post-India post

Before I reminisce and debrief myself, I’ve put up a few photos – go back to the individual pages, and you’ll see photos on most of them…

India leaves me with distinctly Kolkatan memories.  Rachael is leaving a day before me, so we take a taxi out to the airport, organised by where we’re staying – the Sunflower Guest House.  They load her luggage into the boot, then realise they have a flat tyre, so immediately set to swapping it with their spare.  Lungi-ed men stagger up to the car to watch and scratch themselves.  Nearby, a hjira propositions a truck-driver.  Piles of rubbish burn.  On the way back from the airport, 2 am, the taxi stops at a mechanic to get the flat tyre repaired.  Ah, India.  Maddening and wonderful.

Kolkata International Terminal is hilariously slapdash – it has a strong 1960’s vibe to it, there are very little actual counters and signs, there are I think four shops…  The local terminal is much more equipped and welcoming.  Even the pre-paid taxi sign is more obvious.  Intriguing.  Makes you wonder if Kolkata expects any visitors.

After waking up at 6am in Ali and Penny’s loungeroom in Dubai (thankyou so much – it was a superb stopover), I packed myself into a smooth, air-conditioned, conversationless Emirates taxi, then into a smooth, air-conditioned, conversationless Emirates airplane – for around sixteen hours of limbo.  The land around Melbourne is yellow from a harsh summer.  The light is yellow, somehow more open, broad.  As the plane lands, burly airport workers punch each other playfully.  At customs, a peroxide-mulleted woman shouts in her best “Kath & Kim” accent to a man filling out his declarations form at the front of a queue, “yous carn’t fill that out thayre, sur!! You’ll haf ta go over thayre!!”.

Walking around Melbourne with India still in my body is strange.  Everyone seems slower, fatter, bigger, more cumbersome and clumsy, yet also self-consciously “cool”.  I ride a tram and there is only one conversation happening; the others strain to surreptitiously listen in, keen to somehow assuage their boredom and detachment.  The streets are impeccably clean.  There are footpaths.  It’s windy and cold.  Lunch at an organic cafe costs as much as a double room at Hotel Derby, Puri.

It was definitely time to come home, and being in India reminded me of how Australian I am, how it is in my bones and muscle.  But I don’t feel I’m at home.  I feel alienated.  It’s as if I slipped into another time entirely, and have slipped back in to Melbourne and nothing’s changed.  I go straight back to my RMIT course, our home in Coburg, our bills in Coburg, and because I’m sick (a throat cold from someone on the plane, I think; how ironic!) I’m spending my time indoors and lethargic.  Maybe my soul is still lost in transit, circling some lonely baggage carousel somewhere.  I’m sure it will catch up with me someday soon…

So, was India what I’d hoped, expected, planned?  No.  It’s completely confounding and astounding.  It has its own agendas and energies, which force you to accommodate to it.  I’d wanted to go to the International Poetry Festival in Kolkata, but we got stuck in the West Bengal Hills.  I’d wanted to meet some friends of friends in Hyderabad, but they were away when we were there.  I’d wanted to go to Varanasi and Bodghaya, but underestimated how huge the country is, how “little” you can fit in in three months.  I’d wanted to find qawwali, but even the Andhra Pradesh Tourism Department don’t know anything about the Deccan Festival.

We did somehow, with only a few days notice, manage to meet up with a lovely Bangalore-based writer, Anjum Hasan.  Her poetry is evocative, lyrical and restrained, quite beautiful.  We had a very civilized dinner at the Jayamahal Palace with her and her partner Zac, talked about the arts and literature scene in India and Australia, cultural nuances and annoyances.

Would I go back?  Yes.  Not yet, but hopefully soon.  Next time, I’ll plan in advance, get some solid contacts, base myself in one place, do less trekking.  India reminds me of the luck of birth, how our futures are shaped so much by where we’re born.  Being born into my life, I have the mind and sometimes the financial ability to travel.  I’ve caught the bug, I think.  Who knows what it will do to me!


Rachael and I keep talking, often joking, about “the real India”.  The one that isn’t on the tourism advertisements, all brilliant colours, clean air and precocious healthy children.  Apart from the mundane, grimy reality, the main gap between imaginary India and real India is cultural.  We are outsiders.  So, quickly enough, you learn that entering the core of India is pretty much impossible.  It’s more a question of getting closer, approaching through suspicions, feelings, assumptions.  And you learn the most, I think, from chatting with other people.

We met a fascinating travel agent on our train trip from Kolkata to Siliguri (New Jalpaiguri to be precise).  While keeping up a steady stream of salesman-speak, telling us how Australians were his favourite people (hmm…), he seemed to be genuinely taking us under his well-fed, middle-class wing.  He reminded us that India’s population is growing at the size of Australia every year!  At that rate, and with the extent of corruption and already existing poverty, it’s hard to imagine what this country will look like in the future.  The government and the people have a herculean task ahead of them.  Anyway, as it turns out, our train companion, as friendly as he seemed, disappeared soon after suggesting we get a taxi together.  Oh well.  Unpredictability is part of the fabric here.  So, Rachael and I wound our way through mercenary taxi touts and train-station homeless children tapping us on the arm, to find our way to the share taxi stop at Siliguri, where we finally start to leave the energy of Kolkata behind.

Ill health has reared its ugly mucus-smeared head.  Nothing serious, luckily.  I thought it was the leftovers of Kolkata pollution throat, but it was a potent little head cold.  I hit the worst of it – my nose becoming a river – in Darjeeling, which took the sheen off the place – and now (here in Sikkim) Rachael’s enduring it.  Still, the immense beauty of the hills penetrates pretty much anything.

We stayed at Andy’s Guest House again.  A simple place, Andy’s has a library stocked by fellow travellers, a fantastically friendly couple running the place (thanks Genesis for your shawl that morning I got up early to watch Khangchendzonga light up), and one of the best views in town from its rooftop viewing platform.  Cold, but worth it.

view from Andy's Guest House, Darjeeling
view from Andy's Guest House, Darjeeling

On our second day, the strikes began again.  As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the West Bengal Hills is still in the throes of the Gorkhaland movement, demands for more autonomy (or independance).  There had been violence surrounding two opposing marches in a town on the plains, so there was a sudden decision to shut Darjeeling down in solidarity.  Feeling sick and vulnerable, I just wanted somewhere to eat.  You realise, of course, that this is not your place.  Tourism is huge in this area, but really, it is someone else’s home, with all the cultural, political, economic, social complexities and complications.  So, we spend the next two days living off oranges and biscuits, but also managed to find two intriguing places to eat and socialise.

We found a hotel near ours that looked like it would have meals.  They didn’t but, almost whispering, they said they would ring their caterer and he might make us a meal.  While we waited for our order, the young assistant manager of the hotel, who looked late teens or early twenties, told us how he’d been studying marketing, is keen to try to save money so he can go overseas eventually (knowing it may take a decade or so), believes the gods will give you what you dream of if you keep asking.

The night after, we decided to approach the imposing black gates of the Elgin Hotel.  A sober, colonial institution, they do “high tea”.  Of course, the cakes were a little stale, the sandwiches bland, and it cost a thousand rupees, but the tea was great, and we met the owners of three other Elgin Hotels in India.  A wonderfully down-to-earth yet also managerial, somewhat elevated couple, they regaled us with eye-opening tales of the underbelly of the Hills.  Violence from police and Gorkhaland supporters was endemic in the 1980s; lax or non-existent building regulations leading to houses sliding down hillsides; corrupt government officials; monks acting in defiantly unenlightened ways…  Fascinating to get a glimpse into India we only suspected before.  Not being Bengali in background, they both had the insight of outsiders.  The impacts of colonialism, the caste system, government ineffectiveness, patriarchy, all seem to converge in India in depressingly potent effect.

While in Darjeeling, we didn’t just wander aimlessly hoping for the strikes (and my running nose) to end.  As it was for me when I was here a few weeks ago, one highlight was the breathtaking, expansive walk to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre on the outskirts of town.  This time, apart from browsing their store, we saw inside the carpet weaving workshop.  They were on a break, so we strolled around brilliant carpets and the resting tools with the patina of work and attention.  Something about it made me want to weep.  Beautiful and honest and rich and simple.

I also wanted to visit Observatory Hill again.  Strangely, it was pretty much empty – no tour guides, hardly any priests or monks, no beggars on the walk up the hill, not even a single monkey!  I’d built it up as being  pretty intense (see my earlier blog entry), but as usual, India does what you least expect.  A really palpable sense of the passionate devotion of people is here – webs of prayer flags, cave shrines, so much colour and sincerity embedded in the built environment.  And, in what’s becoming strangely, almost humourously common, we get asked where we’re from, then immediately offered grass!

The strike broke for a few hours, so we took the opportunity to head to Gangtok, Sikkim.  More about that next time – the majestic Teesta River, our smooth driver, the surprises of Gangtok…


I’ve been back in Kolkata for over a week now.  I came back to meet my partner  Rachael, who arrived here on Friday night (2 days ago).  I am in a different city.  Well, I’m seeing it differently, at least.

I have developed a slightly thicker skin, I think, callouses over my soul, so to speak.  You have to.  Walk past just one family home of cardboard and plastic on the footpath, just one eyeless beggar, or be followed by a man whose pleading, broken mantra is “no money, no food”, would be enough, but it’s day after day, image after image, body after body.  In the face of it, your mind, soul, conscience goes into cramp.  And you get tougher.  And you mourn your own toughness, because you like to think of yourself as compassionate and able even to make some kind of difference.  India, especially the big cities, is bewildering.  It even makes you feel your own feelings of grief or neurosis or self-esteem are a bit of an indulgence.

Kolkata streetscape
Kolkata streetscape

While I feel tougher, I’ve also opened up so much.  Being with Rachael here, we’re of course talking voraciously and with awe and shock, so I’m being reminded of all my initial (and still continuing but held at bay) feelings about Kolkata.   Little brief weepings are unavoidable and useful.

It’s wonderful she’s here.  Someone who I can talk with at an intimate, passionate, fluid level, my dear partner who I feel such simpatico with.

It’s still a big effort doing anything, going anywhere, but I feel this visit, I’ve done so much more, because I’m starting to become vaguely aclimtaised, accustomed.

A few days ago I went to the Indian Botanical Gardens, then back again with Rachael yesterday.  It was created in the late 18th century, and includes a monumentally huge Banyan tree.  The tree feels more like a little forest – a whole colony of aerial roots, tendril-like but also elephantine and web-like – such energy and persistence.  It’s over 250 years old, supposedly almost a kilometre in circumferance; the main branch was infected by a fungus and was removed in the 1920s, but of course it persists.  It’s in India, after all.

The garden itself is of course strewn with rubbish, the trees are covered with a film of pollution, but to me it is a real oasis – families picnicking, kids playing, couples kissing on ancient concrete seats.  We also saw a small group of huge monkeys, nonchalantly sitting in the shade, waiting to be fed bananas from children who were much less unnerved by them than I was!

While I think of it, I’d like to put in a little advertisement for Earthcare Books – a tiny but so full store of environmental, feminist, political, spiritual books run by a very cluey and stylish woman.  It’s on Middleton Street, behind the Drive Inn (great outdoor restaurant-cum-used car dealership!!).

And, we finally found The Indian Coffee House.  I won’t write about it.  Just immerse yourself in this photo…

Indian Coffee House, off College St, Kolkata
Indian Coffee House, off College St, Kolkata

Oh, and why skin as a title?  Well, it’s not just because mine is thicker but because it’s very very pale.  Here in India, for the well-off, skin whitening products are very popular, which is so disturbing on many levels, but above all, for most people, white skin is a curiosity.  Rachael and I are both getting that clinical examination/stare, and for once (for me) it’s usually not about my spinal curvature but about my skin.  For her, it has that added layer of being a woman.  And this is very much a man’s world.  Men are not even bothered by the fact I’m with her, they will keep staring, sometimes quite openly ogling.  It’s not easy to cope with, and impossible to do anything about, really.  It just is.  In my vulnerable moments, it breaks my heart, angers and upsets me.  But so often you just have to get on with it.  India is non-negotiable.

One more thing – I went to the National Library here, the biggest in India.  The librarian I met really opened up when I asked him if they follow Ranganathan!  No, they use Dewey combined with AACR!  Getting a book is a very laborious, but pleasurably antiquated, process – card catalogue, request slips, duplicate copies thereof…  Beautiful buildings (really a colony of libraries, departments, not just one building), still ambience, and millions of books in dozens of languages.  Gorgeous.  I was exhausted getting there, though, so didn’t stay long.

Rachael and I leave for Darjeeling on Tuesday night.  I can’t wait.

among the indians

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!


Kolkata's skyline from "Blue & Beyond"
Kolkata's skyline from "Blue & Beyond"

Well, I’m writing this from Cyberia, Kyd St Kolkata.  The keyboard is wonky, and the connection is pretty slow, but I can lodge my first post from India!

On the way here, I spent two nights in Dubai with my friend Ali, his partner Penny and son Jasper.  A fantastic way to transition.  Dubai is a sprawling, chaotic city, the horizon a forest of cranes.  Outside their apartment, the immigrant construction workers work through the night, the only break is Friday night, briefly.  The sound, in the right frame of mind, is industrial sound art.  We visit the mall (which is Chadstone with some arabic text here and there, but also with a huge indoor artificial ski slope!) and the souks (markets), and I get my first practice at ignoring touts.  Dubai is 80% international ex-pats, 20% Emirate; 75% male, 25% female.  Poverty is only visible in the bodies of the many construction workers; the Hummers and taxis speed past them.

There is little chance of culture shock in Dubai, but it is guaranteed here in Kolkata.  My first experience was the airport.  It’s not that bad, I’m thinking, as I stroll down towards the baggage counter (yes, we all have baggage…) – it’s reminiscent of the old pre-Southern-Cross Spencer Street Station, complete with sporadic baggage carousel.  I sit down at “Cafe Coffee Day” and order the Veg Tikka Sandwich – the bread is slightly stale and very white, and the filling is very hot.  From my seat I can see the crowd outside – families, loved ones, and a whole army of taxi touts.  I dive (faux casually) into the wall of people and smog.  One of the touts finds me and I hand over my pre-paid voucher, still not knowing if that’s the way it works, but trying to look seasoned.  We hurtle towards the city – swerving past dogs and honking almost non-stop, missing other cars by inches – lanes only theoretically exist here, they’re temporary and negotiable.  The taxi driver asks if I’ve heard of Mumbai.  I say yes, it’s awful.  Children!, he says.  What can bridge this divide of language and history?  I say whoever did this must be crazy.  He says it’s Pakistani, they’re very bad.

Art of power, Sunflower Guest House, Kolkata
Art of power, Sunflower Guest House, Kolkata

When I arrive at the Sunflower Guest House, an amazing late 19th century building with an open-air staircase where the pigeons flap and crap, and a fantastic lift (and lift-operator! both are rickety and slow), I fill out the monumentous register book and retreat to my room.  I finally work out how to turn the TV on, and surf through Bollywood, Hindi pop music video, religious programmes, mobile phone ads, and news footage of a population furious at their government.  As I write, one Minister has just resigned.  I’ve not seen much footage until now.  I am on the other side of the country, and nowhere near a place like the Oberoi, so feel safe, but there is grief and anger in the air even here.

I am probably in the first stage of culture shock, congratulating myself for sleeping six hours, and for finding bottled water, and breakfast, and walking around a few blocks without stepping in shit or someone’s roadside bed or my own Western guilt.  Weird..  I can’t describe what I’m feeling at the moment, apart from disoriented and craving the abscence of dirt and diesel fumes.

My first draft of this post was cut short by a (fairly routine, it seems) power failure, so I’ll sign off here.

Not sure how long I’ll stay in Kolkata.  Will probably need to get to the countryside pretty soon.  But it may take a few days to organise my way out of this 14-million-population megacity (and that’s not counting the dogs, crows, pigeons, goats…)!

Time to try to find coffee!

So, now I’ve joined them…

Who’d have thought I’d be writing a blog.  I’ve already broken a few of the rules, though, having edited and re-typed my first entry.  Will I learn?  Who knows?

Two short things – 1) I’ve just handed in my last assignment for the Graduate Diploma in Information Management, aka Aversion Therapy for Apprentice Librarians.  I feel like my brain has cramp.  Poetry feels a long way away.

2) I am 24 days away from flapping my skinny wings and making my way towards Kolkata, India.  This blog will be serve as some kind of pseudo-documentation/virtual postcards/indulgence…  At the moment, I’m too busy feeling flat to get very excited, but I know I will be soon.