I’m typing this in an unnamed intenet cafe in Siliguri, about 575 kilometers from Kolkata. Siliguri and New Jalpaiguri are really one huge trading town for this area – about half a million people. I’ve only been here a few hours but already the atmosphere is very not Kolkata. I haven’t had one “hello, sir!” yet. This is the call you hear as you walk along the street – 9 times out of 10 it’s an invitation to look at their shop, not just a friendly greeting. Siliguri, like most of India, I guess, is still diesel city, but nowhere near as polluted and filthy as Kolkata.
There must be stages to culture shock. First, survival mode – that was my last post. Second, the challenges and little thrills of exploration. Third, the discomfort and criticism. I’m alternating between the 2nd and 3rd. I’ve left Kolkata, partly for some fresher air, but also to take a break from its relentlessness. Lots of beggars, lots of touts, some beautiful people, and some incredible scenes . A few snapshots –
On Tuesday, three schoolgirls (maybe 12 years old) come up to me while I’m taking a drink of water, ask me where I’m from. One says “you have very beautiful eyes!”.
I go to the Indian Museum. Incredible. Huge colonial 2-story building with inner courtyard, it is a museum to museums. Immense rooms filled with dusty display cases – the type-written labels detail every kind of rock, mineral, seed, plant, oil, animal… Life size displays show models of various Indian tribes, moths and butterflies are crucified behind glass, boxfish in formaldehyde, and quite a few watercolours by Tagore.
I am noticed everywhere I go. Mostly, it seems, because I am anglo and wealthy. I retreat to western-style cafes and bookstores (the sort I wouldn’t go to in Melbourne) for solace now and then, but mostly walk the streets, looking (often unsuccessfully) for artistic centres. It makes me wonder about community – it is easier to make connections with the well-off Kolkatans. Class? Language? Both, I think. Class and Language tend to work together; English, the language of the empire.
On my first morning here, I spot a beggar with a heartbreakingly severe spinal curvature. He waddles over to me, his hand out beseechingly. I walk past, a little in shock. I see him the next morning sitting on the footpath (his spot), and give him a few rupees, motioning to my back, nodding. It seems like some kind of connection. The next time I pass the same spot, he is louder and follows me, “hello, friend!”, his hand urging towards me.
I rarely hand out money. I know often the most aggressive are actually just collecting for others. There is a wall of poverty here. I can’t write about it. I’ve seen too many people sleeping on the footpath, men slapping their amputated limb against the road to attract charity, young women holding their baby in their arms while they stare into the restaurant you’re in and make an eating motion with their hand, shoe-shine-wallahs, shave-wallahs, even men with manual typewriters who’ll type for you, barefoot scrawny rickshaw drivers.
Why is it like this? Is it Hinduism? The caste system? Colonialism? Capitalism? Is it in the nature of the mega-city? Is it really inevitable?
A man in his mid-30s approaches me while I’m sipping my espresso in a chain cafe “Barista”. “Good afternoon”, he says, then, “are you a writer?”. We get talking, he introduces me to his wife. He writes novels and “self-management”; she writes poetry and paints. SS Roy and Daisy both also work for Herbalife; SS’s mentor/guru is high up in the company in Sydney. While we sit and chat, SS feeds Daisy cake, in between telling me how lucky he is to have her, how before her he was like the orangutan in the zoo. Daisy asks me about my back, because her daughter’s is starting to curve a little and the doctors want to operate (Daisy wants me to say no). I tell her, maybe not, just keep an eye on her – if it’s not too bad, don’t worry, especially if she’s not in pain. Later, she tells me I am a wonderful human being.
There is so much else I could write, but will leave it at that for now. Just one more thing – Indian bureaucracy is incredible. To get a ticket to New Jalpaiguri, I need to find out the codes and names of the train, fill out a long form, which then gets transferred into a huge ledger, and typed into a very early 90s looking computer by a public servant who manages to seem both friendly and arrogant. There are no 3AC seats left, so I have to cross that out on the form, and write 2AC (more expensive, two tiers of sleeping instead of 3). The 10pm to 8am overnight train from Kolkata was fantastic. In spite of the snoring through the carriage, and albeit curled up in foetal position in my bunk, I got sleep! I woke up to the sight of village farms just outside New JP, and a sense that the next stage of my being among the Indians is ahead of me.
Checked into Hotel Skylark, took a shower, and sat on my little balcony on the 3rd floor overlooking the sportsground and many bookstores! Siliguri for me, I think, will be for regathering strength, a short stop before heading to Kurseong, maybe Mirik, Darjeeling, Kalimpong, who knows…
I miss my partner and my friends. Love to you all. Postcards are coming!