City of Joy - 1987
Updated: Jan 20
“It is a curious people. With them, all life seems sacred except human life.” Mark Twain, Following The Equator
We continue our escapades during our one year, round-the-world honeymoon. Leaving behind the pleasures of Thailand, we head to Calcutta, The City of Joy.
It seemed for all practical purposes as if we stumbled upon a gathering of the United Nations at Bangkok’s old Don Muang’s International Airport. While we awaited an Air India flight to Calcutta in the crowded boarding lounge, a fair sampling of our planet’s diverse races milled about.
Turbaned Sikhs, dapper Arabs in white Jellabas (undoubtably returning from a romp with Thai hookers), Indian women wrapped like a Christmas package in their bright saris, kimono-clad Japanese; and of course the ubiquitous blue-suited business man. Despite a delay in our flight’s departure, the airport’s activity made up for any boredom we might have suffered.
Security was very tight when we were called to our plane; in 1987, before terrible days that would beset the airline industry. We passed through metal detectors twice, were herded onto shuttled buses, but before we climbed stairs to the plane, we were scanned again with a hand-held metal detector. With a myriad problems affecting the Indian government (Sikh and other fervent nationalists, the bombing of an Air India flight off the coast of Ireland in 1986, which occurred while I was in England two years previous), little was being left to chance.
After a two hour delay, our 747 shot down the runway, lifting off the ground, an event which continued to amaze, despite all the flights we'd been on. That mankind has determined how to construct these giant winged beasts, get them off the ground and land again, with an impeccable safety record, is largely taken for granted.
The preferred route from Thailand to the subcontinent usually required one to stop in Burma where it was possible to overland to Bangladesh; but this route was no longer viable, once as Burma retrenched into xenophobic isolation in the early 1960’s. Boats weren’t really an option any more (a ferry from Penang, Malaysia to southern India discontinued), so we moved with the fashion of the day, aboard a big silver bird.
Flying affords the modern traveller many advantages, including the ability to transport one into a completely foreign environment in very short order. Little did we realize we'd actually embarked on a time machine; soon, our senses would be bombarded unlike anything thus far on our round-the-world honeymoon.
We decided to rush our itinerary: in the next three months, we’d pack more exotic travel than the previous nine combined, as we traipsed across India, Nepal, the Mediterranean, London, New York and Detroit, completing the circle planet tour.
Despite repeated attempts for service from our stewardesses, they seemed to be ignoring our incessant buzzing. After a small meal was served, we never really saw them again; not a great omen, for we had several flights remaining with Air India. We'd be travelling halfway around the world on Air India flights, as part of a very cheap ticket package from Bangkok to New York City.
Fortunately, the night flight to Calcutta was brief, less than two hours. As we approached the former centre of the British Raj empire, the lights had a strange flicker, as if powered by a generator running out of gas. There was something bizarre happening below in the dark; we were curious to see what it was.
I had never approached a destination with a greater sense of anticipation than mystical India.
Amongst seasoned off- the-beaten track adventurers, India was sine qua non. Everyone who'd been to the sub-continent claimed a love-hate relationship. They’d ramble about the difficult travel, the heat, the people, the poverty, etc… their worst nightmare. In the next breath, they’d claim it was the most fascinating place on earth, and couldn’t wait to get back.
What was up with that?
With much anticipation, we marched down the stairs toward the customs building. Only a small group of travellers disembarked at Calcutta, as the flight was carrying on to Delhi then Europe. We formed a typical oddball collection of Euro’s, Aussies, Kiwis and Canucks, nattily attired in our cheap Asian garb.
Customs officials were fairly thorough, asking for tickets out and how much cash we had on hand. They inspected backpacks, seeking undeclared liquor, electronic goods and God knows what all.
They obviously liked our looks as Elaine & I were waved through without a hassle. We always dressed in what we dubbed “border gear," clean, preppy clothes that signalled us as touristas, not one of those deadbeat hippies. This usually guaranteed less hassles at the border, as much of the routine is based on first impressions. We were only serious harassed once despite crossing in and out of seventeen frontiers, later in Italy.
We’d heard the horror stories about what a hell hole Calcutta was, so were stealing ourselves for the worst once we cleared customs. Surprisingly, the airport was eerily deserted, as were entered arrivals. Many antique Ambassador taxis lined up at the concourse, looking like so many turtles with black shells; we were immediately hustled for rides into town.
According to our travel agent in Bangkok, we were to be meant to greeted by a courtesy car, then shuttled to a flash hotel, to be put up free for the night. Our first lesson regarding how things work in India assured there wouldn’t be anyone in waiting. As there weren’t any Air India employees to be found at the airport, we called the hotel. Our travel mates by now had by now boarded buses into town.
Hotel staff promised to send a car around, o keep an eye out for a certain license plate, since all taxis were identical. After an hour, the driver still hadn’t arrived, it was getting rather late, I tried the hotel again. They assured me he was “soon come:" eventually, our driver made it.
The hotel was close to the airport, but we never did figure out what the issue was with our chauffeur. The hotel was modern, western-style and yet foreign to us; a local version of Sheraton or Hilton. Our vouchers ensured free room and two meals; fortunately, after much debate by night staff regarding the validity of said coupons, we were led a room.
We hadn’t stayed in such luxury in eight months on the old dusty trail. The room included air conditioning, colour TV (two channels, very mundane news and programming), hot shower, the whole nine yards.
We thought: Calcutta’s not such a bad place so far.
In the morning, I looked out the window, ten stories up; below, it looked like a sweat house. The heat permeated from the palms, hanging like a wet blanket as it merged with the chalk white sky. The swimming pool did seem terribly inviting, so we decided our best course of action was to head there.
We had to check out by noon, but we could always stow our gear at the front desk, enjoy two free meals on the house, then lounge comfortably by the pool. Later, we'd take the long trip into Calcutta; yet, despite our exuberant surroundings, we were rather anxious to see the mystic city.
The food was wicked excellent at the hotel, waited on by no less than three exceedingly polite young Indians. They were curious, so we discussed the city with them at length. Next, we sat by the pool, plunging in to escape the impossible heat of high noon. We felt a bit out-of-place in these posh surroundings; this was not our style of travel. We'd entered a separate travel reality, diametrically opposite what we’d been immersed in since we landing in Bali five months earlier.
After a few hours, we were anxious to get back to our tribe.
In my head, I heard a chorus from Jimmy Buffett, whose music I’d carried ever since I’d taken that auspicious first journey hitchhiking to Florida during Winter Break when I was seventeen.
They’re drinking all their punches, They may all lose their lunches Trying to cram lost years in five or six days. Seems that blind ambition Began to cloud their intuition Plowing straight ahead come what may. Cowboy in the Jungle, The Son of a Son of a Sailor
I did think, before we left that: “someday we will travel like this.”
Was there going to be a hidden fee for our stay at the posh hotel, suspicious of the “free” package with Air India. When checked out, no bill at all, then organized a taxi into town, down to Calcutta's backpack centre, Sudder Street.
The ride into town, piloted by a toothless wizened driver in an equally ancient taxi, whose English we couldn’t decipher, was one of those journeys that remains. The streets progressively narrowed as we approached town, traffic much more crowded. At one point, we passed a swampy bog, standing in the middle on a small boat was a beautiful Indian woman clad in a multi-coloured Sari, as if in a dream sequence.
In point of fact, this leg seemed as a surreal. If we had not found the famed Indian crowds at the airport the previous night, soon the throngs emerged: long-haired, wild-looking characters covered in ash in various stages of undress, the mysterious sadhus, Shaivite mystics on a pilgrimage to the Himalayas from the south, dapper Sikhs off to some business encounter, fair-skinned Afghanis, Negroid Oryans, Tibetans, Tamils, Bengalis, on the move, over 10 million strong.
We were deposited on Sudder Street, our first thought: we must be in the wrong place. We hoped to stay at The Fairlawn, “where the Raj still lives," according to our current travel bible, "India-A Travel Survival Kit," by Tony Wheeler. This classic old Victorian Hotel featured was a Raj throwback: high tea, quaint rooms. But the prices had more than doubled from our guide book, plus they only accepted US dollars.
Out of our league, and budget.
After several false starts, we discovered a charming old Victorian apartment flat converted into rooms called the Shilton, a clever play on words. The original name was still plastered to the facade, a nice Victorian-era touch: Windsor Court, 1938, our hometown name. There were few vacancies to be had, for there were many westerners within the district, much to our amazement.
We weren’t quite prepared for Sudder Street. In every major city in SE Asia, a district had been given over to low-budget travellers aka backpacker ghettos, the domain for “off-the-beaten-trackers;” rarely did one encounter locals, except those hustling farangs.
Sudder Street, on the other hand, was local, as if westerners didn’t exist. People lived right on the street; an entire community camped out in the shade afforded by a gigantic tree and the wall of the giant museum up the street.
Clusters of young and old squatted on rags – or nothing at all- while the rich and poor passed by. These misbegotten folks cooked their meals, washed themselves at hand pumps down the street. Some were crippled or blind; this scene was repeated throughout the city.
The cost of one night’s stay in our room could probably feed everyone in this enclave for a week. Elaine noted Djakarta seemed like a thriving metropolis in comparison to Calcutta- a somewhat shocking commentary!
We enjoyed reading novels related to places we visited; while in Calcutta, we’d picked up Dominique Lapierre eye-popping tome, The City of Joy. As a short-term visitor, it was often difficult to locate the heart and soul of Asian metropolises. Lapierre’s book helped us to make some sense of the chaos on display in the streets of Calcutta.
The book revolves around the experiences of a family escaping the nearby Bengali plain, who then migrate to the city, one of more than six million peasants over a fifty year period, due to a series of calamities: earthquakes, typhoons and droughts.
“The arrival of these successive waves of destitute people had transformed Calcutta into an enormous concentration of humanity…Calcutta had become one of the biggest urban disasters in the world.”
My interest was piqued as he discussed “human horses,” the rickshaw wallaws. These other-worldly carriages rolled passed our hotel on Sudder Street, a barefoot tattered man aged beyond his years, pulling a carriage loaded with parcels and passengers at great speed.
We’d seen images of these carriages in a museum in Penang, but to witness this spectacle set the wayback machine; it seemed impossible to imagine we were in the late 20th century. These carriages passed night and day, in all kinds of weather. When they weren’t straining with their carts, they were soliciting customers if they had the energy, or curled up on their seats, sleeping like weary skinny birds resting after a long migration.
We’d often see four people squeezed into these two-seaters, often well-to-do, overweight Bengalis. While we didn’t see any travellers or tourists partaking in a rickshaw wallah ride, we couldn’t decide if this helped or hurt them- like the dilemma facing travellers who visit Burma.
The practice began in Japan in the 18th century, and spread throughout Asia. In 1987, however, Calcutta was reportedly the last place on earth where humans were employed as taxi power. The advent of the bicycle trishaw was the death-knell for the human horse trade in Asia.
According to Lapierre, these rickshaws provided employment for over 100,000 people in Calcutta. The rickshaw wallahs “run up more miles per day than the 30 Boeings and Airbuses of Air India and India Air…transporting more than 1,000,000 people per day.
The rickshaws were only one facet of the human circus in Calcutta. After finding our bearings, we attempted to walk around our inner city neighbourhood. This proved challenging in "100 plus degrees in the shade;" we waited until after dark or before sunrise for sightseeing. The midday was spent with lukewarm showers then standing under a ceiling fan in an effort cool off - Third World air-con.
The city burst with life after sunset, so we did not have to worry about missing Calcutta’s street scene. As noted, entire families lived on the street with huge rat and bug-infested garbage piles. Whenever we walked by, parents encouraged the youngest ragged children to beg for rupees. It took all our strength, because once one started giving money to the cripples, destitute and sick on the streets of Asia, it would never end- the situation was quite hopeless. Better to donate to the agencies servicing the downtrodden, so we were told.
We'd become hardened to Asian beggars. We rationalized our callousness in different ways, but still, we broke down when it came to hard cases, such as leppers, or legless/armless souls. We kept a pocket of loose change for these situations, pressing these into the hands of the worst of the worst.
For all its poverty and misery, Calcutta remained a bustling city. We were surprised to discover Calcutta had only been founded in the late 17th century by the British, and wasn’t an ancient city at all, despite its well-worn patina. At its height, the city was the capital of the Raj, the jewel in the crown, to coin a phrase.
A far cry from Victorian Calcutta, according to Lapierre:
“Calcutta..had earned the nickname the ‘Paris of the East’…a dinner and dance under the ornamental ceilings of the luxurious ballrooms of houses…there was a Shakespeare performance at the New Place House…a Mrs. Bristow had even converted one of the reception rooms in her residence into an opera stage and hosted there the best tenors and divas from Europe..the Calcutta Symphony Orchestra gave a concert every Sunday.”
We were avid Victorian architecture fans; we took great pleasure in Calcutta's collection. Our squalid hotel was a late Victorian apartment complex, our room part of a larger suite divided into smaller sections. Some of the furniture survived; many shops sported beautifully crafted glass display cases that would’ve fetch a fortune back in Canada.
The Raj Bahvan stood in the midst of the city. The royal palace for the Viceroy of India, this 137 room monster featuring a gold dome and Greek pillars, set at the end of a park and wide boulevard, modelled along Kedleston Hall in England.
Eventually we trudged into the city’s financial district, where we were struck by its semblance to London, England. One plaza a replica of the famed Trafalgar Square. Double-decker buses whipped around the esplanade to complete the illusion.
But instead of London England, imagine it completely decrepit, invaded and sacked, or hit by a nuclear bomb some distance away; you have a small sense of Calcutta. The buses were bursting to the seams, the locals hanging precariously out the door, somehow balanced while standing on the rear bumper.
We stumbled upon a cricket pitch, only about 1 km from our hotel where we found Bengalis clad in traditional whites playing a match in the blistering heat. India is famous for its cricket teams, and often produces world champion squads.
Despite the collapse of the British Empire, many vestiges remained.
There were numerous inexpensive places to eat, and we dined on delicious silken curries, vegetable plates and delectable fresh baked breads, including the famous chapatis and rotis. Directly across from our hotel, there was an amazing little cafe opened onto the street at night, tables set out on the sidewalk. For less than a dollar, we both dined on delicious, carefully prepared portions until we were full to bursting.
We realized we’d been travelling in Asia for a while when we were served our dinner one evening, then the chef walked over to the sink, proceeded to clear his throat, his nostrils, then spit lugubrious luggers into the ubiquitous restaurant sink (Indians are fastidious about cleanliness, and wash their hands before every meals, ergo, the sink in every restaurant).
Despite this free spectacle, we continued eating our meal without missing a beat, although we did have a good laugh over this bizarre exhibition.
We hooked up with fellow travellers from the Bangkok flight, staying at a nearby hotel. We all were headed to Darjeeling, and hung out together in Calcutta. British Steve managed to secure a chunk of hashish the size of a baseball, so we converged in our hotel suite, which featured a sitting room and balcony overlooking the street. In the heat of the afternoon, we sat around sharing traveller’s terror tales.
It was dead hot- the type of heat that causes one to hallucinate about swimming pools, oceans, beaches, and cold beer. Aussie Ian disappeared but soon returned with an ice bucket full of beers- the best he could do under the circumstances.
“Where in this besotted town did you ever find ice and beers?” I asked
“Down to the shop for some warm beers, since nobody seems to have any refrigeration. Then I found a restaurant that sold me some ice, and there you go, party time!” he exclaimed with a wide grin.
“Well, I gotta hand it to ya mate,” (I was starting to sound like one of the Aussies!), “if you gotta be stuck in Calcutta in the white heat, it’s not so bad sitting on the balcony, smoking some hash, quaffing a cold one. Cheers, mate!”
Under this lens, Calcutta didn’t seem quite so quite bad.
The only order of business while in the city was to secure train tickets to Darjeeling. I was fascinated with the mob scene in Calcutta. Elaine became increasingly dismayed by the unrelenting poverty, became depressed in the City of Joy, couldn’t believe man could be so inhumane to man. I rationalized that as city was such a mess, there wasn’t anything we could possibly do about it, so why not accept it for what it was. Perhaps a weak rationalization, and yet I did find it all very beguiling.
After a few days, Elaine had seen enough, so we ventured off to the ticket agent to purchase tickets out. The advanced ticket agency was not in the same building as the train station; we’d heard many stories about queuing for train tickets in India- most of them horrible- we decided to trek over.
The place was bedlam, long lines to purchase seats. Fortunately, English was the lingua franca in India, so we could read the signs above the gates and ticket windows. We determined lines were for the Third Class queue,with no one at the second class line. We decided to try second class, since we’d had such great success in Thailand, and deluded ourselves into believing this would be as good in India.
When we finally reached the window, I asked the fat Bengali for tickets to Darjeeling.
“You’ll be wanting to go to New Jalpaigurijn, and then you’ll be taking the toy train to Darjeeling,” came the reply.
“Well, can I have two tickets with sleepers please,” I inquired.
“No, it is most impossible to buy your tickets from this window. You must go upstairs and sign up for the tourist quota,” he exclaimed, disgusted with our ignorance. The Indian train system featured a series of quotas, so it was good sense to use them whenever possible to ensure seating.
We clambered up a dark passageway, entered into an air-conditioned room filled with a few tourists and the dreaded Indian bureaucrats. We waited around for a couple of hours, at which time we were informed the office was closing for the day; we’d have to return tomorrow at 10 am if we wanted tickets.
I wanted to make sure we could still get tickets to New Jalpaigurijn, so inquired to one of the clerks. He graciously checked his reservation book, noting there was indeed space in the tourist quota two days hence.
Not wanting to take any chances being stuck in a queue the next day, we rose early, sharing a taxi with Ian, Steve and Susan, a South African expat. We were the first to arrive at the office, queuing in a dark stairwell, as the line grew progressively longer behind us. We grinned at our foresight, the old cliche about the early bird.
It was a good thing we were first in line; by the time the office opened and we sat down, we were shocked at the long process to secure tickets. Only four or five people were let into the air-conditioned chamber at a time; our posse sat on couches and chairs.
It has been said that the British gave the Indians bureaucracy, but that the Indians perfected it. There were many forms to be filled out, books abridged, nationality and passport numbers entered. The process took about forty minutes; by the time we departed, the line of tourists and travellers seeking tickets out of Calcutta on the quota system extended down the stairs and out the door.
Steve, Ian and Susan decided to spend an extra day in Calcutta, whereas Elaine and I wanted to get out of Dodge as soon as possible. The rest of the day was spent trying to keep cool; we sat on the roof of our friends’ hotel picking up where we’d left off yesterday, drinking cold beers and smoking hashish.
That evening, we ate at a dining establishment around the corner from our hotel. Here, the bus boys couldn’t have been older than 10 years old, child labour very common in Asia, smartly attired in uniforms with the crest of the restaurant on their pocket. The jacket colour indicated wait staffs’ status within the hierarchy, older employees chastising the younger ones, making them perform the dirty work. The food was excellent, like most of the meals we ate in India; we slipped our young waiter a tip when none of his colleagues were looking so he could have it all to himself.
We spent the final afternoon in the museum on the corner of Sudder Street to pass the time, a quick course on India's many tribes, a stunning exhibit of insects and stuffed wildlife. The place had a musty air about, there was little relief from the heat. We were anxious to be rid of Calcutta, and were becoming agitated at the slow passage of time in the dreadful heat.
Since we’d only spent an average of $5 a day for food in Calcutta, we decided to treat ourselves to a fine meal at one of the better restaurants in town. It was a posh, air-conditioned affair, waited on hand and foot by no less than five waiters. We dined on Chicken Thika, fish curry, lamb marsala and many other delicacies, washed down with ice cold beers, the entire meal around five dollars. When we left a $1 tip, the staff almost fell over with gratitude; they bowed and thanked us all the way out the door!
The entire time on Sudder Street, we were continuously harassed by taxi driver seeking our business. But when we returned to our hotel to pay our bill and collect the packs, there wasn’t a taxi in sight. It took us over a half an hour to find one, which meant we had to race to the train station to make our 7 o’clock connection.
As we dashed toward the station, stopping to let another ubiquitous holy cow to pass. I stared at the crossroad, the sight encapsulating mother India. Dust kicked up by a panorama of pedestrians, animal carts, buses, beasts, scooters, and rickshaw wallahs, conspiring to create a scene of such unimaginable chaos that was utterly difficult to put into words.
The setting sun had turned into an orange glow ball in the brown sky, a contrast of peace and harmony amidst the disorder.
I remembered the name of a book on India I’d read years before called Heat and Dust, and thought it the perfect description for Calcutta.
Next Stop: Tea and Revolution in Darjeeling