Kolkata – continuing onwards…

What would a week of weekends be like? Would we like it? We started out with a destination in mind and headed out to the area taking a bus or tram till maybe halfway, and then walking the rest, getting a ‘feel’ of the place.

Apart from walking, we also took a ferry on the way.

The trams were a unique experience in themselves – mainly because of their age. Newer trams (as the ones we have boarded in Amsterdam or Dresden or the other places in Europe) feel just like buses on rails – all neat and clean, but sadly no thudding along, large windows, air cooled, no old layers of peeling stickers on the walls of the trams and so on. Sometimes, it is nice to step into something old, and see, for example, stenciled text asking you to “Please tender exact change. No 5 or 10 Rupee notes will be entertained” instead of a LED display board with text streaking past. This text has stood still and has captured indirectly the fare for a ticket in the past – when 10 rupee notes were considered “big currency”. Immediately, the mind wanders to search for a place where the date of manufacture would be painted or embossed in. Maybe on a metallic plate screwed to the walls? Apart from the signage, there were these huge fans which were quite a sight in themselves alongwith a naked light bulb hanging around.

We also took several of the local buses to get around the city. Most of them were “BS3” compliant. BS3 is Bharat Stage 3, which is an emission norm comparable to EU2 (European emission norms for vehicles). That was probably the most inflated thing in Kolkata. These buses were proudly called “Volga” in an optimistic imitation of the Volvo buses.

"Volga" (sic) buses

The drivers of these buses were called “pilots” and it had everything to do with they way they flew drove their buses. Check out the word pilot scribbled on the bus next to ours seen through the window.

A bus with a pilot

The buses had wooden seats and wooden shutters as windows and of course rattled a lot. But, somehow, they felt nice and even cosy. A ride in these buses reminded me of the common joke one hears in India about buses:

The scene: An old, tatterred bus waiting at the bus stop. The driver is having tea while a passenger carries his bag and walks up to the driver and asks:

Passenger: When does this garbage van leave?

Driver (after sipping his tea): As soon as the rubbish has piled in.

wooden buses

We always take public transport wherever we go, and buses offer a glimpse to almost the entire section of people of that particular city. In this ride, we saw a couple of bengali people chewing paan (betel leaf) and gutkha – including a girl who was literally storming her way through a packet of ‘Tulsi Gutkha’ and painting the town red by spitting through the window. A less fortunate(?) bhadrolok (gentleman in Bengali) was equally indulgent in his efforts of chewing this intoxicating concoction, but he had no seat and was jam packed in the aisle with people all around him. The poor fellow, unless he enjoyed being marinated in his own gutkha juice, had collected a mouthful of the same and had no place to spit it out! Of course, that’s when the bus conductor came to him and asked him where to go. To open his mouth would have meant a deluge for half of Kolkata, and the conductor, probably trained by habit, understood quickly. The conductor proceeded with a rapid fire round of questions, asking him names of destinations and where our gentleman wanted to get down. As soon as the conductor was close to the destination, our bhadrolok looked towards the bus’s ceiling and gargled a ‘hmm!’..!!! Hilarious! Job done.

Buses were very frequent on the main routes, although we had to tune our ears to understand which destinations the various conductors were screaming out. There were atleast 3-4 conductors within earshot and of course there was the background noise you always have in India. As we travelled more in the buses, we saw that the people were friendly, the left row of seats were reserved for ladies (in most cases) and if ‘gents’ were sitting in these seats, they did get up and vacate the seats. Nice. Bangalore, are you listening? We also saw that people who wanted to get down promptly went towards the rear of the bus and there were even queues of people waiting to catch buses at the stop! A queue where none is enforced, is one very welcome sight anywhere!

As if Kolkata does not feel relaxed enough at times, if you want an even relaxed way of travelling, you may take a ferry across the river. We took one, which was called “Calcutta” and it proceeded along slowly, with people hanging on the deck, and old songs blaring out on a speaker.

On Calcutta in Kolkata

We caught view of the old Howrah Bridge and went under it and the hundreds of people and vehicles passing over it.

The Hooghly river acts as a main highway for a lot of people as well. We could see several small boats crossing and going down the stretch of the river.

All in all, a good day spent walking through different areas of the city, watching people and discussing stuff, while we hopped across Kolkata’s public transport and eventually made it to where we wanted to go.

A lot of inspiration and strength

It has been a long week at work. Several commitments have taken up time and energy away. We have only managed to walk out into the fields once and as we crossed a familiar area of the field, a scene crossed my mind. A month and a half earlier, after the rains cleaned the air around, the setting sun lit up the sky in spectacular shades.

I have often felt and wondered about the strong and long-lasting feeling of peace and quiet I feel when I see something like this. It just pushes out all thoughts – about work, other tasks, worries and concerns, away.

The mind feels refreshed. As if the dirt in it has been washed away by a shower of rain and bathed in sunlight as the eyes see the real beauty around it.

Kolkata book fair – a tradition not to be missed

After the long train journey and the disproportionately long blog post about it (https://gabbartrip.wordpress.com/2013/10/16/kolkata-scenes-from-memory-and-a-memory-card-the-first-couple-of-days/), time to revisit the book fair.

So, having been in the company of several Bengalis right through school, college and workplace, I was as curious about the book fair as they used to be nostalgic about it. Which means, very very much! As soon as we realised that the book fair was going on during the same time we were visiting, we immediately decided it was a place where we just had to go. I remember it being quite far away in the city but Kolkata is fabulous when it comes to public transport – buses, trains, trams, cycle rickshaws, even the occasional ferry if you aren’t in a hurry, and of course the yellow Ambassador cabs!

Once we entered the fair, we were pleasantly surprised to see such a big queue at the entrance of a book fair. It was nice to see this, especially in the age of Ebay, Flipkart and Kindle. Another thing we really appreciated was the use of cloth bags everywhere instead of plastic ones. We were able to get in fairly quickly and were impressed by the number of Bengali books on display. It certainly seemed to live up to the reputation of being Asia’s largest book fair and the world’s most visited – (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kolkata_Book_Fair). There were tons of people there, looking, reading, shopping, discussing – completely immersed in the place.

There were many local and ‘non-native’ ‘small-scale’ artisans making and selling their products. We saw this man sitting peacefully, quietly painting a little boat which was probably floating in his thoughts somewhere.

painter at the book fair

painter at the book fair

He used just a palette knife with which he dealt out swift accurate strokes and created something beautiful, very quickly and in a very nice way.

little puddles of paint, on which floated a boat

little puddles of paint, on which floated a boat

Everytime we see someone paint like this, we feel like painting and learning how to paint. Very impressive.

Walking along, we saw little clay idols of Lord Ganesha. A lot of them were colorfuly painted and a few of them were pretty “modern” with sunglasses as well!

A Cool God.

A Cool God.

And there were more forms of Ganesha as well – this time made with jute sticks. In fact there are many forms of Ganesha (or Ganapati) defined – as high as 32 and maybe even more.

jutestick ganesha

jutestick ganesha

Madhubani paintings

Madhubani paintings

2012 was apparently the last year artists would be allowed. There was a protest going on against this the day we went. In fact, mistaking my wife for a Bengali (she loves wearing a big Bengali Bindi and colorful Indian cotton clothes) , a reporter started interviewing her in Bengali ; to which she replied “Bengali gothilla” ( funny because she said it in Kannada, a south Indian language which she can’t speak much either ).

It was a day well spent, and a trip which we hope to make again sometime soon.

 

Kolkata – scenes from memory and a memory card: the first couple of days

When is the best time to go to India? Winter, if you can’t tolerate the heat. Late summer if you want to visit the mountains. Or during any of the tens of festivals that are celebrated so grandly all over.

Or, 8 pm on a dark, cold, rainy, German evening, when you are missing India a bit and the wonderful sights and sounds you find there. And when the mind wanders.

We made the trip to Kolkata to attend a friend’s wedding, and extended it on both sides of the wedding to cover the whole week, weekend included, just because of the charms of Kolkata, its people, and the food.

We don’t like flying and always prefer to take a train or a bus instead so that we see more of the countryside along the way as well. Both of us like trains and we were keen to try the Duronto express (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duronto_Express). Train buffs, please don’t get distracted. 🙂

P.S. Some of the photographs have taken with a very basic cell phone, so do allow for pretty average picture quality!

Yesvantpur Howrah Duronto Express

Yesvantpur Howrah Duronto Express

The concept of a long distance, non stop train journey, with just a technical halt in between was very new for us, since Indian trains generally stop pretty frequently. With this one hardly making stops enroute, the journey was very different. For one, it was difficult to start conversations. “Where are you going to? Where did you board? What’s the next station? Xyz station is famous for this dish – I am looking forward to taste it!”  and so on. It might sound a little exaggerated, but it’s true – small things we take for granted when the train stops – from stretching the legs out on one of the railway platforms quickly to running to buy a magazine or a quick food item from the railway stalls with one eye on the train, and so on. Of course, food was served on the train and included in the fare, although we felt that we were served too much food! The menu was still a bit British or western – soups followed by meals and desserts right up to tea in the afternoon. Sadly, the very typical, almost melodic, sales pitch of “chai, chai, chai garam, masala chai!” (Tea, tea, hot tea! Masala tea!) running through the train at every station and in between stations as vendors hopped in and out as the train chugged along were missed a lot too.

Also, with fewer stops, surprisingly the amount of conversation dropped down as well. Laptops and smart phones replaced the chatter and the number of people reading books seemed lower too. One good feature was the large windows in the Duronto and in fact a lot of new trains. That gave us good views of the countryside outside, and big cities were dealt with (not so) quickly as the train slowed down but rolled past them.

I again got a chance to hear the systematic, periodic and very Doppler-y boom of a goods train starting from rest. As each bogey pulled the bogey behind it, there was a loud noise when the slack between the two bogeys went down to zero. They add some slack to it so that the engine does not have to pull the whole train at one shot initially when the whole train is starting, (think static and rolling friction). The engine begins with the first bogey, then has around half a second and so on – effectively every half a second or so, it is pulling only one bogey from rest and the previously pulled bogeys are already in motion. That helps in reducing the load on the locomotive. Think about static and dynamic friction and how it is difficult, for example, to start pushing a box on the floor rather than continuing pushing it. It’s pretty amazing to see a chapter out of a physics textbook in motion! 🙂

There is a certain humility about train travel – no one fussing over you, can’t control the noise / jerks / smells / people passing by / amount of wind coming in and so on. You can’t hit the sweet spot just like that – you need to wiggle in, brace yourself, adjust, and be comfortable – that’s it. It’s not for everyone, train travel, you have lots of hours (more than a day if you are travelling from Bangalore to Kolkata) to travel and while you may be cramped and stuck in travel for too long – there is something so rhythmic about trains – from the sound of the wheels on the rail to the regularity of stations flying by or people getting in and out, that after a point it becomes a little trippy (pardon the pun), and eventually pleasant. And to quote Paul Theroux trains always end up “improving your mood with speed”. In case you like trains and train travel and haven’t read his books, do Google up Paul Theroux and try his books – “The Great Railway Bazaar” and “Ghost train to the Eastern Star” jump to mind first.

Having just returned from a long journey from Germany into Italy via Austria, and all through train, the lack of the clickety clack sound in European trains had forced an existential question about the nature of trains. If trains didn’t make that noise, as the wheels thudded across expansion joints in the track, would they still be trains? And trains here had no air rushing in, no rhythmic sound and the swaying from side to side (hunting oscillations) and they felt almost like cars or even planes gliding by quickly. Comfortable, yes. Efficient, surely. Impressive, yes, again. But as much fun? Very debatable, and in my opinion, no.

Here’s a video I shot of a German ICE 1 train zipping by Wolfsburg Hauptbahnhof. It went like a missile!

We remember seeing the train to Kolkata having a lot of Bengalis – most of them were reading. This is quite different than travelling with a lot of Gujaratis who tend to be a bit more “celebratory” about the ride – eating, singing, talking and a good number discussing the railway timetable as well! Nothing wrong with it, of course, just an observation.

Reached Kolkata and stepped out into Howrah and it was just so crowded! The air was polluted, there were loads of people, but immediately we saw the ubiquitious yellow taxis and the wooden buses and heard the people talking in the mostly fantastic Bengali langauge and accent. 🙂

Taxi!

We didn’t have a hotel booked, but found a pretty good hotel called Hotel Ashoka, very close to the station for a fraction of the price it would cost us in Bangalore. This was going to be a repetitive experience in the trip. The inexpensiveness of Kolkata would baffle us at every step, from food and beverages to public transport to hotels and so on.

So, we checked in, freshened up and headed out towards a place where we wanted to go since a long, long time – Sweet shops! 🙂 We headed off to M.G.Road (of course there are MG Roads pretty much in most big cities, but also in other countries – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_roads_named_after_Mahatma_Gandhi) and on M.G.Road, we immediately saw trams with single light bulbs chugging along, cabs cutting across it, and an old man operating the tram honking away.

Old Kolkata tram

Somehow, the traffic continued flowing. We immediately spotted a sweet shop and headed in and ordered a couple of pieces of “Gopal Bhog” and “Bodo Kheer Mohan”.  Sadly, we didn’t take photographs because, well, we were too busy eating these little dollops of joy! Kolkata is home to probably the best sweets in the world. Arguably.

Check out the section on the right for diabetics! A visit to this shop immediately reminded me of one my uncles, a diabetic doctor whom we were visiting. When we asked him where the sugar-free sweetener was, he pointed to a big utensil full of Gulabjamuns saying “I take my tea plain nowadays. Just give me two of those as tablets for my Diabetes”.

Sweet!

We were quite lucky in visiting Kolkata when the famous Kolkata book fair (Boi Mela) was going on, and after having heard about it a lot via friends native or visitors to Bengal, our high expectations were surpassed when we visited it. We had not expected something this huge and, frankly, spectacular. Apart from the ‘usual’ stuff, there were plenty of local books, Indian authors, people who were discussing books while songs played in the background, including songs by Rabindranath Tagore. There was a big festive atmosphere as well, as food stalls and local artisans had set up their small businesses and were plying their trade there. All of it was unique and impressive. More on it in a separate entry.

crowded, but amazing book fair!

We also visited a stall where there was a group of people working for an organisation which was trying to document the culture of North Eastern states. Some of the local tribes, especially in Arunachal Pradesh have no written script, and all their knowledge and culture is passed down generations through word of mouth. So, as the tribes become smaller or diluted due to urbanisation and other reasons, a lot of local knowledge is getting lost since it is not documented anywhere. This group of people lives with the tribes on a rotational basis and documents their habits and cultures while they also learn the local language. How often is it that you come to know of a world where an entire population has nothing to read or write about? Nothing but the oral word. Fascinating.

We bought a lot of books from the Boi Mela and in fact, we faced an immediate weight problem and had to send most of the books back home with a friend who had come to attend just the wedding and was thus travelling light.

Well, I have just realised that this post has been more about trains. More about the rest of the experiences in Kolkata in the coming versions!

Reflections and introspections

Firstly, apologies for being offline and away all this while. We were on a vacation and had limited access to the internet. Meanwhile, we think we have been very privileged for we saw some stunning sights of nature all along the way, some very inspiring art and architecture in Italy and several tiny experiences which all add up and make Europe so fascinating. We will be sharing them all here eventually, as we sit and recollect the memories.

One of the strongest memories that comes to our minds when we sit back and think about our trip is that of a beautiful lake, so clear and still, that we could see a mirror reflection of literally everything. We did not hike to it expecting such views. We were actually a little short of time, and given the amount of time we had, we decided that a lake would be the best place to go considering we could choose only one destination. We are so glad we chose this lake! It lies in the Fiè (Völs) region of South Tyrol in Italy and we found the place to be just too pretty for words. We can’t wait to go back there again at some point of time (of course for a longer time! 🙂 ). 

So, back to the lake – after a short hike, we stumbled onto this little jewel of a lake, the skies fortunately clear enough to permit some light to filter down and we saw a perfect reflection of the mountains.

Further on, the view just continued in all directions. We spent a good couple of hours here. It was always going to be difficult to capture the wide view sweeping across us, with the birds chirping a little, the breeze blowing gently, the light changing in intensity as the clouds rolled overhead. But we tried to capture a slice of the panorama in front and whenever memory gets hazy due to whatever reason, a quick look at these photographs and we are able to re-live it a little!

In places like these, it is much easier to pause and reflect at our own actions. Makes one wonder how underrated simplicity is.