You may have read Dominic La Pierre’s best-selling book, The City of Joy. It sold millions of copies and spawned a not-so-successful big-budget Hollywood film. The story is of a Polish priest who chooses to make his home in Calcutta’s Anand Nagar slums. We follow the trials and tribulations that make up his daily life, and his interactions with the slum residents, including in particular with Hasari, a rickshaw puller.
[Context: When I finished law-school I set off on an extended voyage of discovery across Asia and Europe, with Camilla, my girlfriend at the time. This included backpacking in India for more than three months. I wrote a series of short stories about our experiences there. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to see them published, they have languished in my cupboard ever since. Not many people have read them but recently, a friend who has suggested I should dig out my India tales, edit and “publish” them via this blog – an online book of sorts. There are 18 “chapters” in total, and from time to time I will post the next one, although each can be read standalone. In revisiting these stories now, almost two decades after they were written, it amazes me how little things have changed in India. In many respects, the events described back then could just as easily have happened today. I hope you enjoy].
Both the book and film adaptation of The City of Joy paint a graphic picture of Calcutta – a sea of shanty huts, slums, emaciated looking people, and streets overflowing in human excrement. I reread the book on the overnight train journey from Darjeeling to Calcutta, and arrived expecting an immediate appointment with the locales and the people it described.
How surprised I was, then, to discover that Central Calcutta, physically at least, is not a festering sore on India’s east coast and is instead unexpectedly genteel. For decades the city was the capital of British India, and it shows: streets are laid out in a classic English grid, avenues are wide and tree-lined, and imposing building facades that appear to have been airlifted from Central London line the streets. St. Paul’s Church is a perfect replica of an English parish church; Eden Gardens, now decidedly derelict, are laid out in an unmistakably English public garden design. The Indian Museum and the Victoria Memorial Museum buildings are architectural anomalies: white Victorian structures finished with grand flights of stairs and towering columns, standing imperially in the hustle and bustle of modern-day Calcutta.
The city of Calcutta (or as more commonly known these days, Kolkata) is home to somewhere between 12 and 16 million people. It grows daily, as rural peasants from the surrounding provinces pour in, a never-ending stream of starry-eyed migrants hoping to make their fortunes in the “big smoke”. It sprawls for miles in every direction, although just over a century ago Calcutta was not much more than a small British trading post on the banks of the Hooghly River, taking its name from a local village – Kalicut – that was eventually swallowed up into the mass of the ever-expanding metropolis.
On our first day in Calcutta we learned first-hand that the place has the dubious distinction of being the only city left in India (and, for that matter, probably the world) where rickshaws pulled by humans have not been replaced by motorised, or at least pedal-powered, ones. As we arrived at our hotel, we were surrounded by a rambunctious group of rickshaw pullers, each entreating us – begging us, really – to use their services for sightseeing: “Hello mister! Rickshaw? Rickshaw?!”
What to do?
Some travellers we met felt perfectly comfortable hailing a human-powered rickshaw, on the basis that whether or not they used them, the rickshaw pullers would still be there. “At least“, so one American sipping a mango juice told me one day, “when I use the rickshaws I pay more than an Indian, and so I improve the rickshaw puller’s income. Without being able to service tourists like me, their lives would be even worse“.
But we just couldn’t do it. Calcutta’s rickshaw pullers are emaciated half-persons, and if The City of Joy can be trusted on this score, they suffer terribly from back problems, foot sores and lung infections, and the average life expectancy of a rickshaw puller is around 45. Certainly, it felt wrong to us to be pulled around town by a man harnessed to a rickshaw like a pack animal. We opted for taxis and walking instead.
And in walking around central Calcutta, we quite literally almost bumped into another other feature of Dominic La Pierre’s book, the street people. I didn’t notice at first, but after a few days it dawned on me that some of the crowd at each street corner were not pedestrians, but rather permanent residents.
The more I looked the more I saw, and eventually it began to seem as if half of Calcutta was living on the streets. Mother’s baked bread and cooked rice on shanty stoves while children played and unemployed men squatted and smoked; all this taking place on the sides of streets on which rudimentary shelters had been ingeniously constructed from scraps of metal and cardboard. Entire families were living – actually making a home for themselves – on spare parts of the sidewalk.
Hollywood might have you believe that amongst these street people you will see noble souls triumphing against the odds; that you will find happy, smiling faces on people who, despite being downtrodden, are still proud and dignified of spirit. Utter crap. What I saw on Calcutta’s pavements were broken people to whom fate had dealt the cruellest of possible blows. These poor people may have, most admirably, been making the most of their lives, but to me the street dwellers in Calcutta were the image of pure misery. I did not find it even a tiny bit moving, or uplifting, or touching. More than anything I felt sick to see how Western pop culture has romanticised what is, in reality, unmitigated human suffering.
One night we decided to catch the sound and light show at the Victoria Memorial. Earlier that afternoon we had passed by the box office. We were politely told that although we could be issued tickets in advance, there was really no need, as plenty of seats were available for that evening’s show, and if we arrived a few minutes before the show started at 8:00pm, we could buy tickets on the spot. So we left sans tickets, and spent the rest of the day absorbed by fruitless browsing at the markets.
At 7:45pm we hailed one of Calcutta’s distinctive black taxis, which looked a lot like a leftover prop in a 1920’s gangster movie. During the ride the cab driver proudly informed us that he was a born and bred native of Calcutta and knew the streets like the back of his hand. Despite this, he still managed to drop us off at the wrong entrance to the Victoria Memorial.
Thus it was that we found ourselves running alongside the outer perimeter fence of the Victoria Memorial, through a grubby clothing exhibition that had been set up in some mouldy tents. We heard the sound and light show begin, and we arrived at the ticket booth panting, breathless, and drenched in sweat from the unexpected exercise in the humid, sticky air. It was exactly 8.04pm.
“Two please“, I said to the ticket clerk, fumbling in my pocket for some change.
“But sir, the show has already begun“.
“Yes, that’s fine, we’re a bit late, but we don’t mind.” I said.
“No sir, you cannot go in. The show has started” came the reply.
“But we want to go in. It’s OK if we’ve missed a bit“.
“No sir. It is not permitted“.
The sound and light show is an open air arrangement, with a semi-circle of chairs arranged in the parklands of the Victoria Memorial. We could see empty chairs from where we stood, although the angle at which the ticket booth was placed meant that the screen was not visible. We could hear the commentary droning on, and I was getting a little agitated.
I said: “Look, all we want is to go in and see the show. Here – take this 50 rupees, and you can keep the change. Just give us two tickets“.
“No sir. It is not permitted“.
At this juncture, a big and extremely well-built security guard ambled over. He asked what the problem was, and I explained the situation. He thought about it for a minute, before gravely shaking his head and pronouncing his verdict:
“Sir, the show has begun. You cannot go in“.
“But, why not?” I persisted. “There are empty seats. I can see them from here. I promise we’ll be quiet“.
“It is not permitted“.
“It is not permitted“.
“We just want to see the show“.
“You can return tomorrow“.
“We are leaving Calcutta tomorrow“. This was a bluff. “We need to see the show tonight“.
“Sir, the show has begun. You cannot enter. It is not permitted“.
While the security guard and I were engaged in this scintillating repartee, Camilla had been quietly trying to reason with the ticket clerk, also to no avail.
“We came this afternoon especially to buy tickets, and we were told that we didn’t need to buy them in the afternoon because we could buy them now“, I heard her say.
“Yes, but the ticket booth has closed. It is not permitted“.
“If we had bought tickets this afternoon, and arrived five minutes late, would you let us in?”
“So why can’t you sell us two tickets now and let us in“.
“It is not permitted“.
Have I mentioned before that Indian’s are, in general terms, passionately attached to rules, and will adhere to them strictly, regardless of the logic that may inform the situation?
I lost my temper.
“WE WANT TO SEE THE SHOW!” I yelled at the security guard. Given my size advantage over the average Indian male, I had discovered that a raised voice and a bit of theatrical anger could occasionally open closed doors. Not so with this muscle-bound ogre, who even as I shouted puffed out his chest, and seemed to grow in size before my eyes.
“Don’t you shout, you fucking“, he shouted back.
In India, we had noticed, the verb “fucking” is sometimes used as a noun, and if I had not been so worked up I may have found this kind of funny. Now, however, the “F” word had entered the ring, and pure macho pride took over. So despite my brain saying “run, you fool“, I found myself squaring off with the security guard.
“What did you say, dickhead?” was my opening line.
“You fuck off” was the instant reply.
“Let’s just go“, Camilla implored of me, trying desperately to keep the peace, and to keep me in one piece.
“No, I want to see the show, and butt-face over here had better apologise first“. I was now being stubborn.
“Come on, I want to go“, Camilla said, pulling me away. Reluctantly I turned to leave.
“And fuck you“, called out the security guard, for good measure.
I turned around in a rage: “Why don’t you come on over here and say that to my face, big shot“.
So he did.
In military parlance, it would be safe to say that things had escalated to Code Red, and it was only going to be a few moments more before things got ugly. Realising this, Camilla started to cry – I think more out of annoyance at my stubbornness than anything else.
And what do you know? Almost instantly, the security guard backed down, and the ticket seller hurriedly gestured to us that he would show us to some chairs. It was truly amazing. In India, so it would seem, screaming, shouting and male bravado are no match for a few well placed female tears.
I can’t remember much of the sound and light show itself. Instead, in my mind I kept reliving my near punch-up with the security guard, trying to convince myself that I would have stood a sporting chance. Camilla’s body language was making it absolutely clear that she was most unimpressed with my pig-headed behaviour, and so I was also furiously thinking of ways of redeeming myself before the night’s end.
After what seemed like only a few minutes the screen lit up with images of smiling, well-fed Indian faces, and a deep voice intoned: “…and Calcutta opened her arms to the masses, saying “come to me, and I will give you life“”. Then the screen went blank, the lights illuminating the Victoria Memorial blinked out, and the fifty or so members of the audience began gathering up their belongings and leaving.
As we walked out, I looked around for the ticket seller and the security guard, in order to thank the former and avoid the latter, but both had disappeared into the night. We left the Victoria Memorial Sound and Light Experience without any further incident, although for the next few weeks Camilla took great pleasure in reminding me that but for her judicious use of tears, I would probably have got the shit kicked out of me.
One Friday, we spent the day exploring Calcutta’s markets. They stretch for miles, in a disorderly tangle of roads, lanes and alleys. We passed the day browsing in the textile stores, taking in the colours of the vegetables and spices, tasting exotic fruits, and wrinkling up our noses at the slimy buckets of exposed and very smelly fish.
I also had a shave at a street-side barber, where a ten-year old boy brandished an exposed razor blade frighteningly close to my jugular. “Don’t worry“, his father assured me, “he is an excellent shaver. I am teaching him all I know“. It was indeed a fine shave, with not so much as a nick, but I wasn’t quite sure about the traditional Indian post-shave massage, where the lad repeatedly slapped my face, really really hard, until it felt raw and burning.
We got lost, and in the late afternoon we found ourselves wandering aimlessly in the steamy, covered, New Market. The temperature was an oppressive 38 degrees. We were passing a bakery, and stepped inside, as much to get out of the heat as to find a snack.
Inside it was cooler, and the air was heavy with the scent of freshly-baked bread. Loaves of various shapes and sizes were haphazardly arranged on chipped wooden boards. And then, browsing the shelves, I came across not one, but eight, perfectly made challot – plaited bread which Jews traditionally eat at the Sabbath meal. I thought maybe it was just coincidence, but further browsing turned up a shelf of bagels, a tray of mandelbrod (almond bread) and a cake that looked a lot like my grandmother’s world-famous kugelhoff.
So there we were, standing in an Indian bakery, surrounded by an assortment of classical middle-European Jewish baked goods. Outside, through the windows of the bakery, we could see Indian men pushing wheelbarrows back and forth, women in saris haggling with merchants, and cows were grazing happily in the garbage. It was all very perplexing.
A voice called out: “You, where are you from?”
The question had come from the rear of the bakery, where three Indian men were seated behind a counter, sipping tea. I replied cautiously, “Australia“.
“No, no, no“, said one of the men. “You are not from Australia. Where are you really from?”
“Well, my mother is South African originally, and my father is from Israel“, I answered.
“Ah, I thought so. Shalom shalom. Ma’shlomcha? Welcome to my shop. You’ll see that my bread is very tasty – the best challot in India“.
I was, to say the very least, a bit taken aback: Calcutta’s covered markets are not the sort of place I would normally associate with pre-Sabbath shopping.
Introductions were made and fresh tea distributed, and we learned that this particular bakery, known as Nahoum’s, had been owned and operated by a Calcutta Jewish family for more than 50 years. The present day owner, David, informed me that whilst most Jews had left Calcutta for Israel, England, and even Australia, his family had stayed. David told us that there is no operating synagogue in Calcutta these days, although he guessed that there were around 100 Jews still living in the city. He proudly said: “as long as there is one Jew, I’ll continue to bake challot on Friday. It is tradition“.
One of the other men seated behind the counter was a Jew who had migrated from Calcutta to Israel 25 years ago. This was his first visit to Calcutta since he left. We chatted about life in Israel, his service in the Israeli army, and immigrant absorption. When I asked him what he missed most about life in India, he replied instantly: “the food, and cricket“.
We left the bakery more than an hour later, weighed down with bread, rolls, bagels, and, how could we resist, two challot.
Our train leaving Calcutta for Madras was scheduled to depart on a Sunday at 3:00pm, and we decided to spend our last few hours that morning at the Calcutta Botanical Gardens, specifically to see the world’s largest baobab tree (labelling something with the words “largest”, “highest” or any other superlative has the same effect on me as opening a honey pot in front of a hive might have on the bees).
The Botanical Gardens are on the east side of the Hooghly River, and to reach them from central Calcutta we were advised to take a taxi to the Babu Ghat, from where a river ferry would take us directly to the gardens. On arrival at the ferry terminal, however, we were informed that there was no ferry service to the gardens on a Sunday. But, there was a commuter ferry across the river to Howrah, the area of Calcutta on the west bank of the Hooghly River, and from there we could get another cab to the gardens.
A short ferry ride later we were at the sprawling multipurpose Howrah train, bus and ferry terminal, where signs in English told us that we could purchase a prepaid taxi voucher to our destination, thus ensuring we would not be ripped-off. A novel and attractive concept for the tourist, although with one small problem: once we had purchased the damned voucher, taxi drivers avoided us like the plague. More than one surly driver told us that unless we were prepared to pay a negotiated fare – quite a lot higher than the prepaid rate – we would be ignored and left to rot in the taxi rank all day. Which seemed a tad unfair, seeing that that local Indians with pre-paid taxi vouchers were not experiencing similar difficulties.
I appealed to the policeman supervising the taxi rank for help, but he shook his head and waved me away, as if to say: “don’t look at me pal; I just work here“.
After some time we found a taxi driver who was willing to take our pre-paid voucher with only a comparatively small additional “supplement”. He set off and for fifteen minutes weaved his way through the increasingly dense traffic, until eventually we came to a complete standstill. After a few minutes without moving, the driver turned to us, and unable to speak English, he just shrugged. I called out to a passing schoolboy, who came over to the taxi to act as interpreter. Through him, the driver told us that roadwork up ahead had rendered the road impassable for the day, and there was no alternate route to the Botanical Gardens, and we would just have to accept that our planned excursion was cancelled.
Now, you may well ask why, if the driver knew this, had he even bothered to set off with us in the first place? But we barely had time to consider this question before he answered it himself: according to our schoolboy translator, the driver had very generously consented to return us to Howrah station, but we would have to pay him the return fare. In other words, our taxi driver had knowingly driven us into a dead-end, and was now politely threatening to abandon us in the middle of no-where unless we paid him extra.
Of course. Extortion, but what choice did we have really? So we paid. And 45 minutes after setting off, we found ourselves back where we started at the Howrah train, bus and ferry terminal. With an unexpected extra few hours available, we decided to return to Central Calcutta by walking across the Howrah Bridge.
The Howrah Bridge is a Calcutta landmark, spanning the Hooghly River and connecting Central Calcutta with Howrah. It is built entirely of stark gray metal girders, and so despite having been erected more than half a century ago, it looks like a temporary structure which the bulldozers will be along to tear down any day now. Beneath the bridge, crowds use the gentle sloping concrete walls of the bridge’s foundations as a beach on which to sun themselves, and from which to dive into the murky brown river.
The Howrah Bridge consists of four lanes in each direction, and there is a wide pedestrian path running each way as well. It is supposedly the world’s busiest cantilever bridge (100,000 vehicles and 150,000 pedestrians per day) and it is permanently choked with bumper-to-bumper traffic.
We joined the surging stream of pedestrians, and found ourselves walking across the bridge surrounded by Calcutta’s poor, clutching their few meagre belongings, their clothes little more than rags. The rest of Indian society seemed to be travelling alongside us, in a motley assortment of vehicles. And even though they were moving at slower than walking speed, the important thing was that they were in a vehicle of some sort – a clear indication to the world at large that they had made it; that they were a cut above the plebs who had to cross the bridge by foot.
There were endless rows of horrendously crowded buses. Those who were able to afford a spot in a bus, but were unable to find a seat, sat on the roof or hung from the doors, so that the buses looked almost half-human, like a metallic shell with living, breathing appendages. Those “lucky” enough to find a seat inside the body of the bus were, so it seemed to me, the real losers – crammed in so tightly that all I could see from the outside was a solid mass of sweaty human flesh pushed up against the window panes.
Then there were the countless taxis, in which the moneyed classes were being transported across the river. And, at the top of the Howrah Bridge pecking order, were the private vehicles ranging from rickety old jalopies to shiny new BMW’s. There were also swarms of large trucks, belching smoke into the air and teetering under the weight of their enormous loads. They were all locally manufactured Tata trucks, mostly old, belching think black smoke that made my eyes water.
There were even a few sacred cows, wandering aimlessly through the traffic, safe in the knowledge that even if a driver was unperturbed by the thought of killing a living deity, in all likelihood the vehicles on the bridge would never be travelling fast enough to do any real damage.
The Howrah Bridge that day was an extraordinary crush of vehicles and humanity. It was dusty and dirty. It was old, and does not seem to be coping well with the demands that the late 20th century was making of it. It was overcrowded, and the air was heavy with pollution. The bridge was teeming with man, animal, and machine. It seemed about ready to burst at the seams, or to fall apart at the slightest provocation.
Yet surprisingly, the Howrah Bridge worked – the cars and buses and taxis and trucks and pedestrians somehow moved from one side of the river to the other, in a form of structured chaos.
And amongst the filth and disorder I saw little touches of ordinary greatness: the smile on the face of a small street urchin, a chewing gum seller winding his way between the traffic selling his wares, an old grandmother carrying her bundle of vegetables.
The Howrah Bridge is a living organism, and is a microcosm of India herself. It is a wonderful, wonderful place, and I’m glad we made the effort: a visit to India without walking across the Howrah Bridge would not have been complete.
[The next post in this series will be in about four weeks time: Chapter 5: Train Ride from Hell]