Kolkata

The aircraft drops into Kolkata. After descending the steps onto the asphalt, heavy dust clouds march forward rows of sentinels bearing thick, steely heat.

Welcome to India.

The single dusty airport terminal consists of a pass through customs and quick retrieval of my backpack, then making my way between the short metal gates. Behind it, are men gripping name signs anxiously scanning exiting passengers. Beyond the first wave rolls a turbulent sea of men gripping no signs.

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Refracting light under the pounding sun, a line of cabs is finally visible in between the heat waves and palm trees. Glancing at the pre-paid taxi receipt in my hand I note the overcharge of five Rupees. Approaching the black and jewel-toned cars, their stature represents a fleet of old-school apparitions of finer years past. At the stand, an Indian businessman purposefully steps in front of me. I pull a countermove.

In the steamy taxi, the man behind the wheel mops his sweating head in a profuse sweeping motion, repeatedly turning the key in the ignition to no avail. The machine finally lurches forward and roars to life. With a couple jerks a slow momentum is achieved; the auto makes it to the road and merges into traffic. The honking commences: With a general lack of signage and no road markings, sounding the horn is how pedestrians, bikes, rickshaws, people, dogs, cows, goats and the like, are warned of approaching traffic. The raucous pitches scream in a beastly crescendo of orchestral turmoil. The noise can be incessant.

Barely road-bound and the driver pulls off to the side of the pavement. This isn’t alarming. Sudden stopping is a frequent occurrence and it is just a matter of what specific odd or end is at hand for this particular driver. Bag of feed for some chickens, box of greasy car parts to fix engine trouble or in this case, pan masala; chew tobacco. He seems satiated as he sits down, rips open the packet and stuffs a hunk under his gums. If he’d waited one more minute he could’ve purchased it from the guy stepping in between cars stopped on the street. Every eight feet a driver is leaning out his window hucking gobs of black chew-spit onto the ground.

From the airport to the hotel the entire stretch is crowded with slums, shacks in various states of dilapidation, some with walls others with tarps in place of walls, measuring about the size of one king bed. The drive is enmeshed with such housing, on either side of the busy road and under the overpass. Black, sticky exhaust billows behind the rickshaws, taxis and busses.

As we enter the city, traffic begins to thin, the noise calms and the early evening air is a welcome offering. With windows rolled down, slowly we weave through crowded city streets. It is only now that finally, I feel connected — connected to the milling, the erratic city sounds and spinning wheels of Kolkata commerce.

Then I smell it: My India. It is a distinct mixture of swirling rich spices, musty darkness, perfumed incense, and faith. It pours into the taxi and caresses my skin, bathing me in the sands of time.

Namaste, Mother India.

Let’s dance.

~ by Christine Fowle; Kolkata, India —  July 2012 ~ Photo Credit: Kolkata Taxis by keribar