city of Calcutta, apparently received its name from Kali, the Goddess of destruction; Calcutta was the anglicized form of Kalighata, the name of the large temple dedicated to her. As I walked around the temple I heard people chanting their prayers in a chant and saw them all make offerings of money, flowers and sweets. All around the temple I could see sleeping beggars and dogs, who resided on the holy grounds unrestricted. I found this a strange parallel to devotion. Most places of worship are clean and silent but here, there was not only ear-splitting noise from the chants and drums and bells but also a chaos that seemed to be celebrated. When I left the temple, I was feeling a lot more pious than I had before entering it.
Next, I took a bus ride to the Maidan which is the Hyde Park of the city. The park was really huge with all sorts of fountains, gardens and birds. Around the park were some of the city’s other landmarks. There was Eden Gardens, which is a world famous cricket stadium for a capacity for a hundred and twenty thousand people. I had watched some cricket matches been played here and was delighted to be there in person. The Writer’s building, which was the headquarters of the British East India Company when the Imperial rule was around, stood majestically at one end of the park while Victoria Memorial, a marble construction dedicated to the Queen was at one end. The most interesting architecture around was the Howrah bridge, which stands over the Hooghly river, leading millions of people each day to the busiest train station in India, on to the other bank. As I stood at the bridge, I could see the countless ships and boats in the river beneath and the countless people on the solid bridge lost in their own brisk movements. I also noticed a vast spell of slums that looked like they were created by kids in a crafts class and were piled up like anthills. I was beginning to see a different side of Calcutta now; one of color and hustle-bustle.
As I went eventually went shopping in the black markets of the city centre, I discovered that shopping here was dirt cheap. With radio-players, clothes, DVDs and CDs all going for less than a penny (yes, less than a penny!), I couldn’t believe the difference in prices for it was almost negative money! It seemed to me as if these people were paying me to take their good stuff away; it seemed only fools would sell at those prices and only fools wouldn’t buy them. The best part about the shopping was the bargaining because there was no fixed price on the products. You had to make an offer to the shopkeepers and could cut them by half instantly, if they didn’t want any of it, you just pretended to walk away till they beckoned you back and let you have it. After some time in the busy and panic of the markets, I elected to go meet my friend because my flight was at late night and I still had to spend some time with her.
The pub where I was to meet my friend Reema, was a city favourite called Someplace Else. As I entered the place I was immediately taken back by the British setting of the pub. It looked like my local in London. The place had plasma TVs, snooker tables, Carling and a live band. At first, I was pleased to be at the place because earlier I remembered wishing that I was someplace else and not in the chaos of Calcutta and the name of the pub was long standing. I called up Reema and she said that she would come over shortly.
It was only after having about four pints of beer and listening to the band play ‘Californication’ originally by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, that something hit me between the eyes. I sometimes make weird connections between things and situations to direct myself. Call me crazy but I guess, that’s just the way people like me behave on such occasions, I recalled how the songwriter for the famous tune had admitted in the band biography how he had wanted to badly get away from California but only saw a different version of the city wherever he went to escape it, hence the name. Everywhere he went, he saw people swooning over the same rock-and-roll songs, wearing the same Nike trainers and t-shirts, the same skateboards, the same shows played everywhere and the same Apple Ipods all over.
I had long carried this feeling that the universe is getting too universal and in the castles of my skin, I secretly moaned over these carbon copies of cultures. But this visit to Calcutta and the perplexing change of heart I had had here brought a new light into the equation. Here I was, ever complaining that things are boring and places all the same. And here I was, in Calcutta, someplace else; someplace entirely and wholly poles apart from anywhere I could even imagine. Someplace where the norms of the world don’t apply, where everyone has their own pulse and speed, where there is madness in every direction. Did I not like the city when I had first arrived because I, too, was becoming a junkie to progress and civilization? Did I not like the millions on the roads here because I was used to seeing tens back home? I suddenly settled that I need to change. I wanted to be human again and smile like that shoe-polishing kid, pleased no matter what.
I had wanted to be someplace else, someplace away from Calcutta when I had arrived and here I was sitting in Someplace Else; my kind of place with my kind of beer, with my kind of people and with my kind of music. Yet, things felt wrong deep inside. I looked around and all I could see was rich kids sipping beer, the room smelt of flowers and fragrances and the goddamn band wouldn’t stop playing those goddamn MTV tunes. All I could hear was hollow laughter from people who in all probability couldn’t wait to get behind their fancy cars, get a hairdo, get some of the good old PROV chemical in their hair, watching television all day and becoming slaves to the things they own.
Suddenly, I wanted to get back on the streets again. I wanted to see those tired faces, faces tired by life and not luxury. Everyone on the streets was jingling to the real rhythm of life and that horrible smell did not seem to be so horrible because I understood that it was the breath of the city, it was the stench of life. Sure, I could empty bottles of Calvin Klein on my bed and swim around like an idiot in the whiffs, but where’s the sense in that?
No, I decide that day, no. Someplace else should not be a place where you want to be, someplace else should be a place where you don’t want to be. Someplace else should be a place where your body and soul is mad at you for taking them there. It should be a scrape and not an escape. I contemplated that perhaps every place is some place and every time is some time, so we shouldn’t really create our identities based on where, when, how and why because identity is nothing but density. I knew I was getting a little philosophical or maybe even drunk, but at the moment it seemed completely reasonable to think that perhaps the energy of a whole universe could come to a head in a fine, long flash, for reasons that no one really understands. I was just glad that while I was at someplace else (the city), wishing I was someplace else, and then at Someplace Else, wishing again that I was someplace else, that long fine flash finally gave me a visit.
So when Reema arrived and we had another drink or two, I explained to her the beauty I was beginning to behold. She just laughed and said that she was sure something of the sort would happen to me. She said that the voice of the city eventually falls on the deafest of ears and she was glad mine were not too bad. We talked some more and then I took leave of her, Someplace Else and finally, Calcutta. But as I did, I remembered the whole of the strange episode and told myself that from then on, I would look for a new someplace else, a different place where the glass could always be half empty and the mind always half full. Somewhere where no hope need be abandoned.