“In Search of the Black Hole of Kolkata”

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India Travel Diary 10 – Konark To Kolkata 

Friday, March 1st, 1991

On our way back from the beach this morning on our bicycles I got the Holi treatment of colors. I took a photo of three young boys on bicycles as they approached me, in the picture there all smiles, only seconds later they pelted me with fistfuls of ultramarine blue and cadmium red pigment and continued rode on past me laughing.

I didn't spot the fistfuls of pigment in time
I didn’t spot the fistfuls of pigment in time
Holi Cyclist
Holi Cyclist

It took me two days to get the pigment out of my ears. Sunburns for the first time, with too much time on the beach we slept till the late afternoon and went back to the sun temple, later that night we went to the beach to check out the interdimensional doorway again, but it was one of those things, you had to be there to jump in for the ride. You could tell by the feeling in the air and the sound of the surf that, that doorway was not going to manifest again any time soon.  I sense we need that gate before we get to Nepal, and tomorrow we head for Calcutta.

Saturday March 2nd 1991

Bhubaneshwar, Orisa

Left Konark at nine, after a last plunge and prayer in the Bengali Sea. Rode back and did a bus back to Bhubaneshwar. The bus ride was hot and I am glad it is over, we got a seat in first class air con, trying to recover from a major belly ache and head ache. Got the train to Kolkata (Calcutta) and settled into some painting. Outside the landscape is lush, and purple skies are forming, it is late afternoon and a thunder storm comes with a heavy solid rain, we moved to the dinning car where the windows are open.

The storm has already passed as we speed on to Calcutta, the air blowing in is clean and moist, heavy, I order some chai, and an omlette, but I make the mistake of going to compliment the chef. I go to take a picture of him, the kitchen is not what I expect of course, and he chasses me back into the dinning car. As I return to my table, I read a sign, “The corrupt will not escape punishment”. Outside the train, thousands of chirping starlings  are swept along by the train and veer off into the jungle as the sun sets.

Balasore Orisa

My head is aching now I am restless and I want something to happen. The train stopped in Balasore and we decided to get off for a moment and buy incense from a blind man. In Cali I want to redress my objectives, we have covered so much ground.

Kolkata, West Bengal

In the late afternoon we slowly slip into the cloud of human activity that is Kolkata, the smell of millions of small fires in the early evening, as we pull into Howrah Station. We step out onto the curve and take a big bouncy NYC checkered cab. It is eleven at night and we are crossing the Hoogly River on the Howrah bridge. This bridge reminds me of the 59th street bridge in New York. We both agreed that Kolkata looks a lot like Escape from New York circa 3000, our Ernest Borgnine cabi, played by a young Bengali agrees.  Well, well, Snake Bliskin, we thought you’d joined the Krishnas.  Anyway after this Manhattan will look like a sunny stroll in Cali-fornia. It made me realize that humanity can tolerate a lot of degradation and still maintain a level of operational fluidity. It’s somewhat scary at how deep the barrel of human suffering is.

Howrah  Terminal and the Howrah bridge over the Hoogly River.

We did the circuit, looking for a place to stay, the cabby dropped us near the Medan, after a lot of turn aways , and stepping over entire families of people sleeping on the sidewalks, long rows, of mammas, pappas, grandmas, uncle, antie, children, competing dogs, we found the Centre Point Lodge. Sabu beat down the price and we managed to get a front room for a hundred rupees. Still a rip, but hey at this time of night, we had no alternatives, as I sat on the bed I discovered the black hole of Calcutta. A large butt sized hole in the middle of the bed, so I had to cling to the edge of the bed to avoid disappearing while I slept.

Sunday March 3, 1991

Wake up at five AM to Azan, then at five thirty by a rehearsing on the move circus Krishna band off to work, I suppose. Sounded great, so optimistic, my body was bent at the waist with my butt slipping into the centre of the bed, I thought of Lapierre’s City of Joy. Good Morning Calcutta. Then I slipped back to sleep for ten minutes. Went to the window and got to watch a tall Bengali man, I would guess in his forties and fit, you would have to be fit to live out there on the street through the night, every night. He did his morning ablations, offering water from stainless steel tiffin, water collected from a spigot spilling water into the street. Arms extended in front of him he poured the water gently as he prayed, then he set it down at his feet and joined his hands in prayer, he reached down and touched the ground, put his hands together once again to his forehead. Then he washed himself, shook out the cloth that had been sleeping on and wrapped it as a lungi, his jet black hair, smiling teeth I could see from my window seventy feet away, he actually looked remarkably transformed standing on the curve in front of the Fire Station HQ.

We wandered off, in search of food, somehow I feel invincible, I truly believe this is where I am from, and where I belong, and for once I let my guard down and brush my teeth with the tap water, not using my iodine filter. It is hard on the liver, with iodine water and malaria pills. After no luck finding an alternative hotel we wandered and got some food from a vendor on the street, first time, we must really be feeling invincible. We went to the homeopath to get malaria pills and other emergency homeopathics. We visited the Birla Planetarium, it was a real hoax astronomy, and a so extremely under managed universe  buried under years pann splatters.

napo b
Museum of Natural History, Kolkata

I have had some problem with a mass of mosquito bites on the back of my legs, courtesy of the Black Hole of Kolkata lodge. Also having trouble with regularity, so I believe my Indian diet has finally caught up with my usually tough constitution. All of this makes the entire day slightly unpleasant. At one point in the day, we had stopped to discuss what to do next, an Indian man came up to me tapping me on the shoulder and pointed down to a puddle of water with a cloud of mosquitoes circling over it. He motioned us to keep moving.

As dirty and cluttered as this town is, it is surprising to see all the happy faces, on beggars, lepers and other street humans. You see entire families working rummaging threw garbage to survive, it really is troubling, but somehow everything seems to “work as usual”, a sort of casual desperation and acceptance.

Family sorting threw garbage, Kolkata 1991
Women and children  sorting threw garbage, Kolkata 1991

In the early evening we had something to eat and started wandering. The thing that occurs with regularity is brown outs and water supply reduced to a trickle. So soon after sundown around seven PM the power went off in the city and we where left to wander in the dark, we were unprepared for this and so had no penlight to impress the locals with, so we wandered in the dark. We could hear people around us or traffic and vehicles but it really was a very obscure stroll for us, I mean really how dark could it be.

We walked for thirty or forty five minutes, turning down streets and really having no idea which direction we where going. Then somewhere around eight thirty all the lights came on and we were standing in a large square with black flags draped down the side of buildings, at the bottom of the flags where numbers, also there where large posters of Saddam Hussein, really large, again, several stories high. It was the classic silence of walking into the saloon where you are the stranger and everyone’s eyes are on you. This time though we were in the middle of a Saddam Hussein rally and the numbers represented the Iraqis killed by the Coalition of the willing. This was a nasty place to be, really.  I looked around at the hundreds of people and before anyone could say anything or comment, I quickly walked over to one of the tables set up with souvenirs of SH and bought a Saddam Hussein poster, and a small Iraq flag and some buttons we immediately pinned on our shirts. Taken off guard, the vendor broke into a smile, and I did my best shit-eating smile “ Eh, Saddam Hussein number one” and gave him the thumbs up, in that Banana’s Woody Allen style. Everyone broke into laughter and we smiled as we walked away calmly into the night checking over our shoulders from time to time, glad to have our hides still intact.

We scurried home glad we hadn’t shit our pants, though it could have helped my constipated body. It was interesting how the benevolent sense of this city had been torn away so suddenly, and we realized that maybe things weren’t as safe for us as we believed. The sound of crows haw hawing and cawing as we walked home to our lodge where warning us to get our shit together, those blue grey and black tuxedo crows telling us to be alert.

Some Indian cities where easy for me to find my way around, and it really isn’t that it’s any simpler or laid out any better, it’s just I have some innate sense of the city, Kolkata was one of these cities. No matter how lost we seemed, I could always figure out how to get back to square one, Mumbai on the other hand left me lost many times and if it wasn’t for the cheap auto rickshaws that can get you back home we would still be wandering, lost in Mumbai.

One Reply to ““In Search of the Black Hole of Kolkata””

  1. In Paris in 1978 I had that experience of knowing where I was all the time and knowing all the shortcuts from one place to another. It’s definitely an interesting sensation.
    And, just for the record, I have a tendency to get lost in strange cities…


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