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.