Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Kolkata

I have finally left Bangladesh after almost seven months of Muslims, mosques and mosquitoes. I was quite desperate to get a chance to see somewhere new, and get a monetary break from the hugely oppressive Dhaka noise and air, and so Tim, Georgia and I made a quick dash to Kolkata, former capital of the British Raj and Bengal’s eternal city, for a change of scene. We have been reduced to going to Indian cities for some peace and quiet, clean air and relaxed ways of life, which for those that have seen Mumbai, Delhi or Kolkata should be an indication of just how miserable a place Dhaka is.

Despite being part of Bengal for somewhere around 600 years, and having only had sixty years and 250 kilometres of separation, the differences between Kolkata and Dhaka/Bangladesh are probably more than between Armstrong’s home town and the moon. The Indians have developed some wonderful innovations that Bangladeshis would do well to emulate. For example, they have underground sewage systems, rather than open ditches in the street. Taxi drivers put the meter on without asking, instead of tell you its broken and they need lots of baksheesh (Dhaka has more broken meters than any other city). Taxis also queue at innovative taxi ranks, where the passenger can approach the lead taxi and ask for a journey, rather than being attacked by rickshaws, CNGs and anything else that will carry you. Once inside, the horn is merely a decoration, used only when necessary, and not a substitute for a battering ram, whilst traffic lights are obeyed and all cars stick to their traffic lanes. In fact, they even have traffic lanes painted on the street! Finally, a driver will actually know where he is going, rather than say that he does and then proceed to drive about the city asking locals for directions.

The trappings of civilisation do not stop there. Kolkata is resplendent with trees, an endangered species in Dhaka, and has wide open maidens stretching through the heart of the city offering citizens a place to play cricket or walk or sit. In Dhaka, this would become a rubbish dump. The few cows that do walk the city streets are big, well fed and healthy looking. No one asks you why you have come to Kolkata – its obvious – a huge contrast with the constant enquiry of Bangladeshis as to why on Earth you want to come to their country.

Our journey to this ‘sub-continent Paris’ began near midnight in the heart of Dhaka, with the usual waiting and waiting for a bus, in fearful anticipation as to how much the real thing would vary against the beautiful picture on the ticket, and then the rush for a seat and contortionist impressions as anyone over 5’6’’ tries to sit down. Typically, some very old, very loud and very annoying film or music is played, and with another budding Schumacher at the wheel a new death-defying (usually) journey in Bangladesh begins. Our bus was not too bad and so I managed some sleep.

At some time around 6 am we arrived at Benapole, a small border town and the main land crossing into India from the Desh. It is a dump of a place (and that is saying a lot for somewhere in Bangladesh), and exists solely as a place for people crossing the border to spend three hours. The bus stopped on the edge of the town, where we all packed on to rickshaws provided by the company and were driven the 2 kilometres to the border post. Last September this may have seemed absurd, but the idea that the bus stops away from the border despite there being a perfectly good road, and that all travellers descend on a fleet of rickshaw vans is no longer odd: indeed, I’d be surprised if such things didn’t happen.

As a hot Indian sun began to rise over our shoulders, we passed lines and lines of Indian goods carriers packed with aubergines, bananas, rocks and all sorts else, lined up and waiting for the border to open. Most Indian-Bangladeshi trade passes through this border, brought by truck drivers that spend hours traversing Bengal. They also bring HIV with them: Benapole is the main route of the virus in this part of the subcontinent, and truck drivers are a major target group for HIV/AIDS programmes.

After buying an exit pass, getting our passports stamped, getting customs clearance, doing it all again because Georgia did not buy an exit pass, queuing to enter India, getting embarkation cards, watching Tim convince the Indian guards his passport was a fake (apparently they put him off signing his card which is why his signature deviated so much from the passport one) and getting some expensive parathas, we were able to board the Kolkata bus on the Indian side, which conveniently had driven all the way to the border crossing. After just 3 hours of a reasonably sensible driving and much less beeping we arrived in the centre of Kolkata.

This city is entirely a British creation. Before the establishment of a trading post by the East India Company in 1690, there was nothing but a few villages here. Over the years the city grew as the East India Company managed to win more trading concessions in deals with the Mughals of central north India and the Nawabs of Bengal. Due to problems in these empires, and fighting amongst different Indian factions trade was threatened, so the EIC built Fort William on the river and cleared the maidens for protection to lay the basics of the city. People flocked there as it offered protection, and the city grew and grew. It became the centre of trade in the subcontinent, and many people (Portuguese, Armenian, Danish, French, Indian, Turkish and British) became filthy rich. Indian princes seemed happy to be bought off in contracts for trading rights for the EIC and its Dutch, Danish, Portuguese and French rivals, and it was only as late as the failed Sepoy revolt in 1857 that they finally realised how much more they were missing out on and the British government took full control.

British power and wealth oozes out of every street and rushes through the air. The wide roads are lined with huge classical style buildings, or mixed with Victorian era warehouses and the memorials to a past Empire. The Victoria Memorial, which we saw on the last day, would put to shame anything that Mussolini, Hitler or Stalin could have created. Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe or Lincoln’s memorial are nothing compared to this hulk of marble towering above the maiden. Do not forget that all of these others had to build their memorials in their capital cities – Queen Victoria’s is thousands of miles of way on the edge of the subcontinent.

We saw the marble palace – a decaying Raj era house full of Italian marble statues, Rubens paintings and rosewood carvings 8 feet high. It screams its historical wealth at you as you enter inside. We were able to eat real bacon, and Chinese cooked by Chinese people, and full fried breakfasts. Tim and I made a trip out to the botanical gardens and saw what could be the strangest tree in existence. The Great Banyan Tree covers 14,400 square metres in area, and the full canopy is 450 metres in circumference. It is a big, big tree. But what makes it more remarkable is the proproots that support the weight of the branches. The branches of the tree spread outwards and are periodically supported by perfectly vertical roots that plunge 10 or 20 metres towards the ground before they enter the earth. It is truly bizarre to behold, especially as it has no trunk (this was removed in 1925) and is over 240 years old. The roots look like pillars supporting the branches, creating the impression of a forest from what is still only one tree.

We also paid a visit to the Motherhouse, Mother Teresa’s mission and now gravesite. It was interesting to see, but there is not much on display other than her tomb (which is in her office) and her last sandals, passport, pen, plate etc. Christianity is quite prevailing in the city, with major churches and St Paul’s Cathedral therein, and hearing bells at sunset instead of minaret calls is a much more familiar and more harmonious sound – bells always ring true, whereas some Imams definitely cannot sing. And of course, we could sit out at night and have a beer.
Sadly, our three days was quickly up and we took a GMG flight (‘first class all the way’) back to Dhaka. The plane was really two vacuum cleaners hooked up with wings, and despite aspirations to be an airline, we had instead tray tables that did not say up, seats held together with duct tape, no cooling at all and a shaky trip. Landing in Dhaka, back into the grime, dust, manic streets, heat and noise was not pleasant. Nor is the requirement to register at the police special branch every time we leave or arrive in the country, a painful two hour trip. Luckily I have a six month India visa, and so can make many more trips over.

5 comments:

kendra said...

hi tom! i just did a google search on the dhaka-calcutta drive, and your blog came up. i found this entry so fun to read!

i am living in pune, and will be in dhaka visiting friends in december. funny, though, i applied for vso a few months ago (only to get turned down).

take care

kendra

tim said...

i just read your speech about dakha and i feel very offended for bangladeshis, you must know than bangladesh was victim of colonisation and domination of the actual pakistan.
So please don't blame misreable people

Maria said...

Dont blame innocent people in fact they are the victim.

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Manzur Morshed said...

Hi Tom Can you tell me where are you from? Then I will describe about your country with proof

kornika said...

Strange to read about Kolkata coming as a relief. We Kolkatans are accustomed to hear how dirty the city is and how lazy are its people. However, I do think it is mean of u to put down Dhaka and compare it with Kolkata. The capital of Bangladesh may be crowded and dirty but it is a symbol of standing up for basic human rights. All Bengalees feel offended if you put down B'desh regardless of their country. The country is only 40+ yrs old and has a long way to go. You of all people to realize how the British and then the Pakistanis robbed the people of what is legitimately theirs.