Kolkata-Bodh Gaya

The yellow and black taxi sputters and chokes, pulling in front of the entrance. Several members of the hotel staff collect on the front drive to see me off. The smartly dressed doorman wearing his crisp whites and red turban waits, holding open the car door; his eyes reach me with a sparkle of amusement and warm dose of something that feels like approval, likely for my transportation choice. Before stepping inside I press both hands together in front of my chest and slightly bow my head in respect and make no attempt to suppress the smirk on my face.

The cab spurts and grumbles to a start and sets out through the metal security gates. My driver appears well stocked with pan masala (chew tobacco) and his navigational acumen also looks to be in check. The tide on this ride turns as the honkers become the honkees. Once hammering on his horn and happily yelling in Hindi at the cha-cha (uncle) stopped in front of us, our momentum stalls and in a matter of seconds the vehicle grinds to a crawl. The driver begins shifting the gears in mad intervals, to no avail. Cars are quickly waved past to accommodate the increasing volume of beeping.

It was strongly suggested by the hotel to leave two or three hours prior to the train’s departure. Because of this I have plenty of time to sit back and enjoy the show; within minutes a new taxi is hailed. Words are exchanged. Money moves hands. The backpack is lifted from trunk to trunk. Off again.

Travel through India requires acclimation. Last year’s trip included thousands of kilometers clocked by bus. It was fascinating, and quickly became my favorite mode of transport. Inside each coach a different world of changing passengers performed in a private show. Outside, the scents of masala spices lifted from simmering street food. People. Heat. Cows. Buying. Selling. Noise. Windows opened to the streaming passage of time, portals of saturated living canvases.

This is, year of the locomotive.

The taxi arrives at the Kolkata train station; heaps of people cover every square meter. Men look dirty, ragged, hot and tired, having spent the night where they now sit. No one asks for money as I approach. Rickshaws, askew on the rocks, drivers sprawled over the back seats still asleep. A break in the human blanket out front leads inside where a softer version of the same scene is throbbing. Women and children are spread under the station roof. They sleep on thin sheets of cardboard. Dozens of women and young girls are lined head to toe, awake, staring at the ceiling.

There is a ladies waiting room to pass the time until the train arrives. Once aboard, the scene changes and all one requires will arrive in due time: Newspaper, chai, dosa, water. The key is in the observation and seizing the opportunity when it strikes. First and second-class cars are air-cooled with tiered benches to sleep on; fresh sheets, pillow and blanket are also provided. Families spreading out homemade travel feasts is regular occurrence.

I am seated in a first class car with three businessmen. After climbing onto the top platform, I remove the sheets from the brown wrapper, spread them onto the bench and close my eyes. Upon waking I swing my legs over the side and quietly lower my feet to the floor. Two men have left the car and so I take a seat to watch the country pass through the water stained window.

Country roads meandering with nothing in sight but farmland. A couple riding a motorbike. He’s straddling the machine and she, she is seated to the side riding English, bright orange and green pillows flap long willowy waves behind. Water buffalo, sturdy and massive, succumbing to the heat in deep baths of thick mud. Villages. Homes made of soil, palms, grass and bamboo. Towns. Wooden structures. Crossing barriers. People waiting. Everyone stops for the train.

The man across from me wakes up. He wants to know if I’m travelling on business.

“No.”

Thus begins a discussion that passes the hours so quickly I wished to ride all the way to Delhi with him. We speak about business, economics, and politics, then move onto more intriguing topics; love, marriage, religion, faith, Spirituality and India.

He tells me of the men his father has met, living high in the Himalayas, more than two hundred years old, living off nothing but air. He shares his sad belief that his children’s generation is devoid of spiritual faith. He divulges the metaphysics of Indian heritage; faith and family, both planted by the seeds of God, infinitely intertwined. For in India, the path forward and the path behind, lead to one and the same destination.

~ by Christine Fowle

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.

kolkata__taxis_2-224x150.jpg

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