Kolkata - Rolling With the Punches

India 2013

MONDAY, Feb 25:

4:30. Rise and shine. "Up and toward 'em," as Sharon says. We have to get to Gaya Junction for the 6:00 train: #12937, the Garbha Express to Howrah Junction, Kolkata. Upon arrival at the station, we learn that the Garbha is delayed until 9:15. In a little while they change that to 9:50. It finally shows up at 10:10. Emma, who lives in India and has travelled extensively throughout the country insists that Indian trains are, contrary to their reputation, punctual the vast majority of the time. I’m happy to give India Rail the benefit of the doubt, despite my experience thus far. Funny, upon first hearing of the delay, I don’t feel at all disappointed. There’s so much to see and hear at the station - as evidenced by the following video / audio collage - I feel happy I got up early so as not to miss it.

Clanking trains shuttling and hissing, child buskers busking, and bustling travellers
lugging their luggage on backs, on heads, in hands and under arms.

Maybe this is where the idiom "jumping through hoops" came from?

It’s a nice ride. Seven hours, relaxing and mainly uneventful. Darrol teaches me the card game Oh Hell, and we play a couple of games with Dennis and Emma. A bit of a nap, and we’re in Kolkata at 5:15.

Debarking from the train, it’s instant INTENSE. In Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Varanasi and even New Delhi, I’ve felt a gentle presence, even when it got busy or crazy. I’ve gotten used to greeting people with a slight bow, hands loosely in prayer position at the heart, a smile and a namasté, but suddenly that feels like the wrong thing to do. I feel like a Hari Krishna in Manhattan. Kolkata means business. If nothing else, it’s 31 degrees C, a good 5 to 10 degrees hotter than what we’ve been experiencing thus far, and feels like ten degrees more than that.

Mat looks warily at the camera at Howrah Junction in Kolkata. The place is gigantic.

It feels kind of like a hastily decorated airplane hangar. Note the folks camped out on the floor at the bottom left.

This is not a sight one would see in Toronto’s Union Station.

Wonder what these two guys are arguing about?
Perhaps nothing. You have to shout to be heard here.

By 7 or so, we’ve settled into our rooms at the Hotel Pushpak.
Darrol has Mat & I bunking together on this leg of the journey. This is the view from the rooftop balcony at the end of the hall.

Most of Kolkata (Calcutta)’s streets have two names. One pre-independence and one post. For example, Harrison Rd. is now called Mahatma Gandhi Rd. They were changed in the 1990s, so most people - cabbies for instance - still use the old British names, but most maps are printed using the new official names. My, oh my, that does wonders for growing the height of the language barrier.

A bunch of us head up Free School St. (Mirza Ghalib) to Sudder St. (Sudder St.), then over to Chowringee Rd. (Jawaharlal Nehru Rd.) to the Blue Sky Café (Blue Sky Café) for a really nice bite of dinner (supper) (chow) (eats). We choose the Blue Sky because I had read a write-up in the Lonely Planet. “A vast selection of reliable traveller standbys served in an almost stylish setting.” Hardly a glowing review, but it's near the Pushpak. The experience proves to be better than the write-up.

Tamara, Mat, Pam & Emma checking out the Blue Sky Cafe

The Pushpak, which, like Kolkata itself, is a little more hard core than what we’ve been accustomed to. I may get a very different take on the place when I come back and stay with my musician friends Jonathan and Andrew Kay. They tell me they love this city. But for now, I’m doing my best to withhold judgement. Besides, I’m feeling slightly sick, so Mat and I have an early lights out.


TUESDAY, 26 Feb. Day 14. 2/3 of the way through the 3-week trip with Darrol and the group - and who knows how far through my entire trip. I’m still deciding how much longer I will stay on after the group leaves. My flight home is at the end of the 5th week, but I could stay for 6, 7 or more. I get one no-charge change on my ticket, so I’m as free as a backpacking teen on a gap year.

I wake up at 7:30. Almost 8 hours sleep! Is it possible that the jet lag is finally lagging? Can it have lasted this long? The bigger contributors to my strange sleep behaviours are more likely my cold and all the dusty walking.

Mat and I order eggs and black coffee from room service. We get egg sandwiches and white coffee with more sugar than a Tim’s cinnamon cruller. Note to self: find a breakfast place nearby.

At 9:00, there’s a meeting with the group out on the balcony, then it’s off to the Mother House. ‘Frank Zappa?’ you ask.

Over hot pavement and through crowded streets,
To Mother’s House we go...

Mother Theresa’s place is a long, hot walk from the Pushpak. But the walk is ten times more fascinating than it is difficult. The narrow streets full of bicycles and bicycle rickshaws, the hundreds of tiny shops, the living quarters made of cardboard and plastic tarps, people moving in every direction, all make it a challenge to stay focused and not become dazed like a deer in the headlights. TMSI - Too Much Sensory Input.

Decorative little flags cast dancing shadows over a narrow street on the way to Mother Theresa’s mission.

The bicycle rickshaw driver on the left seems depressed that Krishna’s been reduced to selling hot chips. Can you blame him?
(and just by the way, what are Countements Foods?)

Bamboo scaffolding, like on the right side of this pic, is used everywhere on construction sites.

To us this may look like chaos. To a Kolkatan, it’s business as usual.

It’s hard to believe I’m at the very place where so much good has been done for so many destitute people.

The humble entrance to the Mother Theresaland.

Emma chats with volunteers on a bench inside the house.

Mother means business.

I'll let you wend your own way through the moral, ethical and emotional twists and turns of the following two photos. The signs sit within a few feet of each other on the same wall at Mother Theresa’s. Read, on one hand, about the incredible amount of good done for so many over so many years, and on the other, the harsh condemnation of abortion and the millions of women in desperate need.

For “the poorest of the poor”: Leprosy clinics, homes for abandoned children, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, practical education, to name but a few.

Truth is indeed a slippery quality. Opposite truths can and do co-exist.

Schlepping home in this hot and intense city deserves a major nap. I grab one that lasts over 2 hours. I’m not sure shut-eye of such a duration still qualifies as a nap. Certainly way more that a snooze, but not quite a sleep. How about konking out? Sounds about right.


Wednesday, Feb 27:

We’re up a 6:45 to catch a pair of hired cars up to the far north end of Kolkata. Good ol’ resourceful and thoughtful Dennis pre-arranged a take-away breakfast from the Pushpak kitchen consisting of chapatti and jam with some hard-boiled eggs, plus he had bought a pile of amazing oranges. Add a box of McVitties Digestives, and you’ve got a breakfast fit for a ... tourist.

Dennis Shantz, a.k.a. Ned Flanders.
I had known Dennis reminded me of someone but hadn't been able to figure out who. Until that fateful moment when he knocked on the door while Mat & I were taking a break watching the Simpsons. In walked Dennis, out came my camera, and Bingo! Problem solved.
(Love ya, Den. The resemblance is purely physical.)

Anyway, the breakfast... Meant to be consumed on the road, we end up polishing it off in the lobby because the car doesn’t show up until 8:30. The first car, that is. Driver #1 tells us - after many phone calls - that driver #2 has had some tire issues, but assures us he will arrive “soon”. When soon turns into 30, then 60 minutes, we nearly fire them both and take regular taxis or postpone the outing til Thursday, but #1 keeps convincing us to wait, and #2 finally shows up at around 9:45. If India teaches you nothing else, it’s how to roll with the punches. If you can’t master that skill, or at least be willing to work at it, you will have a miserable time here. Guaranteed.

Today, Darrol has an excursion planned that I am personally quite excited about. Sharon had a Ramakrishna book on the bookshelf gathering dust, so back in January, I dusted it off and started reading. The Great Swan - Meetings with Ramakrishna, by Lex Hixon is a wonderful portrait of the man. I never quite finished it, but what I read gave me the impression that Ramakrishna was an eccentric, ecstatic, mystical, brilliant man, filled with the tantric juice of life, who could see visions of the gods as easily as you or I see chairs and tables, who inspired his disciples to found a charitable mission comparable Mother Theresa’s, and who, according to Vivekananda, his greatest disciple, “never learned to write even his own name.”

He held discussions in his little room with many great minds of India, Germany, England and elsewhere. Today our first stop is visiting that little room and the great complex in which it is housed, at Dakshineswar, in the North part of Kolkata. Dakshineswar, with its Kali Temple, is on the east side of the Hoogly River, at the Vivekananda Bridge, and Belur Math (Monastery), headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission, is our second stop and sits on the Hoogly’s west bank.

The Kali Temple at Dakshineswar

Entrance to the Kali Temple complex at Dakshineswar. Ramakrishna’s first job as a priest was at the Kali Temple. He not only practiced Hinduism, but also Islam and Christianity at various times of his life, and ultimately concluded that all religions, though not the same, are valid and true and lead to the same goal. Remember the blind men and the elephant story? No? Oh, well. You’ll just have to go back to Chapter 9, ‘Bodh Gaya’.

The large lineup in this photo is waiting to get into the main Kali temple (out of frame to the left). The courtyard is surrounded by several smaller shrines. From what I can tell, devotees go from one shrine to the next, offering a few rupees and receiving a blessing. The crowd consists mainly of families and other Indian tourists.

People waiting in line at the beautiful cream and red Kali Temple. More of a bunch than a line, actually. It’s a hot day, but there is a welcome hint of a breeze from the nearby river.

Vivekananda Bridge as seen from Dakshineswar (dak-SHIN-i-shwar). The Hooghly (rhymes with googly and oogly-boogly, sometimes spelled Hoogli or Hugli) River is just a name for this last section of the Ganges, before it deltas up and spills into the Indian Ocean just past Kolkata.

Tamara enters Ramakrishna’s room, which sits at the northwest corner of the courtyard.

No photos allowed. I sneak one anyway. The bedroom is maybe 15 x 20 ft. but it’s aura is massive. Like being at the Bodhi tree and feeling Buddha’s presence, this little room conjures up all sorts of images and feelings of Ramakrishna sitting here, teaching, going into ecstatic trance, or just enjoying the camaraderie of his peeps.

Exiting the Kali Temple complex at Dakshineswar.

On the way to the parking lot, a monkey family panhandles for chapatti.

...and a human family chats us up and we trade photos. We humans are very interested in each other. There are many times like this one on my trip, and I begin to appreciate our natural urge to bask in each others’ differences and samenesses. It seems much more of a basic instinct than wanting to kill each other out of fear. (Although the little guy in pink looks a tad wary at the moment.)


Ramakrishna Mission at Belur Math

We hop in our vehicles and zip across the Hoogly to The Ramakrishna Math (Monastery). Well, not exactly ‘zip’. I believe there may be a bylaw prohibiting zipping in Kolkata and environs.

The Ramakrishna Temple at Belur Math was built in 1935, almost 50 years after his death, by Swami Vivekananda and a brother-monk named Swami Vijnanananda who, before putting on the robes, was an architect. The style is a fusion of Hindu, Islamic, Christian, Buddhist and Rajput motifs, as inspired by the ecumenical leanings that typify the Ramakrishna movement.

another view of this beautiful structure. Note the bamboo construction to the right. More ...

I have no idea - nor does anyone I ask - what all this bamboo framing is for, but it sure looks like a lot of work.

Two roofers roofing. (Everybody sing: Fiiiive Golden Rings...)

Close-up. (K)not a nail in sight.

This sign shows some of the courses being offered at Belur Math.
Check out #07. Did you know what Pisciculture was? I didn’t. Besides many agriculture courses, carpentry, embroidery and electronics are also among the offerings.
#34: Twelve weeks of Motor Winding, anyone? Fantastic.

Education is not the only work done by the mission. Wikipedia tells us the Belur Math also “conducts medical service, work for women, rural uplift and work among the labouring and backward classes, relief, spiritual and cultural activities.” They also mention at least 5 other major missions founded by Ramakrishna’s followers throughout the world.

Less than a hundred yards from the main temple, two smaller temples built over the remains of Sri Sarada Devi (1853 - 1920), Ramakrishna’s “spiritual consort” and Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna’s “main man” sit on the west bank of the Hoogly.

An interesting sidebar about Swami Vivekananda... He made quite a splash in America in 1893 at the Chicago Parliament of the World’s Religions. The speech he gave was a bit of a ‘shot heard round the world’ in religious and intellectual circles, if I understand correctly. As you read this little excerpt, keep in mind Vivekananda had never spoken in front of such a large audience before (thousands), say nothing of speaking in English to an international audience. And this is 1893:

“We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true...Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often...with human blood, ... and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.” http://www.viveksamity.org/user/doc/CHICAGO-SPEECH.pdf

Sidebar on the above sidebar: Pope Leo XIII officially censured the Roman Catholic speakers at the Parliament and forbade participation in “future promiscuous conventions.” (!!!!)

Swami Sidebar #2: Vivekananda is credited with bringing Yoga to the west. I think Hot Yoga was brought by someone else, though.

Swami Sidebar #3: As a kid, I spent most of my summers visiting family on the St. Lawrence River in Clayton, N.Y. Not far from there, in a very Victorian vacation community called Thousand Islands State Park, on Wellesley Island, where you’d never expect it, there is a 3-storey structure in the woods called Vivekananda Cottage. Seems he was invited there a couple of years after the Chicago event by a Miss Elizabeth Dutcher, who had heard him speak. He spent 7 weeks there teaching twelve disciples and returned there several times in the years to come. Today, followers use the cottage as a retreat house. (http://www.ramakrishnavivekananda.info/reminiscences/113_sew.htm)


Lunch With a Giant

Turns out the Belur Math is closed from noon to 3:30, so we whistle down our rides (a.k.a. phone them) and go in search of lunch. I have no idea how we found this place, but my hat is off to whoever made the suggestion. Perhaps it was Ramakrishna himself who intervened, because the food is bliss, and the owner is a wrestler. Huh? Well, have a look for yourself:

Barrel-chested Rasbir Singh, the proprietor of Shahi Biriyani Corner, proudly poses in front of a potato dish prepared in his kitchen.

The dish.

Roti Man.
This fellow’s main job seems to be running back and forth keeping everyone’s table piled high with delicious, fresh off the grill roti.

The great jovial Rasibir not only sees to it that we have the very best lunch possible, but enthusiastically participates in group photo sessions. He also accepts Mat’s challenge to an arm wrestle. Guess who won?

Mat’s holding his own (for a good 30 seconds).

The action-filled climax.

Rasbir Singh: big man, big talent, big heart.

Emma, Survivor Mat, Rasbir and Dennis all show their stuff.

An exhausted Tamara, bright Heather, dashing Darrol and effervescent Emma face the camera while Pam wishes good vibes for Tamara from the corner.

The humble Shahi Biriyani Corner.
24, G.T. Road, Ballykhal in Howrah (Kolkata).
Eat there sometime!

Anticlimactically, we head back to the Belur Math to wait another 1 1/2 hours in the baking sun.

While we’re waiting, Darrol orders some juice from the cane press:

Once inside, I head for the Ramakrishna bookstore, the various shrines, and the ghat to watch the kids swim in the Hoogly, but I’m too beat to really take it in.

Here is a short clip of the brave bathers:

End of a long day (and a long chapter!). Darrol takes Mat, Emma, Pam and me out to dinner. He’s been doing this in groups of 3 or 4 each night in Kolkata. Although Darrol’s been to India 21 times before, this, incredibly, is his first visit to Kolkata. The man surely knows how to scout out a good eatery though, because the food at the Gangaur Rajastani Vegetarian Restaurant, #2 Russell St., just off Park, is the best Indian food of the trip so far. Maybe because HE bought?! Haha. Thanks Darrol.

Next time, two more hot days in Kolkata.
The best breakfast on Kyd St. and a walking tour through the markets.

Happy reading!

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