Since we were not needed in the meetings today, David suggested that Hanni, Brenda, and I see some of Kolkata. His colleague Samiran is from Kolkata, and declares that he both loves and hates the city. He suggested some places for us to visit, and arranged for a driver from the hotel to take us. We started by driving over the Ganges on the Second Hoogly Bridge (Vidyasagar Setu), a new bridge which connects Kolkata district to Howrah District, and which replaces the First Hoogly Bridge, which dates to the British. As we entered Howrah District, we hit the famous Kolkata traffic. When Samiran mentioned it, I thought to myself, “Hey, we’re all from LA – what’s a little traffic?” But really, there is nothing like this in LA. For one thing, on the 405 you have SUVs, cars, trucks, and the occasional motorcycle. But on the streets of Howrah, you have trucks, buses, “big cars” (which seems to mean anything bigger than an autorickshaw), autorickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, “two wheelers” (bicycles and scooters), pedestrians, and “school vans” which are bicycle rickshaws with a larger area for the passengers (all small children). It was 12:30 and we’d hit school traffic. Evidently, as recently as a few years ago there were still rickshaws pulled by men in Kolkata, but they have been outlawed as a violation of human rights.
The area that we drove through was likely not the poorest in the region, but evidence of poverty was everywhere.
Our first destination was Belur Math, a monastery where Vivekananda, the famous Indian monk and teacher of yoga and Hinduism, died. We arrived only to find that it was closed between noon and four! No matter, we got out of the car to walk to the boat launch for the next item on Samiran’s list. After a short walk through a winding alley past beautiful gardens and small apartment buildings, we came to the river. There we boarded a boat powered by a small engine and steered by a long pole. We sat with the other passengers cross-legged on the floor of the boat for the 15 minute or so ride to the other side of the river. Along the way we could see people here and there bathing (soap and all) in the river, which is considered holy to Hindus. I noticed other people on the boat (some young women students, young couples, groups of friends) dribble river water on each other’s heads, sometimes teasingly – which I took to be a more sedate way to invite the blessings of the holy water than plunging in. On the other side we all disembarked at beautiful Dakshineshwar, a temple and pilgrimage site dedicated to Kali.
Samiran told us that the ideal time to arrive at the temple is when it is misting out, as it makes the temple look wonderful. We saw a striking banyan tree there, carefully tended, which provided shade to people underneath and a playground for monkeys overhead. We strolled through the temple courtyards, noting the many stalls selling snacks, icons of gods and goddesses, and many sizes of Shivalinga. We got to the main gate of the temple and found it to be… closed. It would not open again for another hour. So we walked some more around the grounds, and soon were surrounded by children and one woman asking us for money. One little girl, probably 5 or so, held a tiny baby who couldn’t have been more than 5 pounds, and didn’t look like it would survive for long. One of the women I was with took out a pack of Kleenex, and the children each asked her for one. It was heartbreaking to see that really anything we had to give was worth something to them. I have to admit to being at a loss for how to deal with the children. There are so many that you can’t possibly give each of them money. A puppeteer I know, Anurupa Roy, works with street children in Delhi, and I saw her interacting with a group of children who surrounded us at Dilli Haat. She was so engaged with them, and really interacted with them as individuals. Of course, she speaks Hindi and could communicate with them. None of us spoke a word of Bengali today, so we couldn’t even do that with them.
At one point, we stopped to take some pictures, and some school boys started speaking English with another of the women I was with. Seems they wanted her to take a picture with them. She then asked them if they had email, and offered to send them a copy, and they happily provided her with one. I snapped a picture of the group, and as this transpired, more and more children came over to see what was going on. Then a young man from Bangladesh, a pilgrim to the temple, asked me if he could take a picture of me and “your sister.” I suppose that Hanni and I probably look alike to them, and Brenda probably seemed like our mother. We obliged and posed with them in front of a smaller temple. We then headed back to the boat returning to Belur Math.
Back in the car, we headed to a restaurant recommended by Samiran. Earlier in the day he made our mouths water with his empassioned descriptions of Bengali specialties. On the way to the restaurant, we passed the impressive Victoria Memorial, and a tower whose name I have forgotten. Many of the buildings in Kolkata hint at a former glory that is now in various states of disrepair, but some, such as the Victoria Memorial, are well-kept, providing a stark contrast to the bulk of the city. We arrived at the restaurant, Oh Calcutta, to find it, you guessed it, closed. Our timing was impeccably off by about a half an hour all day! So we went to the restaurant next door, which seemed like it would be cheesy (I think it was called Starstruck or something like that; it had Hollywood posters on the wall, and multiple cuisines on the menu). Hungry, we settled on Bengali platters (veg or non-veg) with tikka and dahl and other tasty things. The food was really good, and we couldn’t even finish!
Samiran suggested that after we ate at the Forum (a mall, really), that we go across the street to the Netaji Bhawan, a museum in the former home of Subhas Chandra Bose, a leader in the Independence Movement who split with Ghandi in 1938 over the best way to fight for independence. From what I gather, “Netaji” advocated for armed struggle, and was aligned with communist revolutions in other countries. West Bengal is to this day a communist state (one of two in India). Our hotel even sits on a street called Ho Chi Minh. As was consistent with the rest of our day, the museum had just closed, but we still got to see the famous getaway car that whisked Subhas Chandra Bose to safety in his “great escape” from house arrest, and to read materials posted on the outside of the building.
By that time it was after 5, and we needed to get back to the hotel before sunset so that Hanni could observe the beginning of Rosh Hoshana. We didn’t even get to the last two items on the itinerary, the Victoria Memorial and the Academy of Fine Arts. Still we had an interesting day, certainly not one on the typical tourist circuit.