Calcutta, India Touching the Untouchables

This is my longest post ever. I’m getting worse at this. I need an editor.

We met a French Canadian girl on the way out from Varanasi. She was, by all indications, completely insane. After staying in Varanasi for a month, she’d missed her train out by showing up at the station ten hours late. She had decided the train was going to be fifteen hours late, but surprisingly, that didn’t happen. Two days later, there she was, waiting for the next train to come by.

She’d immersed herself completely in the wonders of the Ganges, going every day to walk along its banks. She told us about the other side of the river, which we hadn’t thought to go to cause it didn’t look there was much going on over there.

With the crowded city of Veranasi on one side, the far shore of the river is a vacant expanse – vacant, that is, except for the numerous decomposing corpses along the shore. I’m going to try to paraphrase her chilling monologue as best I can:

"I met this guy from Greece. He was here for two months and he went swimming in the river every day. He only had one bad time when a body floated into him while he was swimming, and also a cow as well, but other than that he said it was fine. I went swimming with him two times.

We went walking together on the other side of the river. In one direction we saw ten bodies, and in the other direction we saw ten more. He laid down with one of them so I could take his picture.

Some of the bodies were fresh, but some of them had been there a long time and they smelled a little bit. Some of the bodies had no heads. A lot of them had no toes or fingers, cause the dogs would come and bite them off. I guess those parts are the easiest to take and maybe the most tender.

We saw a lot of heads. They looked just like rocks, except with eyeballs and noses.

My friend had some problems. He got some kind of infection just before he left. He said it was because the river was angry at him for going away. I’m having some trouble now as well. The skin is coming off my hand. I guess the river is angry at me for leaving too."

Fruit loop!

By and large, the travelers I’ve met in India have been significantly farther out on the fringe than the ones in other countries. I think you have to be in order to fully appreciate the wonders of India, and likewise, to put up with its hassles.

Here’s what the train station in Varanasi looks like.

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Trust me when I say it’s a lot worse at 3 in the morning when everyone’s sprawled out asleep on the floor and you have to carry your luggage through. Most of these folks weren’t waiting around for trains. They live there. The place has a roof, it’s got a water supply, and no one is going to throw them out.

I surreptitiously snapped this photo of a prisoner transfer in progress.

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There’s not much to say about it. I just thought it was interesting.

We caught the train to Calcutta, where we only had a few hours before heading south to Balasore. I was sorry not to spend more time in Calcutta. It’s an interesting place, and altogether more pleasant than Delhi.

At 16 million people, Calcutta is one of the most populated cities in the world. It’s also one of the poorest. But there’s a dignity in its poverty. They’ve held onto something, while Delhi let go completely.

We crossed the Howrah bridge; the busiest bridge in the world. The vast majority of people who cross it are on foot. They number in the millions daily.

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Bad photo, I know. I was in a rush.

I have a thing for big bridges. They move me. This one has a span of 450 meters and no pylons to support it. It’s also asymmetrical and has what appears to be a shockingly inefficient design for distributing pressure equally.

Ah well, it’s not like there are many people using it or anything.

I wonder if it’d even make the world news if it collapsed.

Calcutta is the last place in the world that still uses old-fashioned foot-powered rickshaws.

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With the exception of the occasional tourist novelty in places like China, everywhere else has upgraded to bicycle rickshaws, motor-powered auto-rickshaws, or proper taxicabs. But the cost of a bicycle is too great for most drivers in Calcutta, so they go it on foot – barefoot no less. It struck me that I am far better equipped to get myself from one place to another than these guys. At least I’ve got shoes.

I didn’t get a chance to see the banyan tree in the botanical gardens. It’s one of the largest of its kind in the world, spreading over 400 square meters. They had one in Brisbane and it was my favoritist tree ever.

I dug this abandoned old building.

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Calcutta is the only major Indian city that wasn’t already around before the British showed up. As a result, its imperialist ghosts loom large.

As of a couple years ago, Calcutta is now officially called Kolkata. For the purposes of this entry, I’m sticking with Calcutta. I like it better.

This picture just kicks a llama’s ass.

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It’s like the cover to a lost U2 EP from the ’80s. Something about that kid walking by and the look on his face. I like it a lot.

The excursion to Balasore was the result of some enormously generous string-pulling on the part of my friend from Los Angeles, Chacko. His uncle, Mr. Gowrinath, is the Head of Conservation at the Similipal Nature Reserve, and he arranged for us to get a private tour of the park. This was a very big deal, as the park is hom e to 95 wild Bengal tige rs, a bunch of elephants, leopards, wild boars, wolves, and who-knows-what-else. What’s more, the park closed for the year on June 15th, so a special exception was made in order to get us in.

I was peeing my pants with excitement. And Chacko, in spite of some of the details in the paragraphs that follow, I am eternally grateful.

Our train ride from Calcutta to Balasore coincided with a mass pilgrimage of Krishna devotees to some festival that was going on in the region. Thomas and I shared a row of seats on our four-hour journey with a gaggle of caterwauling nutjobs. They spent the whole ride clapping their hands and hollering out songs about how great Krishna is.

I am, by nature, neither a friendly nor tolerant person. I tried my hardest not to get along with these people, but they weren’t having any of it. I am apparently a wonderful and wise soul who is very open to new ideas and capable of accepting the spiritual enlightenment of Krishna Consciousness. I’m also supposed to rush out and get a copy of Bhagabat Gita by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada at my earliest possible convenience.

Once again, that’s Bhagabat Gita by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada.

In the row across from us, a Hindu, a Christian, and a Krishna devotee were locked in a heated discussion to see who could out-condescend who. It was fun to watch.

When we arrived in Balasore, things got even weirder. At a couple points on this trip, I’ve suddenly and unexpectedly wandered into circumstances of Lynchian peculiarity. There’s no predicting when it’s going to happen. It just does. Some places are like that. It happened in Invercargill, New Zealand. It happened a few times in Micronesia. It happened again in Balasore.

We were met at the train station by a friend of Mr. Gowrinath named Gopal. We later found out that Gopal is or was (unclear) a member of parliament, representing the state of Orissa. He’s one of those guys who you can just tell is well-connected.

It was approaching midnight as he took us through the town to the hotel. We passed by several spontaneous happenings along the way. They looked like mobile street raves. They all had large bands playing, with each musician mounted atop a specially fitted bicycle rickshaw. Power lines for all the instruments and amplifiers were dragging behind the procession like a giant tale. There were numerous women holding up bright neon lights around the perimeter, while all the men congregated in the center and danced…badly.

Gopal explained that they were wedding processions. The caravans were on their way to the houses of the brides, where the ceremonies would occur.

They do weddings awfully late at night in Orissa.

We got to the hotel, which I think was owned by Gopal. It was massively empty, with all furniture and decoration taken down in the midst of a large renovation that was going on. That aside, the place was really nice, and was populated with at least half a dozen helpers who had nothing else to do but serve our needs, which they seemed very interested in doing. They took us up to our room, which was the cleanest, nicest room of all the hotels we’ve stayed at in India. We had soap, we had hot water, we had toilet paper, we had sheets – it was bliss.

I’m pretty sure we were the only people at the hotel.

Concerned that we were hungry, they turned on the kitchen and whipped us up some dinner at 1 in the morning. There were about five separate visits over the next half hour, making sure we had all the drinks we needed, that the food was sufficient, that we didn’t need any more, that the empty dishes were removed from our view expressly. Thomas and I looked at each other quite stunned as it dawned on us that we were totally hooked up.

Thanks, Chacko.

The next day, we went downstairs and were introduced to Vishal, Gopal’s nephew. He was to be our handler for the duration of the visit.

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I feel bad calling him an idiot. He was very very very nice to us and was, without a doubt, wholly committed to making us as happy as we could possibly be. Nevertheless, Vishal and I did not hit it off. We simply failed to understand each other.

His first task was to work out what we wanted to eat on this trip, as we were going to spend the night inside the park, away from the things of man.

"What do you want to eat? You like bread?"
"Yeah. I like bread."
"What kind of bread? Naan?"
"Naan is great."
"You like rice?"
"Yeah. Rice is fine."
"Fried rice, okay. What about noodles? You like noodles?"
"Sure. I like noodles."
"Okay, fruit. What kind of fruit do you like?"
"I don’t eat much fruit, actually."
"You don’t like fruit? Mangos? Bananas? Pineapple?"
"Not so much, no."
"You don’t like fruit. What about biscuits? You like biscuits?"
"Biscuits are fine."
"Salty or sweet?"
"Excuse me?"
"Salty or sweet?"
"Either."
"Which one? Salty or sweet?"
"Look, any kind of food is fine. We’ll eat anything."
"Okay. No problem. You drink tea?"
"Tea is fine."
"We’ll make tea. You like eggs?"
"How about you just surprise us. Whatever it is, we’ll eat it. It’s okay.
"Okay, okay. No problem…You like pickles?"

This went on for a very long time. Neither Thomas nor I were remotely interested in food. In fact, we would’ve happily foregone eating for the day altogether if it would’ve helped our chances of seeing a tiger or an elephant in the wild.

Our efforts to communicate that to Vishal bore no fruit.

So we loaded into a nice 4WD and headed off for the jungle. We stopped at a town so Vishal could pick up some food.

"You like nuts?"
"Yes."
"What drinks you like? Pepsi? Sprite? Mirinda (local orange soda)?
"Whatever."
"You like samosas? Pakoras?"
"Fine."

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This scene interested me because of our proximity to neighboring Bangladesh. In the 1980s, UNICEF helped drill wells like this one in Bangladeshi villages to stop the population from drinking sewage-tainted water from the Ganges. What UNICEF didn’t realize was that arsenic in the soil was seeping into the pipes and poisoning the water. It was called the largest mass poisoning of a population in history, many times worse than the problems caused by Ganges water. Somewhere around 80 million people have been affected.

Despite the irony, I’m at a loss for a punch line.

This is one badass cow.

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Before entering the park, we had to stop at the main office while a number of very official people stood around doing nothing. It was a strange bureaucratic exercise that took several hours to complete, and it gave Vishal a golden opportunity to work out precisely which foods we did and didn’t like.

"Butter?"
"Yes."
"Jam?"
"Yes."
"Chicken or mutton?"
"Both."
"Which one?"
"Chicken."
"Coffee?"
"Yes."

After another hour of that, I was getting a little antsy. Some kids walked by, staring in utter fascination, as they often do. I made stupid faces back at them, as I often do. They laughed and ran off.

A few minutes later, the kids came back with an entourage. Word had spread about the strange man who made faces and they wanted to see more of it. I obliged, sticking my thumbs in my ears while wiggling my hands, poking my tongue out, puffing my cheeks, whatever else I could think of.

They kept their distance, but received my gestures with great interest. They responded by aping my performance. It was sort of like that scene at the end of Close Encounters, except with fart sounds instead of synthesized tones. Pretty soon they were improvising, jumping up and down, clapping like seals, hiking their shorts up to chest level and stomping back and forth. I was in stitches. The kids were apopleptic.

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It was increasingly clear that many people in the vicinity disapproved of what was going on. At first I thought it was because I was exhibiting behavior unbecoming of a white guy, but I soon realized there was more to it. When I started towards the kids with my camera, Vishal stopped me.

"No no no. You musn’t go near them."
"Why not?"
"They’re very different. They won’t understand you."

Oh, like you’ve got me all figured out.

I’m not 100% certain about it, but I have an interpretation of the situation that I’m going to present here. Anyone who might have some insight, please fill me in.

For thousands of years, India has had a rigid and complex caste system. A caste is a social class. Whatever you’re born into is what you’re stuck with until you’re reincarnated. Your caste determines the kind of job you can have, the amount of money you can make, and generally how far you can go in life.

The five main castes are the priest class, the warrior class, the merchant class, the peasant class, and the lowest of the low, who used to go by the name of the Untouchables. There’s no easily identifiable ethnic distinction between the classes. People just somehow know.

There’s been a lot of upheaval about it in the last century. Ghandhi devoted several of his fasts to ending the mistreatment of Untouchables. I’m told things are much better in the south now, but parts of northern India still adhere to the old ways.

Vishal is in the highest caste and he was serving me. He was trying to explain that the kids I was playing with were the wretched bottom-feeders, and it was absolutely unacceptable for me to go anywhere near them.

Fine. Whatever. I didn’t want to cause problems, so I stayed by the car. The kids kept making faces though, and try as I might to ignore them, I couldn’t.

Vishal went inside, I guess to notify someone of what was going on. The kids seized the opportunity and ran over to me. This put me in an awkward position, but to be honest it really wasn’t that difficult to decide how to handle it.

Vishal could bite my ass.

I took another picture of the kids and did my standard routine where I show it to them on my little camera screen and watch their heads explode.

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They were so happy, they were literally bouncing all over the place. One of them, I guess being somewhat familiar with Western customs, reached out to shake my hand. We shook. That’s when all hell broke loose.

Vishal and his cronies had been watching from behind the gate. They burst out, shooing the kids away, herding Tom inside, and yelling at me to get in the car. Two men got in the front and we quickly drove off. They took me to some random place a few hundred meters away and got out of the vehicle, leaving me by myself to, I suppose, cool off. When they drove me back, the kids were cleared out and everything was quiet.

Nothing was said to me. There were no punitive words. We just went on after that like nothing had happened.

I really wasn’t trying to crusade or anything, and I feel silly making it out like it was some great social injustice that I was defying. I was just making stupid faces at kids to pass the time and it turned into a thing.

Nevertheless, I do believe that what we do in these situations, once we’re in them, matters a great deal. I don’t feel at all bad about treating those kids with common goddam human decency, even if it did cause a scene.

And besides, I’ve got Civis Romanus on my side. I can thumb my nose at things like that with impunity, and I’m perfectly willing to do so. I am not a believer in the Prime Directive. What I do worry about is that I might have offended people to the point where it reflected badly on Chacko. I really hope that didn’t happen, and if it did, Chacko, I’m very sorry.

The other thing I worry about is what happened to those kids.

Things were eventually sorted out at the park office and we got underway. Once inside the park, Vishal decided we were hungry, so he handed us some sandwiches wrapped in foil, plastic, and cardboard containers. When we finished the sandwiches, he instructed us to throw the boxes out the window.

We were inside a nature reserve, mind you.

I told him I wouldn’t. He insisted that it was no problem and to just toss it. I told him absolutely not. I would much sooner have thrown him out the window.

Tom, ever the diplomat, jumped in and explained about littering fines in America, non-biodegradable substances, and all that. Vishal didn’t get a word of it.

I’d already deeply offended Vishal by shaking hands with those kids. Now he had deeply offended me.

We didn’t get along.

Littering is a funny thing. I think there was a time in America, not too long ago, when we would have treated food packaging in the same way. But something happened in the late ’70s and early ’80s. First it was that crying Native American guy, and then it was Woodsy the Owl telling us to "Give a hoot!" Virtually overnight, our attitudes about garbage changed completely. How horrifying is it now when someone drops a plastic bag on the street? Our eyes bug out. It’s criminal behavior. We learned to give a hoot.

But some places never learned to give a hoot. They still don’t give a hoot. They’re hootless. India is one of those extremely hootless places.

We finally got to the campsite around 4pm. It was a cabin with four rooms, two of them bedrooms, and a separate building for the servants to sleep in. There was no electricity and all the water came from a well.

We asked wh at was o n the agenda.

"Soon, we eat a snack. Then we have dinner. After that we can drink and talk about things into the night."
"Okay, um…will there be any looking for wildlife going on during any of that?"
"There’s nothing around here right now. Maybe when it gets dark."
"When it gets dark. Okay. Well, if it’s dark, how are we going to see anything?"
"The forest ranger is here. If a tiger comes near, he will hear it."

That claim seemed a little weak to me. Tigers have spent millions of years learning how not to make noise. They do that better than just about anything. As far as I could tell, the only thing the forest ranger does is eat, sleep, and fill out paperwork.

There were tons of enormous termite castles all over the place. They were pretty neat.

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I caught some cute baby pigs running by.

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And there was this pile of mango seeds that had been shitted out by an elephant and was now sprouting into a new tree.

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The circle of life.

Vishal asked us several times if we’d like to drink. Neither of us felt a particular need to do so in a situation like this, but what the hell. I was hoping that by saying "yes" enough times, he’d eventually lose interest. Also, I figured drinking would make Vishal’s incessant badgering more tolerable. We agreed to some whiskey and a beer for Thomas. We had no idea that we were sending one of our servants eleven kilometers through tiger-infested jungle on a bicycle to acquire it.

We were fairly mortified when we found out what we’d done. But Vishal assured us it was no problem. Everyone was there to serve our needs and insure that we were comfortable.

There wasn’t much that could’ve made me less comfortable.

We weren’t allowed to leave the immediate vicinity of the cabin. There was, however, one elevated lookout point that seemed to have a greater likelihood than anywhere else of allowing us to see some lions and tigers and bears. We brought chairs up there and sat ourselves down as the sun set. Vishal joined us to perform as our de facto guide. It was immediately obvious that he knew absolutely nothing.

"Are the elephants here nocturnal?"
"Are they what?"
"Nocturnal."
"What’s that?"
"Do they sleep during the day?"
"Who?"
"The elephants."
"The elephants what?"
"Do they sleep during the day?"
"…I don’t know."

At one point he gestured to a tree and told us that it’s wood was the most expensive in the world. I asked him what the wood was called. "Teak," he said. I was drinking water at the time and I did one of those Jerry Lewis guffaws where you spit the water out.

Once the sun was down, we were staring into absolute blackness. There wasn’t a chance in hell we were going to spot anything.

Vishal, sensing that we had now bonded and could discuss more intimate things, began asking the burning questions.

"You have wife?"
"No."
"You sleep with women?"
"I do okay."
"How many?"
"Uh."
"You force them?"
"No, that’s not really necessary."
"How much money you make?"

He was not growing in my esteem.

As we were getting ready to sleep, or in my case, hide my head under a pillow to escape Vishal, a bicycle emerged from the darkness. After almost three hours, our whiskey had arrived and we were now obligated to drink it. Thomas and I made do using the flat, warm, generic orange cola that was available as mixer. Vishal was fascinated, but I think also intimidated by this white-man’s ritual we were undertaking. He excused himself to go to bed. I had to really think on whether or not I was willing to part with him for the evening, but I eventually relented.

In the gas lit night, deep in the jungles of Bengal, Tom and I drank whiskey and talked. That was the best part.

I surveyed the room we were in, with its two open doorways, and asked Thomas what he thought was stopping the tigers from walking into this cabin and chewing on our heads tonight.

"Statistical probability," he said.
"Good enough, I suppose."

When we were ready to sleep, we went into the bedroom to the bed I already knew we were going to have to share. Using my GameBoy Advance as flashlight, I shined it on the mattress and saw something that sent a shiver through my whole body.

No, it wasn’t a snake or a spider or some other hideous menace. It was Vishal, fast asleep. This was his bed too. The three of us were supposed to share a double.

I wasn’t having any of it. I grabbed a pillow and went back into the den to sleep on the wooden sofa. Tom thought I was being an idiot. He cornered me and told me that attitudes were different here and I was being homophobic.

"Tom, if I’m crammed in a bed between you and that guy, I promise, the gift of sleep will not come. This is not a gay thing. This is a people snoring and rolling onto me thing."

Tom still thought it was ridiculous, and he was pissed at me for stealing one of the pillows (Vishal had the other one). I put it over the armrest, positioned a second chair for my legs, and bent myself into the space that was available. It worked pretty well. I managed to sleep out there until the insect repellent candle burned out. The stinging woke me up just before dawn and I had no other choice but to crawl under the mosquito net and squeeze myself between Vishal and Tom for the remaining hour or two. I did a lot of staring at the ceiling, not so much sleeping.

The next morning, Tom and I decided to throw all of our imperialist muscle into ordering Vishal to get us the hell out of the campsite and back to the hotel. He had all our meals planned through to the afternoon, so he was disappointed, but we made it clear that we wanted to leave immediately. We tried to negotiate a visit to one of the nearby watchtowers in the hopes of maybe spotting something before we left, but the forest ranger told us it was closed.

We passed a number of small villages on the way back to the hotel.

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And that was pretty much it. Vishal took us to the train station and waited at the platform with us for twenty excruciating minutes. Tom complemented Vishal on his sunglasses. In a flash, Vishal ripped them off his face and handed them to Tom.

Tom: "No, it’s okay. I don’t want them."
Vishal: "Yes, you must have them. They are yours now."
Tom: "No. Please. It’s okay."
Vishal: "Matthew, who do the glasses look better on: him or me?"
Me: "I want no part in this."

It was clear that I was not going to be in contact with Vishal ever again. He was, by that point, not at all oblivious to my loathing. Tom didn’t get off so easy.

Tom promised Vishal that he’ll do what he can to help him get a visa so he can come to America. He also agreed to purchase and send a digital camera like the ones we have, which Vishal will pay him for in "installments."

As the train was pulling in and I was restraining myself from pushing Vishal onto the tracks, he asked us repeatedly when we’d be coming to Balasore again. Tom promised him very soon. But me, I don’t know. It’s an awfully big planet.

Here’s Tom on the train back to Calcutta.

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I’m now an expert on train travel in India. That’s one part of the trip that I enjoyed a great deal. I’ve got some weird thing with trains. It’s similar to my thing with bridges. Give me an upper berth and a reading light, maybe a pillow, and I can go for days. Sleeper trains are great.

Going to the bathroom on trains in India isn’t so much fun. I’d have to put those experiences near the top of my list of least pleasant bathroom visits. In fact, I think the India trip fills out most of the top ten spots.

You can’t really control when you need to go to the bathroom in India. It just happens. Wherever you are at the time, you’ve got to make it work.

While waiting at the airport to get on our flight to Myanmar, the crazy French Canadian girl appeared out of nowhere and sat next to us. She explained her latest dilemma.

"I feel not very good today. I’ve got a little bit of the Delhi belly. Drinking the Ganges water made me feel healthy, but the water in Calcutta I think is very bad.

I bought one of those round-the-world tickets and I thought it lasted for a year, but I just discovered that it ran out after six months. I’m flying to Bangkok now. I have no money. I will have to get a job there teaching English until I earn enough money for a plane flight home."

See ya later, lady. Have a nice time in Bangkok.