“Card Cheats and Dusty Museums of Kolkata”

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India Travel Diary 11,  from Kolkata to Darjeeling

Wednesday March 6th, 1991

Some days have gone by, we have been able to see a lot of the city, and avoid one out of control riot where many people are trampled and killed. It is astonishing that something so noisy and chaotic can be so self contained and happening just blocks from where you are wandering.

Yesterday we spent the day buying our tickets at the Sealdah Train Station for our trip to Darjeeling and buying art supplies. We found these little watercolor boxes for a five rupees along with some great brushes, we are settling into making small paintings to while away the hours, we also have a lot of various games to pass the time when on trains, though most of the time we are dealing with the million top questions asked of westies when traveling third class or no class what so ever.

Another detail about the deadly demonstration was at BBD Bag, we could barely hear it from inside the reservation office, people went about their business seemingly unaware of the happenings nearby. Sabu was burnt out and tired but fortunate for us a friendly old train station attendant guided us away from the problem the chaos and back to our Kolkata .

Back stairwell the Indian Museum,of Natural History, Kolkata

We walked along the hot Medan which is a rat river after sundown; so we were told by a local, the one positive side is the exhaust free green belt back from the Birla Planetarium Museum. We also went to the Indian Museum of Natural History on Nehru Road. It is an old time colonial style museum with many artifacts decomposing or sitting under an inch of dust, just the way I like my museums dusty and forgotten. A lot of the artifacts were in crates or on skids, because of ongoing renovation, I got a great picture of Kali Ma cut from black basalt sitting on a wood skid and bound with large ropes.

More about pann splatters, the main staircases of the museum of Natural History all have the corner’s panned. For those not acquainted with pann, it is this mix of betel nut and other spices and herbs all mixed together and held by a betel leaf. The package looks like a three sided pyramid, you push the entire thing into your mouth, usually it tests the limits of the size of your gaping mouth as you shove it into your face. You start to chew and continue to chew and chew until it breaks down into a tasty crunchy glop, it causes you to want to spit, and many people seem to think that the corners of semi public spaces is the perfect place to let go a rich alizarin crimson red gob of pann juice with a smattering of solids and the occasional leafy bit highlight of green, thus the term Sabu and I have coined “ pann your corners” although this term isn’t officially recognized in India or anywhere else.

We got some great pics of artifacts, we saw a mutation display, with two headed goats, calves, deformed human babies, and a perfect child in a large beaker, all of which float in formaldehyde, but where do they keep the soul I wondered? Oh right, it’s onwards into the next life. We entered one room in the art gallery section, all we could see was a large plexi oval bubble on the wall at far end of a fourty foot room, as we approached we realized it was a painting on a grain of rice of a man.

What you can do with a grain of rice! The plexi lens enlarged it to a few inches so you could see the detail. Impressive what people can do when they have the time and little distraction.

Thursday March 7th 1991

Got up at six thirty am and went to the market to get some cardamom and milk for Sabagi’s stomach, as we left two beggars, the one pulling the wagon was partially disfigured and a few missing digits, while the one in the wagon was a quadriplegic with the most amazing smile. When he looked at me he appeared hovering on a silk rug held up by golden light. I emptied my pockets of all the coins I had which turned out to be a fistful of coins. Up until now I had been dolling out the one rupee coins one at a time with a daily average of ten coins, but now considering changing it to one jackpot giveaway of whatever coins I have in my pocket at that moment. There is a lot of coin management here, it’s sort of that pirate theme of gold bullion in a sac, except its most of it coinage is aluminum. I held the wagon pullers stumpy hand for a moment, sent some good energy both exploded in joy and we went off to the market with the idea of attempting to make a salad.

Buying our salad fixings

Went to visit Kalighat Temple (Kali Temple) in Kolkata and hung out with kids feeding them oranges and peanut butter sandwiches and playing street games, they took us to visit Mother Teresa’s Mission. A nun came to the door and said Mother Teresa was resting and to come back later in the day. However, we were never able to find our way back for the visit.

Mother Teresa's Mission in Kolkata
Mother Teresa’s Mission in Kolkata

Took more photos that might appear normal now but will look somewhat odd later. The photos are of women, children and pigs vying for anything nutritional in garbage strewn in the street and in two brimming yellow dumpsters. We finally reached the market, got our supplies and returned to the hot hell room. All the leafy greens had to be washed in our iodine filtered water so the process of creating a salad took us most of the evening.

The day before we had realized that a portion of our airline tickets where missing, and we would need them to book our flights back to norde America. I remembered advice about bureaucracy, “most of the time the truth isn’t good enough, you have to make it an interesting story”. There bored I guess and the same old mishaps have been dealt with so many times that they probably have an unfavorable response in the form of a Policy. So you need to make it unusual, and out in left field. We went to the Cathay Pacific office to tell them of our dilemma, that we had discovered the return portion of our tickets missing and we needed to have new tickets issued.

We didn’t want to tell them that they had been ripped out by the boarding pass clerk in Hong Kong, so we told them they had been stolen. They told us that they needed a police report in order to issue new tickets, so we went off to the police station to fill out a report on the theft of our precious tickets. We were brought into a large room with several desks, large windows to one side, and a jail cell with a few tired looking criminal types. From their jail cell perspective, we were the afternoon entertainment, not to mention the young blond western girl they could oogle.

The police officer told them to settle down, and he had sit us at the chief detectives desk. On it was a old thirty eight, just sitting there next to a ledger like book. We got our water colors out, realizing it might be a long wait, I always have been able to read quickly upside down text so we had a good laugh over the arrest records in the open ledger on the desk. Most of them were for cheating at cards, or fighting for cheating at cards, or card cheat brawls.

When the detective entered, he put the gun in his top drawer and closed the arrest book. He then got a sheet of paper out, and chai was brought for everyone. We explained that our airline tickets had been stolen and we were reporting it, only thing we never expected we would have to describe the crime, I guess we figured it happened while we were sleeping. The detective wanted a location so we told him it happened at the Birla Planetarium, and then he wanted a description of the person. At this point the inmates in the cell had started helping us out with the description of the fellow. The detective was absolutely absent from the entire experience, we thanked the inmates, the detective had us sign the report, he gave us a receipt and forty minutes later we left laughing and wondering what had just happened. Then we scuttled back to Cathay Pacific to pick up tickets for home, home on the range.

Had to hurry back to our hothell to pack and rush to catch the seven pm train from Sealdah Train Station. We got there at five by cab with two policeman in the front seat telling us not to be foolish in Kali, cuz’ of the crime outside the station. We sat trying to contain our laughter thinking back on the card fighting criminals. Outside the station we got a picture of a bicycle rickshaw graveyard. We were taking an overnight train. In the station a group of kids were following us.

Sealdah Station, Kolkata

Abandoned rickshaws and bicycles at Selda Station, Kolkata
Abandoned rickshaws and bicycles at Selda Station, Kolkata

We took pictures of them, made peanut butter sandwiches that went over better than the first time we tried. The first time we offered a peanut butter sandwich to a woman begging for food, she did the classic Babbu and held her pinched fingers to her mouth and she threw the sandwich at us. So the kids ate, at one point the kindly Indian business man came along to hit the children with his briefcase and chased them away. He used his briefcase on one of the young girls, when we yelled at him to stop and what was his problem for doing so, he got very angry at us and started cursing us then stomped away.

We decided it was train time and a long journey north to Siliguri, the last incident had really put a horrible sad note on the end of our Kolkata journey. It took so long to leave the city, it’s circumference is two hundred and sixteen kilometers. The train rolled past houses, huts, all manner of enclosures with people and their cooking fires, the air was thick and black, and smelled of every imaginable substance from kerosene, coal, , cow dung, mixed with the smell of decay and shit. Dim lights rising, dimming and disappearing through the pollution of the early evening.

Friday, March 8th, 1991

Siliguri, West Bengal

We arrived in the am to transfer to the Darjeeling Toy Train that is also blue like the Toy train in Ooty. The train takes you to Siliguri Junction and we bused the rest of the way. The bus broke down twice, and we got there exhausted, it was cool and drizzling. The entire train ride is six or seven hours, and after the train to Siliguri, We thought the bus easier, didn’t turn out that way .

On the toy train I got to ride in the engine. We ended up at the broken down Hotel Tara freezing in the high elevation night air, we huddled away under the covers till the next day, truly burnt out from our trip on the overnight second class ride and the unending bus ride up the mountain passes.


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