KolkataPosted: October 3, 2011
We had high expectations of Kolkata. We were expecting human misery on an unprecedented scale, rivers of shit running in the street, accommodation that resembled the black hole itself and generally about the most fucked up place imaginable. Stepping out of the railway station at seven the morning after another overnight cattle class train trip it seemed for a moment that we might have been right. It stank like a sewer and we were accosted immediately by a jostling horde of taxi drivers. However as we’ve come to realise over the past week there’s quite a bit more than just poverty to The City of Dreadful Night [ninja edit: crap, the City of Dreadful Night in Kipling’s story is actually Lahore, another place which is actually quite nice].
After negotiating the fare to our hotel we gallantly got our driver to stop to offer assistance to two western damsels in distress. They were looking for accommodation and we offered them a ride with us. They accepted and our driver immediately upped the fare. It was still cheaper overall when divided between the lot of us so we didn’t kick up too much of a fuss and we were on our way. The ride to the hotel was even closer to the train station than we had thought and despite our extended haggling when we arrived the taxi suddenly seemed rather overpriced. I paid him off while the others got their bags out.
“How much do we owe him?” one of the girls asked.
“Oh I just paid him so…”
“Oh really? Thanks that’s so nice.”
“…you can pay me the 20 rupees,” I finished under my breath.
They left and we checked into our hotel. We went for a room with air conditioning and it also came with a television. We hadn’t experienced luxury like that since, well, since leaving home. Paying for AC and a TV was a mistake. The first day that we lay around doing nothing it was a joke – crack den Wednesday we called it. Now that it’s been a week it’s turned into crack den life and it’s less funny. There’s three of us travelling together now; my mate Sam and an Irish dude who we picked up the other day in Darjeeling. He’s passed out in bed next to me at the moment with his shoes still on from last night. It’s 11.30am. As you can imagine he’s not big into breaking national stereotypes but he is a fucking bang up dude and within an hour of meeting him we were all singing “We’re the three best friends that anybody could have!” Within three hours of that we were all passed out in the same bed. Not in a gay way though. Because that would be, like, gay. Despite being terrible influences on each other and our hectic schedule of lying in bed and watching RWC games we have actually managed to get out a bit and see some pretty eye-opening stuff though.
Kolkata is one of the last places in the world where they have human powered rickshaws. Not the bicycle type either – these guys literally trot in front of you dragging the cart you’re sitting in like some fucking colonial. What’s worse though, not hiring them and taking a taxi? Then they don’t eat. These guys are destitute, they don’t even own the carts, they rent them and then at night they sleep on the street next to them.
What’s funny though is that we pass the same junkies in the street every day shooting up. Like brazenly, squatting in the dust, slapping up a vein, all using the same hypodermic syringe, the same one every day, staring at us with the same blank stare on their same sunken faces while I snap a picture. Where are they getting the money to shoot junk when there are people here who look like they’re starving? Am I a monster for wanting to take a photo? Is heroin really really cheap here? I’ve never tried heroin but I don’t think this is the place to start.
One day I took a walk in Sonagachi, one of the largest in red light districts in Asia. It’s a pretty tightly packed area where something like 10,000 prostitutes service something like 60,000 men a day. If you’ve seen the documentary Born into Brothels well it’s filmed there. As you can imagine I didn’t find it a very nice place. The kind of place where you felt like clocking every man in the street in the face just for being there. But then I was there too wasn’t I? I felt guilty for being there and I felt guilty for being a man. I visited a place called Freeset there. I’ll save telling you about that for another post but it was an awesome, inspiring place. I hope I’ve got you excited about reading that post because I got excited about Freeset.
We also did and saw a lot of normal every day stuff in Kolkata, plus some decadent and depraved stuff on top. I’ve talked about the poverty but there was also the prosperity. There was the out of this world wealthy sort – big SUVS running the rickshaws off the road, women looking down their noses at us in a hotel bar because of our clothes, paying 1000 rupees (our daily budget) to go a nightclub with socialites, one of whom offered to take us to his racetrack. Then there was the more mundane working class kind of prosperity – a glass of chai and a cigarette at the end of a day’s work, a meal in a restaurant, going clothes shopping with the family. The thing about India is it’s all rolled up together; the poor aren’t just begging outside McDonalds, they’re living there. The super rich are living side by side with the poor and everyone else is squeezed in between.
Another surprise that Kolkata dished up is that it’s been easier to be a tourist here than nearly every other large city in India. The streets are actually pretty clean and there aren’t that many touts. There were a few on our street but once we headed off down the road we could pretty much roam mostly unmolested. This was a vast improvement on Delhi and Mumbai. I guess there are fewer tourists here. After a few days even the taxi drivers on our street recognised us and one morning one shouted out, “Hello! I don’t even waste my energy, I know you walk everywhere!”
We shared a laugh and a handshake and I took a mental photograph of his face to try and remember him in case we ever did need a taxi.
So that’s been Kolkata for me. For a while I got a bit pissed off paying double local prices for things but then I realised that’s just the flip side of the coin we make off them to subsidize our western lifestyles. Like it or not, the reason why a few of us are so absurdly wealthy is that we can get away with paying these poor sods fuck all for doing jobs that we don’t want to do. At the end of it all I came to the realisation that if you can’t look that in the face you shouldn’t be living on this planet. And I felt incredibly fortunate for my own incredible good fortune.