Posts Tagged ‘West Bengal’

One final post to draw my tales of glamorous voyaging to a close, mostly so I can relive less sweaty times in an increasingly dusty, mosquito-strewn Delhi. (At 35℃, we’re still in the optimistic mostly-pre-air-conditioning stage: we all know there’s at least 10℃ more to climb. It’s a lot like that crazy granny wisdom of not putting on your coat indoors in the winter even if the kids have gone blue and there are icicles in the eggnog, ‘to save the benefit for later’. I’m slightly worried that this is the last fortnight any potential interviewees will actually be in Delhi, busily embezzling enough to jet off somewhere less bloodcurdling for May/June.)

Our final Sikkimese evening, I was filled with quiet optimism that nighttime showers would strip the mountain of its watery burqini, perfect for some narratively fulfilling photos before our jeep back down to the plains and the plane. Alas, things took an exciting turn.

Good advice for over-hasty jeep drivers

Other than garrulous intellectuals, sweets, and fish, one of the things West Bengal is famous for is a charming propensity to go on strike at the drop of an outraged hat. In this (sub)national sport, the British can barely manage to disrupt a 17-minute boat race—our last proper general strike was in 1926—but the Bengalis make the French look like chinless Stakhanovite scabs. Bengal enjoys around 50 total shutdowns or bandhs occur each year, lasting between two hours and two days. With a sigh, people down tools/crayons/autos, halfheartedly set fire to a few buses and then, observation suggests, go off and play cricket. Imagine a decade-long Winter of Discontent but in, er, glorious summer.

19:00HRS   Relaxing over Kingfishers and noodle soup, we overhear discussion of a bandh for the next day. Usually around Darjeeling these are called to demand an independent Gorkhaland for the ethnic Nepalis, but surreally this one was an anti-Gorkhaland, anti-anti-Government of Bengal protest, allegedly spearheaded by Siliguri town’s large population of Bangladeshi refugees.

19:01    We continue slurping.

19:05   ‘What’s a bandh?’ Hannah asks innocently.*

Not to scale

19:06    Cue mad late-night negotiation for jeep tickets, a slightly unsober dash to pack, and a dramatic standoff with the ovine staff of our overpriced hotel, the Elgin, culminating in Hannah’s fist-thumping demand to talk to the Oberoi family and a lot of money back. ‘This is the most fun I’ve had all trip!’ she says brightly.

19:45   It emerges that the other jeep passengers desperate to escape a life of yak servitude require a multi-course meal to settle their nerves.

21:30   Finally, a thrilling car chase back down the hills. If you think single-lane, zigzagging, quasi-dirt-track, clifftop journeys are a hoot normally, you should try it in the dark, through dense fog and rain, with a pounding Bollywood soundtrack and a heavily perspiring driver yelling into the phone as he swerves 180° one-handed over a 1000-foot drop. I retreat into terrified narcolepsy.

03:30   We arrive in Siliguri, an utterly hideous nowheresville, to find that our hotel’s 24-hour reception was a sadistic illusion. The only sign of life is a pack of gigantic black hogs so large I at first thought they were hippopotami, swaggering along the main road and eyeing us ravenously. Jeep Bloke suggests we walk off to find a hotel. ‘There is nothing in this town,’ I tell him slightly hysterically, ‘except gigantic black hogs.’ He backs away nervously.

04:00   We jeep a bit further to the equally hideous train station a few miles away. The Jeep Blokes are lovely and help us to find a hotel, refusing a tip—‘Just be friends to Sikkim’—which leaves us unnerved but grateful. The room has a toilet but no sink, evidence of someone’s hastily abandoned evening meal, and appears to turn into a tambourine-rattling Hindu temple at the crack of dawn, but we sleep. 24 hours of boredom follow, but at last we escape back into Delhi’s metallic jaws.

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* Well might she ask. As I noted when rambling about Hinglish, India has its own indecipherable protest vocabulary. I am 83% sure a bandh is a shutdown typically called by political parties, whilst a hartal is basically the same but with more Bambi-eyed Gandhian overtones. In a gherao protesters encircle an illustrious personage until their demands are met, whilst a bhukh hartal or a dharna means publicly fasting until the offender gives in (though actual fasting to the death is very rare). The Delhi bourgeoisie is merrily inconsistent in seeing such techniques as anti-democratic blackmail when used by people they don’t like (autorickshaw drivers, trade unionists, other uppity plebs), and a noble, principled stand when used by state-bashers they do (high-handed anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare).

Another grim but high-profile form of protest is suicide, most directly in the form of self-immolation, though also notoriously the last resort of debt-ridden Indian farmers. On 26 March alone, a Tibetan set himself on fire near India’s parliament in advance of Hu Jintao’s visit, and an auto driver did the same down in Andhra Pradesh to demand a new state, Telangana. According to my jolly December bedtime reading, self-immolation is most common in democracies. Unlike strikes and sit-ins—or their sinister distant cousin, suicide bombing—it relies upon an audience and sympathy for effect rather than simply causing economic harm. It is also easily imitable even for individuals with very few resources, which is why it appears in waves. On that merry note… belated Happy Bengali New Year!

Oh me oh my, dear Readers, has life been eventful since my contraptions last stumbled upon the worldwideweb! So eventful, in fact, that I can’t possibly fit it into one snack-sized entry, but will lovingly drip-feed it into your veins over the next few days. Suffice to say, last night witnessed an unplanned and rather hair-raising jeep voyage in pitch darkness and we were almost forced to sleep with giant black hogs, but all is probably maybe well now.

South Park Street Cemetery

When we left you, we were enjoying Calcutta’s sticky charm—belated thanks for the hospitality, chai, and song of the lovely Sandra and Sahar. In a moment of classic Chatterjee military precision, about three minutes after posting the last entry we realised that we (here Hannah points out it should probably be ‘I’) had got wrong (a) the duration, (b) the time, and (c) the date of our train to Darjeeling.

Our suddenly final day in Calcutta was therefore a teensy bit more action-packed than planned, although we still managed to take in the Victoria Memorial, the eerily warehouse-like St Paul’s Cathedral, and the fantastic South Park St Cemetery—like the ruins of an ancient civilisation (which I suppose it is), full of hubristic obelisks and mausoleums for a huge number of troublingly young wives, girls killed by lightning (an omen, we came to realise), and one Elizabeth Jane Barwell (1779):

the famous beauty of eighteenth-century Calcutta, who, as Miss Sanderson, was universally popular if we may believe contemporary reports. At one ball she is said to have confidentially advised each of her suitors beforehand of the costume that she would wear. Each attired themselves to match her dress, and some ten or twelve young men turned up in an identical shade of pea-green.

City perused, we hopped aboard the Darjeeling Mail. Like all Indian trains, its creaking sky-blue carriages—some Raj-era—stretch for several hundred metres, each hand-stencilled with a category and class as precise and rigid as the caste system. Unlike our earlier Delhi-Calcutta trip aboard the 25-hour Poorva Express (the title ‘express’, like ‘5-star’, is an Indian euphemism which means the exact opposite), the trip alas wasn’t long enough to warrant dining: Indian trains have everything from the hourly Chaicoffee…chaicoffee drone and puffed-rice-and-crosswordwallahs, to hot meals (‘Wedge or non-wedge, madam?’) which arrive a random number of hours after the order—often while everyone is in bed, as in the case of the dribbly curry from a beaming Bangladeshi that soaked luridly orange into my pillow on the Express. Instead we tucked into our plasticky sky-blue bunks and regulation blankets, alongside our fellow middle-class ‘AC’ passengers.

The not-quite-toy train

Around 8am, the train tugged into the end of the plains, outside an unlovable little grubhole called Siliguri (she of the giant black hogs, in fact). Battling unusually tenacious urchins, we set off in a shared jeep, judiciously priced so that foreigners paid exactly twice as much as Indians for exactly half the space. We seized the front seats, exchanging casual gearstick frottage for a panoramic view of the hill climb:

The road is infinitely and charmingly crooked. It goes winding in and out under lofty cliffs that are smothered in vines and foliage, and around the edges of bottomless chasms; and all the way one glides by files of picturesque natives, some carrying burdens up, others going down from their work in the tea-gardens… —Mark Twain, Following the Equator (1897)

Kurseong

Halfway up, in the tiny town of Kurseong which staggers across the slopes, we deboarded again, optimistically clutching tickets for the famous toy train. A mere 2.5 hours late, and chugging diesel not steam, it set off into the fog.

Darjeeling calls itself the queen of hill stations, but it has suffered Edith Piaf-like from its fame. The town itself is now less colonial paradise than a jauntily hunched, haggard collection of concrete pillboxes and shawl shacks clinging to the hillside. The views and countryside apparently more than make up for it, but I can’t confirm this as the Bengal skies took the opportunity for some imperial nostalgia, and pissed it down royally for two days.

Sheltering from the showers, we attempted to live colonially. Attempt 1 was a slight failure. Undeterred by reviews that compared it to a haunted house, we stayed a night in an old mansion an estate agent might describe as ‘having potential’. A first glance at our room revealed a spider the size of a small yak sitting in the corner. These gigantic beasts were my old hill station nemeses in Mussoorie, and are (a) unappealingly poisonous and (b) partial to climbing into the covers for warmth/sadistic thrills. My shriek roused the staff, who managed to lose the spider but conducted a very bad twitchy-eyed pretence of manfully slaying it. A few minutes later and the yak was back, grooming itself on the curtains. Highly traumatic.

Teatown, insolently pretending to be sunny

Attempt 2 was also a bit of a damp squib. Afternoon tea at the ‘Windamere’ (apparently a century-old misspelling, but accurately ominous nonetheless) brought back memories of GCSE Food Tech, seemingly in an old lady’s boudoir. But a cocktail tour of the two swankiest hotels was better, and we then found ourselves in a themed 60s bar at the rocknroll hour of 9pm, when everything else is shut and Darjeelingwallahs have settled down to some hilly knitting.

Sikkimese permit safely collected, we decided to bust out. God was displeased. Appropriately for Good Friday, biblically torrential rain pelted the town—impressively effective at sorting out which of our North Face gear was fake. Streams thrust through piles of spherical hailstones like icy lava, carrying cartons and dirt downstream. A small byline in a local paper the next day announced that five people were struck by lightning. ‘2012, the year the world ends!’ a couple of optimists commented.

Half an hour to the last jeep for Pelling, West Sikkim. We waded out into the freezing water, shoes waterlogged and bags soaked, plunged down stone stairs with ice setting, seized a likely-looking lad. Cold, dishevelled, and smelling faintly like soggy dog, we had escaped.

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Pottering India, I keep wondering where all the Brits are. I’m not nostalgically missing the old pith helmets and racist moustaches, obviously, but where are the Gap Yah kids and the package holidayers and Outrageds of Hemel Hempstead? There are lots of French people and Spaniards and Israelis and Germans and Americans—opening cheese shops and bakeries and ensuring Pushkar’s menus are full of falafel—but the Britishers are notable by their absence. Is the white man’s burden of postcolonial guilt too much for our fellow countrymen? Somehow I doubt it; Mau-Mau doesn’t seem to put us off safaris, or the Lost Generation off emigration Down Under.

It’s something else, fear and distaste intermingled. For Americans and others, India is the embodiment of the exotic Orient, a land of spiritualism and diversity and colour. British ideas of the subcontinent are different. India means dirt, poverty, heat, stink, call centre irritation, overpopulation, cripples, slumdogs.

Calcutta High Court

Thanks to Mother Teresa, Calcutta is perhaps the epitome of this myth. The city is castigated by many otherwise positive visitors: ‘simultaneously noble and squalid, cultured and desperate’, the usually breathy Lonely Planet puts it. On his great Asian railway voyage—my train reading for this trip—Paul Theroux’s stamina is finally worn thin in the city, where he seems only to stumble upon mutants and death, and he abandons it by air. ‘On the first day the city seemed like a corpse on which the Indians were feeding like flies…’ For its inhabitants themselves, and especially those pesky Chatterjees, Theroux has worse:

Bengalis were the most alert people I had met in India. But they were also irritable, talkative, dogmatic, arrogant, and humourless, holding forth with malicious skill on virtually every subject except the future of Calcutta. Any mention of that brought them up short. But Mr Chatterjee [a distant relative, I like to believe, along with the great poet-writer Bankim Chandra, the grouchy postcolonialist Partha, and the merry purveyors of Chatterjee Asbestos Ltd we spotted from the taxi] had views. He had been reading an article about Calcutta’s prospects. Calcutta had been very unlucky: Chicago had had a great fire, San Francisco an earthquake, and London a plague as well as a fire. But nothing had happened to Calcutta to give planners a chance to redesign it…

But the myth is wrong now, if it was ever true. Cal (as its young anglophone residents call it) is the great underrated old gent of India’s metropolises. It has more heart than ruthless flashy Delhi, more soul than glossy vapid Bangalore, more serenity than the frenetic materialism of Bombay. The whole city feels like a subcontinental Sleeping Beauty kingdom, drowsing in the sticky air. Lush green plants unfurl and erupt everywhere, through cracks in the pavement and the roofs and windows of crumbling colonial buildings, and the sky is thick with the hypnotic whirr of cicadas. So this is ‘tropical Gothic’, I remember thinking when I first saw this seedy grandeur.

Calcutta’s new ‘London lighting’

This fantastical slumbering cityscape teems with life just below the surface. (And mostly the good, unSatanic sort of life. Yes, there are pariah dogs the size of rats and pariah rats the size of dogs, and cockroaches the size of post-apocalyptic dinner plates which have evolved the power of flight and haunt my nightmares. But they’re comparatively rare and stay at the corners of your eyes.) Every corner has a sweet shop (Bengalis have a toddler’s achingly sweet tooth), a circle of men playing cards, an entrepreneurial old woman selling pots of daal, a kathi roll stand, a pile of dusty books, a political slogan. Just to make it all zappier, the pugilistic chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, has decreed that bits of public space should be erratically painted bright blue, and is installing strange three-headed streetlamps ‘like London’.

Statue of All Souls alum Lord Curzon before the Victoria Memorial. As Viceroy he presided over the bitterly unpopular partition of Bengal in 1905, revoked six years later.

In a battered bright yellow taxi, we wound through narrow, sweetshop-lined streets out of the centre, the city giving way gradually to bursts of green-choked river and rubbery trees. Out in the wonderfully named Diamond Park colony of Thakurpukur, a pair of Chatterjee elders greeted us very warmly. They fed us a delicious homemade lunch of fried river fish, prawns in a peanutty sauce, spicy fish nuggets, aromatic daal, mysterious gourds, mango chutney, sweet curd, and mithai, and treated us to an examination of the sprawling Chatterjee family tree—all 32 generations since the ‘Aryan invasion’. ‘Chatterjee is the most common name in the world,’ one of my uncles said with a twinkle in his eye, ‘they have it even in China and Germany, although of course it sounds a little different now.’

They send love to all of you in the great Chatterjee diaspora. We left waddling—and with the promise that my errant brother will come visiting soon.