The Spirit of Calcutta

February 7, 1987 Calcutta

Well here I am back in Calcutta. God, how this place tries my patience. I am sitting in an auto rickshaw (smoke hog) on the street waiting while Gaura books our tickets to Madras. The smoke and noise in this place is unbelievable. When we arrived in Howrah (Calcutta’s main train station) another student demonstration was going on. Both police with lati sticks (clubs made of hardened bamboo) and students chanting political slogans were everywhere. Demonstrations must be a local pastime. I’ve seen about two dozen demonstrations and strikes since I’ve been in Calcutta. Later today we are going to Midnapur, a city 100 kms south of Calcutta to interview a disciple of Thakur Bhaktivinode. There is supposedly a Bipin Bihari and Thakur Bhaktivinode ashram there.

This will be our last stop in Bengal. Thank God. I’ll be so glad to set out of Calcutta and Bengal. Bengal is okay if you don’t travel. I cannot describe to you yesterday traveling to Shantiniketan. It’s a 100 kms trip from Mayapur. It took us 12 hours! A rickshaw, a boat, a rickshaw, a train, a bus, and another rickshaw. The bus was so packed there were people on the roof, people hanging from the windows, we were crushed right in the middle of it for 6 hours standing. My feet almost could not touch the ground because I was pressed off the ground by the crowd! I can’t imagine doing this when it’s 40 humid degrees in the hot season. After Calcutta everywhere is heaven. Traveling in India you lose all your inhibitions. You learn to push and shove, eat, sleep and urinate in public, and wait and wait and wait and then wait some more, and finally even to curse at people. The secret to India is this: you must have a superhuman sense of humor and extreme patience and be able to turn off your mind and desensitize yourself. I suppose good qualities for many places.

Actually I love India, it has such a charm. Here I am describing a horrible picture of it, but there is a good side too. The weather is great, the scenery is beautiful, it is exotic in the extreme and the people are wonderful (just not in the crowds). Ignore the street and it’s great. You’ll love it. Calcutta is a two edged sword, extremely brutal, dirty and nasty and yet extremely beautiful, exciting and charming. Bengali women are extremely beautiful with colorful saris, flowers in their hair, and pleasing smiles. A part from the street scene which is horrific, Bengalis are very sweet and gentle people. I have this love hate relationship with Bengal.

I love Bengali sweets. Daily we must have a stop at a sweet shop. Rashgula, ras malaya, mahabhog, shandesh, mishty doy, Ah! it’s all great. K. C. Dash makes the best sweets. We live on bread, cheese, tomato, cucumber, peanut butter and Bengali sweets. If we are lucky someone feeds us rice and sabji. I’ve become expert at making bread and cheese sandwiches while riding a second class train with a 100 Bengalis staring at me. I feel like I’m living in a zoo and I’m the animal. People want to touch us! When we are crowded into a bus, they touch my hands and arms! They can’t figure us out. In Calcutta you hardly see white people. In the villages you never see white people. Many people have never seen a white man! They just stare and stare and stare. They surround us in huge crowds. No blonde woman should ever come here without first dying her hair black! Gaura Keshava puts on a show for them: a dancing red monkey! I wish you could see it. He has no shame.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *