I’m in Kolkata now, my sixth city of the trip, and perhaps the one with the greatest contrast between the haves and the have-nots. The city is known in the West for being one of the world’s most poverty stricken places, with the plight of millions of its slum dwellers being highlighted by the work of Mother Teresa. To a large extent this is true with many homeless lying in their rags on the sun-beaten pavements too weak to ask for help and the fetid stench from the piles of rubbish at every turn of a corner. There is another side to Kolkata though and, yet again, it is an Indian city where the shopping landscape has changed in the past few years, with the largest mall in Eastern India opening in South City, a suburb with new high-end residential complexes and close to the Tollygunge Country Club which is popular with expats. A great example of the two extremes sitting side-by-side is the plush Oberoi Grand Hotel, a haven from the frenetic disorder of the streets but just a stone’s throw from the Hogg Market where hawkers and local merchants earn their crust trading in the stalls of the dimly lit passages.
Not far from Hogg Market I took time out to have a wander around the eerie Park Street Cemetery, an atmospheric, overgrown graveyard which is the resting place of many of the early Europeans who ventured to this part of the world. The place has a creepy, unkempt look about it and it was a welcome change to get away from the dust outside and the pesky kids begging for a dollar, especially as I had the place to myself.
Being on my own in the cemetery was a chance for me to feel anonymous for once too. For the two weeks I’ve been in India I haven’t been able to go anywhere without people staring at me, and they don’t just glance but stare continuously at you and eye you up and down from the moment they notice you until the moment you’ve disappeared. Back home in London this would seem very strange and it takes some getting used to but at least it’s not done in an aggressive way. I suppose it’s one of the many cultural differences that they don’t hide their curiosity. A couple of times I’ve actually asked them why they are staring and they’ve been very polite and smiley and some have even asked for a photo with me, which is all very strange and makes you feel a bit like a celebrity. I’ve found that most of the Indians I’ve met have a gentle nature and there doesn’t seem to be any sense of arrogance or hubris about them which is common in many parts of the world.
I’m now in the rather grand Hyatt Hotel in a northern district called Salt Lake City which is home to many multinational companies as well as the flourishing IT sector but I spent the previous two days in the south of the city where I had to use Kolkata’s Metro line (the oldest in India) to get to the city centre. The Metro is very efficient but it was quite an ordeal being pinned against the doors like a sardine in the morning rush-hour with seemingly every pair of eyes in the stuffy carriage checking me out. When I got to the centre I spent a long day sauntering for hours from shop to shop, stopping off at hotels and markets and taking in the wide expanse of Kolkata’s Maiden which is home to the famous Eden Gardens cricket stadium and the imperial Victoria Memorial.
For the next few days I am taking a well-earned break from collecting data and lunching at Subway in shopping malls with visits to Varanasi and Agra before heading on to Jaipur and Delhi to continue my work. Before I go, though, (and I’m sure you’re on the edge of your seat) I can tell you that some of the Hindi derived words I used in my previous post were juggernaut, pariah, jungle, nirvana, pundit, shampoo and, surprisingly, cot.