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!

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2 comments on “Kolkata – scenes from memory and a memory card: the first couple of days

  1. […] When we woke up, we saw cotton fields zipping by. ‘’Which direction is East? I hope the sun doesn’t shine straight into the eyes.’’ Meanwhile, like early morning roosters crowing, tea vendors entered and stirred awake the remaining. — > https://gabbartrip.wordpress.com/2013/10/16/kolkata-scenes-from-memory-and-a-memory-card-the-first-c… […]

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