Sunday, January 16, 2011

The City

I've been looking forward to this day. We set out with Mr Ritwick on a tour of Kolkata. Since it's Sunday, the traffic (and the accompanying din) were significantly less than usual, but the crowds at some of the places we visited were in full force. We went first to the flower market, at the Kolkata side of the Howli Bridge. We got there at about 9, but the market had been humming since 5AM when the farmers start arriving by train at the station on the other side of the river Hoogli and wheeling their flowers across the bridge. It's a long alley where the vendors set up, strewn with wet flower stems and petals. The small booths display masses of flowers - in long ropes, in garlands, and in decorative arrangements. Most of the flowers are bought by retailers, who then sell them primarily for use in worship. Men with huge baskets balanced on their heads plod through the crowds. Running off the alley is a maze of narrow paths through shacks and buildings, where there are even more vendors. It's so crowded on these dark lanes that it is difficult to maneuver, in fact, difficult to make any forward progress at all. In the midst of this maze is a dilapidated bath house that still has amazing tile work inside. And on the other side is a ghat, or a kind of landing, on the river. Here, people bathe, do laundry, cook and eat. The riverbank itself is covered in garbage, and the place has an aroma that you don't quickly forget. But in front of you is the broad river, about 700 meters wide, and the expanse of the Howli Bridge nearly overhead, which is one of the busiest bridges in the world. It's hard to describe the quality of the light; the sun is out, but there is a haze in the air - maybe the river, definitely pollution and dust - that tints everything in a pleasing way.

In the afternoon, we visited a Jain temple. The Jains are a minority religion in India that follow strict anti-violence
principles. Our guide told us that some even wear dust masks over their mouths to guard against the possibility of accidentally swallowing a bug. The temple is a jewel box of mosaics, inlays of stones and small mirrors. In the center is a garden with statuary, curving walks and plantings. In the main temple building is an altar. In front of the temple is a statue of a plump and proper-looking fellow, who was an accountant who directed the construction of the temple complex. Respect at last!

We were a little worn out for a big restaurant outing after the day of touring, so we stepped across the street from our hotel to the famed Blue Sky Cafe, which is a gathering spot for backpackers and other like-minded animals. It's busy and noisy (mostly because of the waiters screaming orders and questions at the kitchen) and you never know who you'll end up sitting with or talking to. The staff consider it ordinary to ask diners to move between tables in order to keep the maximum number of butts in the maximum number of chairs. Tonight, it was three anime-looking Japanese people, who when they left, were replaced with two pierced Dutch guys who were knocking around Asia for a while. They just looked for cheap air tickets and went. One of them mentioned to Patty, one of our group, that he had gotten a cheap ticket to Buffalo. She told him that there is a reason why tickets to Buffalo are cheap. We left him considering this thought.

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