India: Going Home to Kolkata
Returning to Kolkata is like going home. I’ve visited many times over the past 25 years. It’s the hometown of Eva, my good friend who lives in Philadelphia, and my partner Rick and I have traveled with her and husband Suresh many times. Long ago, Eva’s mother, Ma, adopted us as her American sons, a gift so precious. So when we “go home” to see Ma, we are embraced by an entire family we know well.
By now, I’m familiar with the onslaught to the senses that characterizes a visit to India, and Calcutta (as it was known the first time I visited in 1990) only magnifies that. I like the seeming chaos of human activity, the in-your-face encounter with many people spending a good part of their lives on the streets. Indians stare – at each other and at strangers, and it’s enough of a national characteristic to inspire a T-shirt that said “Keep Staring.” Smile back at a stare with a sideways nod of the head, and you’ll likely be treated to a broad grin.
We connected through Eva’s cousin with Manjit, who runs Calcutta Photo Tours (www.CalcuttaPhotoTours.com), and he took us on a photographic walkabout one morning. Asia’s largest wholesale flower market, Mallick Ghat, in North Kolkata along the Ganges early in the day is a visual, auditory, and olfactory scene. In the neighborhood of Kumartuli, skilled craftsmen construct and paint images of gods and goddesses of all sizes from wood, straw and clay for the many pujas (festivals) throughout the year. Saraswati’s puja was the following weekend, so there were thousands of hand-painted images of her. Finally we visited old North Calcutta, where wealthy Indians lived in grand mansions during the British Raj period, and now only a few once elegant buildings remain, many having been torn down for apartment buildings.
The next day, we piled into a Toyota Innovo minivan with a driver and headed north for a few hundred kilometers to the weaving village of Mahesh Ganj. The trip turned out to be a six-hour traffic jam-clogged ordeal . You have never experienced real vehicular traffic until you’ve been a passenger in India. (One doesn’t dare get behind the wheel.)
We stayed overnight at Balakhana, an 18th century French-built indigo plantation mansion the fourth generation Indian owners – Ronon and his wife — have converted into a bed and breakfast. On arrival we were treated to a performance by a local all-male family drum corps, which has performed internationally. The five drummers gave a noisily entertaining and festive performance, all toting large drums with plumes attached to them that rose a few feet above and reminded me of Sesame Street characters. The one-floor mansion with its 20-foot ceilings hosted several other Bengali guests from Kolkata, Mumbai and northern Connecticut, and we spent an enjoyable evening dining and talking about world politics from an Indian perspective. After a night on a comfortable bed under mosquito netting, tea on the veranda was the perfect way to begin the day.
After breakfast we traveled to the local weavers’ homes and factories to watch the production of intricately-designed fabrics on hand-looms and to buy pieces of these beautiful silk and wool cloths. Viewing street life as we drove through villages and towns is really why one does this kind of traveling, not only glimpsing cultures other than ours, but also seeing how these cultures show change as the world becomes smaller.
We made the long trek back to Kolkata to spend a few more days with Eva’s family before preparing for the final leg of our journey in western India.