Monday, 7 September 2015

The city of a billion car horns. Kolkata.

If you closely peruse my Goodreads lists, you will see I am rather partial to a book set in Afghanistan, Pakistan and  of course India and I love to watch documentaries about the country. India just intrigues and enthrals me. 

Sue Perkins is like marmite you either love her or loathe her. I think she is marvellous,so pairing Perkins with an Indian Travelogue about kolkata   ( Calcutta to the more colonial thinker in the audience) was just a stroke of genius and her first foray out onto the streets is an extravaganza of colour and noise and the ever present smiling local laughing at her naive bemusement and excitement. A man exclaims something at her  and "absolutely" is her jolly reply. Seconds later in the melee she catches a man with her gesticulation " I am so sorry, I think I just punched you in the face" she says... Oh Goody! This is going to be fun!

Once a sleepy little village, Kolkata was "discovered" by those pesky British folk and thought to be a rather spiffing place to put down a few roots for the Empire, it's location on the Bay of Bengal was perfect for ex pats to move in and all manner of glorious goods to be shipped out of India.


The Famous East India company took up Residence, think Tom Hollander in Pirates of the Caribbean and you pretty much have the idea. India became the playground of the British Military and the Merchant Class. Not to worry though, the  Brits brought something very , very important with them to sweeten the deal. Tea.  



Whilst we stole it from the ancient folk of China, Tea has become a bit of a big deal in India. Sue tastes her first cup in India with very smiley sweet guide Abra who finds her hilarious as she sips her sweet and yet bitter brew from a small terracotta cup shaped like an acorn. Her Chai in hand, she expresses embarrassment for the atrocities of British Rule, the raping of natural resources, subjugation of the people and  the enforcing of  a Victorian lifestyle on a foreign land.

 Abra is philosophical about it. He says Calcutta got the buildings, the train and the Tram Andover course the Tea on the deal and unlike the brew, India is no longer bitter.

Clay tea cups are the height of recyclability. The clay they are made of drawn from the river, softened by hand, or more correctly foot,  are thrown, fired, filled and then thrown again,  into the gutter to be washed back into the river in due course. 

Sue goes to find the skilled potters who make them. She meets Guddu,  Vimla and her eleven year old daughter. They are a rum bunch, particularly Vimla who is a very hard task master considering that she cannot speak her pupil's language and Sue has never made a tea cup in her life. The first job after stamping on the clay for a bit is to slice through it with what appears to be cheese wire to hook out any errant stones. Sue gets covered in clay not because she is inept with a wire, she builds up an impressive rhythm. No , she is splattered in clay because if she does not keep an eye on Vimla, she throws it at her with a devilish twinkle in her eye.



Sues attempts at rolling the clay which I am presuming is to remove air bubble, are met with equal derision and alacrity.



All the while Guddu is knocking out his cups, he estimates he can throw three thousand a day. When one considers that his family is one of many in this area as it  seems this is the cup making district; one wonders how many cups of tea are imbibed by the Kolkata public daily.  The beauty of the tea craze here is that unlike in the UK or USA where street beverages are coffee based on the whole, the receptacles are utterly biodegradable. As a tea drinker myself, this idea gives me much pleasure!

Working an eighteen hour day for fifteen  days straight, to earn the money for their children's education, the cup makers are hindered by a sudden rain storm that starts to wash all their precious clay away, which might explain why Vimla is a bit grumpy when Sue takes to the Potters wheel. She tells her she has no brain and she must cut properly or she will never succeed. Poor Sue's cups are somewhat wonky. However I think Sue's confidence really takes a knock when Vimla,  Guddu and the whole gang just pack up and leave, but this is their livelihood after all  and at 3000 cups a day, I guess a inept, albeit well intentioned, skinny English woman puts a crimp in your productivity.


To make amends she sits with Protima their eleven year old daughter and helps her with her English Homework with hilarious results. Apparently Sue is very old!

Fired overnight, those 3000 cups must now be delivered across the city to the many tea shops. Some carried in baskets on the head, which as Sue says and can testify must be very heavy. Others rather helpfully transported on hand pulled Rickshaws. These are a controversial form of transit as they are banned in other Indian cities, the rather marvellously moustachioed rickshaw puller here seems very happy. With 6000 still being pulled in Kolkata today  you can see the continued appeal, street are very narrow and exceptionally busy, so smaller more nippy transport must be a Godsend and provide vital taxi, delivery and school bus services, but they take their lives in their own hands as traffic in India is frenetic, unruly and chaotic. All this for just £1.50 a day.




The major difference between this bustling, traffic heavy city and say London or Paris is that the madness is tolerated and accepted. The tuk - tuk , bicycles and all the other vehicles are the circulatory system for all business done in the city, so  despite the constant blare of horns, road rage and aggression just do not surface.


The British did much to invigorate Calcutta, building sumptuous buildings so that parts look like the streets of London with Dickensian architecture nestled on wide avenues and sumptuous opulence on display. The successful trade routes too and from the region brought many immigrants from across the globe so to keep things "Civilised Old Boy" the city was divided into sections, the White area where the British lived, the Black town where the Indians lived and the grey area where, well everyone else was squeezed in. Today named Bowbazar , Armenians , Jews , Chinese and Arabs are all living in relative  harmony together.





The Chinese population has been in the city for two hundred years and their numbers were as high as 20,000 but are steady at about 2000 right now. Their  main trade is in high quality leather goods. She has her fortune read by shaking some sticks and telling the goddess her name and age and asking for what she wants in life. The first stick to fall out of the pot is her fortune and lot 68 seems like a very fortuitous one, all her legal cases will be won, it is a good year for farming and marriage and it all seems life is going to smile on Ms. Perkins !




A few blocks away a minor miracle occurs 1000 men succeed in halting the traffic as the Imsn calls the faithful to prayer. It is a sight to behold. The retreating Brits decided to divide the faiths so the Hindus stayed in West Bengal and the Muslims were sent to what is now Bangladesh and was known then as East  Pakistan. However Kolkota now has the largest Muslim population of any Indian city.


Nestled in a corner of Bobazar is the small area where the Anglo -Indians live. The product of English men and Indian Women they hold fast to their European roots. Proudly displaying their fathers and Grandfathers in their dress uniforms, the family Sue meets have traced their roots back into the 13th century and are convinced they are the product of a royal infidelity.  Celebrating all the Christian Festivals, the lady of the house produces a Christmas cake in the midst of summer. Now we all know Sue Perkins is partial to a bit of cake and her warm praise makes the lady in question's day.





Next Sue climbs down into the bowels of the earth to see another lingering legacy of colonial days. The Sewerage system. Dressed up to the nines, she rather insanely  agrees to climb inside. They stretch for 90 kilometres below the thrumming streets above and were once the envy of the world for their architectural supremacy.They are now 130 years old and in need of a really good rinse.


My favourite line of the whole piece was as Sue lowered herself down into the murky waters..

 "You don't see this on the holiday programme! You do not see Judith Chalmers climbing into a open poo pit!"



A team of men go down nightly to clear away ...silt and work shifts from 11pm until 5am when people start flushing in earnest again. Built in 1875 to cater for one million people, there are now 14 million in the city and the traffic above is causing damage to the structural integrity. The cracks overhead make Sue make a very sharp exit. And that is where we will leave her for now, but come back on Wednesday for the second half of this amusing and enlightening travelogue.  


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