In the grip of Durga Puja
10.10.1964 - 14.10.1964
The train arrived at Howrah station at 1.15 pm, half an hour late. We left the station and stepped into the most crowded, confused scene I ever expect to experience. It was the Saturday afternoon peak hour, and negotiating it was like an atom bomb sized ride on the Luna Park dodgems. The chaos on the Howrah Bridge over the Houghly River was absolutely unbelievable. Every person, taxi, truck, pedi cab, rickshaw and cart in Calcutta seemed to be on the bridge at the same time, and in the middle of it all a large number of goats were being nonchalantly herded across. We arrived at the address the Wilsons had given us - Fairlawns - a small but classy old colonial hotel in Sudder St., off Chowringhee, the main boulevarde. Mr and Mrs Smith, the proprietors, friends of the Wilsons, agreed to put us up for the night, gratis, but said that tomorrow there would be no room. The place is full of Russian technicians on holidays from Durgapur, about 150 miles away - keep to themselves very much. We will take all our meals at the Fairlawns and perhaps arrange for accommodation elsewhere - the Salvation Army is directly across the street. This afternoon we visited nowhere in particular, we just wandered about the area nearby. Some of the poverty here is the worst I have seen, and you can walk just 50 yards and you are in a swank area. I am hardened now to the poverty. You must become so, or it would be absolutely impossible to exist here. The Smiths have given us a newly painted room adjoining the gatehouse, separate from the main building. The room is still wet in parts, but the paint smell is not unbearable.
This morning we visited the Victoria Memorial - ‘quite a poetic edifice in white marble to the memory of the old Queen and of the British Empire’. It is now a museum of British rule in India. The grounds are beautiful, but just outside the gate, the dirt begins. There is crap all over the streets, absolutely anywhere and everywhere. Had a visit to the Calcutta Planetarium, just near the Memorial. It has one of the largest domes for a planetarium in the world, 75 feet across. The machine was very ‘outer spatial’ and the atmosphere created was very theatrical. I enjoyed a few minutes thought about the theatre. I have been to a planetarium before, so I became a little bored, but I think it was worth the rupee. We moved into the Salvation Army Hostel this afternoon; it is a dreadfully damp and dingy place. The same atmosphere pervades as at the counterpart in Bombay. I am glad that we can more or less live at the Fairlawns across the street. Did not venture out this afternoon. Too tired. We are in such comfortable and relaxing surroundings at the hotel that it is difficult to pull ourselves away from them. The food here is wonderful. We ought to stay until our welcome wears off, and that might not be too long unfortunately. I should walk around the city a bit at night, by myself. I am feeling somewhat spiritually barren. I think it is the hard case I am building against what I see every day. Perhaps it would do me good to relax this a little. Wasted the whole night playing a game called garam at the hotel with an Armenian family, The Chaters, who are on their way to Australia. I got really furious with Ade, but it was only a game after all. Sometimes though….. Reminds me of that skit with Carol Burnett and Danny Kaye.
Not a bad night. Got up and crossed the street for breakfast. We walked down to American Express to collect our mail. Shut! Because of these damn religious holidays. The whole business section is closed down for the entire bloody week. And the stupid man who was in attendance at American Express told us he couldn’t give us our mail, and it was only three feet away from him. We were furious. We got it eventually thank God. It was so good to hear from home after a month. We went round to the Australian Trade Commission to ask about Darjeeling and Nepal. Met a couple of Australians also trying to get up there. The Government offices where Sec. Control is are shut for the week, so there goes Darjeeling. No! We must not let it go like that. I will never get another chance. The Nepal Consulate is also closed for the day. Shit, what a mess. The gateman there was a Nepalese nut who could not speak a word of English and had to speak through a taxi driver who was almost as bad. We came back to the hotel in disgust. We must get away from here soon. We will find it too hard to adjust to the road again. We will try again for the Nepal visas in the morning and then head out somewhere. We are paying 7 rupees a day at the Salvos, just for bed and breakfast (which we don’t have), so we can’t keep that up and pay moving about expenses too. Must keep a tighter rein on finances. I think I am way over, and my accounts are very general. (We had a robbery at the hotel last night, a Russian).
We got our Nepalese visas this morning, in one hour, with no trouble, for ten rupees. Feeling quite good about it. I am going to Nepal!! Went to the railway station, and after much confusion and waiting about finally booked on a train tomorrow night at 10.15, which will get us to Muzaffarpur. From there up to Kathmandu. Nothing to do this afternoon, so I took a little walk and then read and thought etc. and only reached some hazy conclusions. We will remain with the Salvos tonight, and strain our welcome at Fairlawns for meals tomorrow.
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From this trip I am making, this conscious journey towards a career, there should be emerging a stronger, more independent self. I don’t know if there is. After being here a month I find myself only too willing to grab at the false mode of living which European residents offer. Any European in the still colonial-like section of society here has money enough to do nothing, and they are waited on hand and foot by Indian bearers and other servants. It is not good to live in this way. It makes one oblivious to the surrounding poverty and disease, the plight of these unfortunate Indian people. The basic drives of mankind are fully physical: food, shelter and sex. I don’t know about the last one, but food they have a minimum of, and most do without shelter. They are simply living pieces of skin and bone in filthy disease ridden gutters, and it seems strangely ironic that they are striving to stay alive in a world which offers them no more than this. The temples, the art and the history notwithstanding, the reality of India to me is the dirt and the disease, the open sores and stinking streets, the animal existence of so many and the lack of any form of human dignity among such a large section of this great barefooted people - certainly great in number. I am hardening against what I am seeing every day, but I shall never forget it.
Spent most of the day lounging around Fairlawns reading, but went up to have a look at the Indian Museum this afternoon. Absolutely packed because of the holiday, and as there was little of great interest to me anyway (the whole of India is one big museum), I did not spend too long there. Tonight after dinner, the Indian chap who has been somewhat obnoxious and at times downright rude, suggested a game of chess. Sorry, I said, but we are leaving for Nepal in about twenty minutes. He seemed somewhat surprised, and shut up for a time. How are you going? - by train, I see, and how are you getting to the station? - by taxi, I see, then you better leave right now, as you may have difficulty obtaining one because of the Puja. I took him at his word, and asked the red-turbaned gateman to get us one. Mr. Chater and his two sons decided they would come to the station to see us off. We said our goodbyes and thank yous and got to the gate just as the chap arrived with the taxi. I have been in Calcutta five days, but the final hour was the most stimulating of the whole visit.
At present Calcutta is in the grip of Puja fever, Durga Puja being an annual festival and series of holidays, much the same as the Western World’s New Year celebrations, except they go on longer. They celebrate with mass gatherings around brightly lit and gaily coloured religious displays, and set off the most powerful and frightening fire crackers I have seen. That final taxi ride through the streets of Calcutta to Howrah station, and the actual parting of the train, was an unforgettable experience. The five of us left at high speed from the hotel, turned into Chowringhee and headed for Howrah. The streets were overflowing, if that is possible, and the smog created by the cracker smoke, with the neon lights of the city blazing hazily through it, combined with the teeming masses of yelling Indian ‘fun-seekers’, created an atmosphere of feverishly confused excitement. Pedlars were everywhere selling their wares, as in the daytime, but now they seemed much more interesting, and tolerable. Even the beggars did not seem pathetic anymore, as they were as much a part of the atmosphere as anybody. The taxi sped from one street to another, past one crowd then another, close to exploding fireworks and hurrying rickshaws, and as the whole scene was taken in in a series of quick glances, the resulting image pile-up gave me a feeling of heated elation. During that fifteen minute ride I loved Calcutta. We urged our way through the maze of traffic on that astounding thoroughfare Howrah Bridge, crawled in and around the half human, half vehicular traffic on the other side, and approached the station. The fever pitch and my elation continued as half a dozen porters raced after the taxi, hoping to get our business, business which does not exist in our case, with our packs. We entered Howrah station to a scene which was just as hectic as that outside. Porters with bags, baskets and bundles on their heads criss-crossed the main hall to get to their respective platforms. Passengers did the same as blaring loudspeakers informed them which train was which. Scattered every few yards throughout the hall were the poor and wretched, fast asleep on the cold stone pavement, motionless in contorted poses such as you see in ancient Indian statuary. They can sleep anywhere, in any position. Weaving in and out of all this we reached our platform and went through the jostled business of finding our carriage and our seats. As usual there was enough order in the confusion to be able to do this, and we were shortly back on the platform, sweating profusely and trying to cool off under one of the fans, but being showered with hundreds of the millions of tiny flying creatures flitting around the lights. The night was hot, sweaty and bug-infested, but I was still elated as I watched the stream of station pedlars flogging everything from baby’s rattles to the Kama Sutra, from apples and moth-balls to flexible combs, as demonstrated by the pedlar. Half an hour later, our goodbyes said and sincere best wishes expressed, we moved slowly out of Calcutta and away from Durga Puja. As we passed slowly through the suburbs, occasional evidence of the festivities was visible, but it gradually faded away, and without continued stimulation, so did my excitement give way to exhaustion, and I spread out my sleeping bag on the seat and tried to get some sleep. It came in snatches, but was better than none. Tomorrow, Muzaffarpur and then on to Kathmandu.