I’ve made up my mind, eventually. It’s Kolkata. And it was in last February that I took my travel to this 300-year-old city. I didn’t take plane. Let me travel by train, I reasoned; after all, I was travelling to India.
But I didn’t get the train ticket. So, I booked a bus ticket from Phuentsholing to Kolkata. I carried a small bag with me. I had inside it some shirts, a pair of pants, my cosmetics, a camera, a notebook, pen and a novel.
When I reached Phuentsholing, I knew how lousy I was in travelling. No Indian ATM/Master cards. No SIM card. I had only a few thousands Indian Rupees in my purse. That’s all. How terrible!
It’s only when I stepped inside the bus in Phuentsholing that I felt a touch of alarm. I saw only strange faces. I spread out the Kolkata map and looked at it. Oh, so many names of the roads, towns, parks, bazaars, stations. It’s such a big city.
Kolkata is home for over 15 million people. You cannot imagine, simply. But the brutal truth is that I was travelling to a place where I didn’t know a single soul. I felt like I was on a mission of going-to-get-lost. It’s obvious though.
I was travelling there…umm, just like that. I don’t know precisely. Sometimes, I just go crazy. Like this. And inside the bus, nervousness came out to me naturally. I, huh, nearly jumped out of the bus and return home in Thimphu. But something held me back.
And let me tell you that I always had a fascination towards Kolkata for several reasons. I was first introduced about it by a novelist Dominique Lapierre in his book ‘The City of Joy’, where he was overwhelmingly enthused by the City and named it “City of Joy”.
The city has bred Nobel Prize winning poet Rabindranath Tagore and spoken of Oscar-winning film director Satyajit Roy. This place, too, has hugely inspired a Macedonian Catholic nun Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu to make Kolkata her home and become Mother Teresa.
So my journey began in the early evening. It’s a bogey ride in a dusty and noisy road - over the vast open plain of the north Bengal. The scattered settlements and farmlands stretched clear for acres and acres on all sides.
In the west, over the horizon, the marmalade sun was about to set. And I watched it, aghast and amazed, until I went into a deep sleep due to a long and arduous journey. We travelled all night.
The next morning, at 10, we reached Kolkata. The bus conductor announced, “We are in Kolkata, but it will take one hour to reach the Bus Station.” Oh my god, fear started running down my cheeks because I didn’t have any designated place to go in Kolkata.
Outside, the streets were noisy lanes packed with never-ending pedestrians, vendors, bicycles, rickshaws, cabs, trams, cars, beggars, elephants, monkey, cows and goats. Everything. Billboards hung at the building-tops and on the fields, advertising McDonald, Pepsi and sultry movie stars. After each handful of minutes, you meet with traffic jam. In corners, people (all tanned, dark and skinny) were fighting for water. And for the first in my life, amongst millions of people, I felt I was the best looking. Sorry la, he-he, my precious ego.
It’s almost noon when we arrived at the Dharamsala Bus Station. Other passengers have their own friends, relatives and officials to pick them up. And in a few minutes, they all left.
But four Indians surrounded me. It seemed like they were my hosts who had come to pick me up. The first one was a middle-aged woman (carrying a tiny baby) who started following me, begging money. I was warned before by one of my friends, “Never give money to beggars. If you give it to one, hundred would come to you.”
So I ignored her. But she never stopped following me. She pinched her baby each time she begged me. As the baby would give a loud cry, she pleads, “Shabji, give me money to buy foods for my starving baby.”
The next one was a bus ticket seller. He went onto pulling me, catching my jacket, and coaxed me to buy the ticket from him. Meanwhile, a short and stocky cabbie started pulling my bag from other end. He insistently asked me where he can drop me. And the fourth one was a street vendor who shouted at me to buy things from him. It’s so scary – more so by the way people reacted to me and those deafening noises.
I walked around the station with no destination in mind. These four people still following me. I was ignoring them, denying them. And the first thing that I learned in India was to ignore and deny.
I knew, then, I had entered the realm of foreigners. Everything was new, strange and difficult. And unforeseen dangers loomed every footstep I took, everywhere. Pick pocketing. I could be cheated by cabbies. I could be mauled by a mob of beggars. I could be kidnapped. Only then I realized that I had gone too far. And I choked, tears welling up in my eyes.
Pic: Dorji, Rima and Sonam Wangdi
There, in the crowd and unsure what to do, I met a Bhutanese boy, Sonam Wangdi, a law student in Kolkata. Coming closer, he inquired about me and invited me to his rented apartment. You can never guess how relieved I’ve become.
Sonam shared his apartment with three other Bhutanese mates. That evening, they cooked a special dinner for me - red rice with phaksa paa and ema datshi. I will remain ever grateful to Sonam Wangdi and his mates.
The next morning, a Singaporean friend of mine joined us. Together, we visited parks, gardens, malls, and museum. Also, we bellied up to restaurants, ordered five-star breakfast, McDonald, foods and drinks.
The other days, we decided to visit a place where we can experience the real Kolkata, see the real India - traffic, crowds, rickshaws, street foods, beggars and vendors. And it’s the New Town that we decided to visit.
We hired a yellow cab. For the record, the cabbies of Kolkata are very loud and rude. They never return your change. They manipulate the fare, always charge you more.
The New Town is almost like London with stately buildings, wide boulevards and gothic churches. The ensemble of quality colonial architecture still survives here. The street was buzzing - chock full of activities and countless people.
Every corner of the street was embellished with its own specialties – cocktails, bookstores, curries, fortune tellers, garments, cakes, cinemas, vegetables and fruits. And round the clock, something jaunty is always being played on - cricket commentary, Hindi songs, and party talks. It makes you feel that life is not dull here, but full of excitement.
We jumped into an old tram (that runs on rails) and experienced travelling in it. It runs very slow, but so much fun. After that we rode on a pulled-rickshaw. It felt overwhelmingly exciting, full of joy. Then, we tried auto-rickshaw and cycle rickshaw. All these, you can experience only in India.
There are many shopping malls, parks and museums that have added further glory to Kolkata, but it’s these vibrant street bazaars that offer you a high energy and buoyant experience.
Picture courtesy: Some of the pictures by Rima and google.