From the moment I landed in Kolkata,  was whisked away in an auto taxi from the days of Imperial British India, I’ve kind of felt like I’ve been in a movie. Not quite Alice in Wonderland. Kipling called this enigmatic capital of West Bengal, “The City of Dispicable Night,” referring to the unspeakable poverty and disease still so apparent throughout the recovering city. I had done minimal research prior to my arrival, via news articles of current events online, nonfiction and fiction Indian novels. But nothing could prepare me for the actual experience of this culturally rich colonial city so steeped in horrors of the past and present. The smell of sweet incense and spicy chai punctuated by the pungency of urine and excrement.

bathing to cool off in Kolkata's 40 degree weather

bathing to cool off in Kolkata's 40 degree weather

Kolkata is powerful to my emotions. I am ashamed to feel anger and frustration, until it is overcome by gratitude and recovered patience. A man on a bike toting a crate of mangoes unapologetically rams into my calf on a crowded street, spawning a huge black bruise. I am secretly pleased when the next thing he rams into is the street curb, flattening his tire. A kind Nepalese takes pity and offers me a pomegranate.

the colorful streets of Kolkata

the colorful streets of Kolkata

I enjoyed this passage from Paul Theroux’s The Elefanta Suite:

She had come to understand what the solitary long distance traveler eventually knows after months on the road- that in the course of time, a trip stops being an interlude of distractions, detours, pursuing sights, looking for pleasures, and becomes a series of disconnections. Giving up comfort, abandoning and being abandoned, passing time in obscure places…Solving problems, finding meals, buying clothes and giving away old ones, scavenging for cheap hotels, studying maps, being alone but not lonely. It [was about] safety and finding serenity, making discoveries in all this locomotion…like a bird of passage migrating slowly in a sequence of flights…moving with certainty onward, alone.

Stirred by the lyricism of chance events. Of good days, and bad days.

Kolkata is not an easy place to travel alone as a female. The stares, the men muttering obscenities I’m glad I can’t understand, the disapproving glares from women and men at a foreign woman traveling alone. From the groveling waiter at the British teahouse, “Yes madam?” “Anything else I can do at your request, Madam?” to the intrusive males who plop down next to me at the street food stand, “Are you married?” “Why are you alone?”  to the seedy railway agent who tries to sell me a hard seat instead of a sleeper car on an overnight train, “Just sneak into someone else’s bed at night”. He loves telling me he is right and I am wrong and that he speaks 5 languages and that he knows everything about India. I feel the aggression and the invasion of privacy.

a sign at the local cinema

a sign at the local cinema

It’s a damn shame that the heat and the sexist cultural barriers have made Kolkata difficult for me- it is an inspiring city diverse with architectural beauties, arts and intellect- the breeding ground for many world writers and artists. But I need to take too many deep yoga breaths (‘I’m in India. I’m in India. Surrender yourself) to survive the streets, the harassment and the heat, and eventually my thick skin wears down.

After a mere 2 days, I hopped on the overnight train to Darjeeling (the railway not nearly as hellacious as the horror stories, but far from pleasant- perhaps I will spring for first class next time). And tomorrow, I will be in Sikkim, a Buddhist state wedged between Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan.

Darjeeling welcomes me

Darjeeling welcomes me


~ by ceciliabien on June 25, 2009.

One Response to “Breathing”

  1. Cecilia, I am a stranger who found your blog through your brother’s. I eagerly read every post and I am so thankful for your honesty. I love your blog, the photos and the writing. Every time I log onto your blog, I hope for your safety. I am a Buddhist, so I hope your time in Sikkim is lovely.

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