An impression of Kolkata, India
Nameless to History
DECEMBER 29, 2016
India is impossibly old. At least the India I saw. Its age is a manic senile joviality that contradicts and coalesces along open sewer lines and the dying Ganga and Yamuna. Its great age is shown to me in a sweet decaying Kolkata and the necropolis of Delhi. The memories of countless lords, emperors, sultans, Rajas, generals, colonial governors, and the multitude of unspoken masses permeates the smog and haze; the smoke filled sky across the Punjab in late November. Crops, debt, yellow fields and grey cool alleys, light captured among dust above street level shops in late November. I did not take the great tour of India. I did not gaze at the Taj Mahal. I was not looking for the orient or its great mysticism. In the 6 and a half weeks of my stay in India (9 and a half if you include Nepal as part of the subcontinent, which it is) I planted myself in a mere two cities. Two great gems that no empire had the might of excavating and uprooting to the grips of imperial coffers. I arrived in the haze of fire crackers coasting across the overpasses in Bengal. Fish and dhal, lemons green and fresh, chilies and garlic - a culture as old as the river that gives it life, one built on literature, epics and the pondering of cool nights of ideas; a culture of which I am told by some is now dead. A glory long gone, gone to the brown roads, and white vanishing Victorian façades. An illusion of time fading to history: yellow cabs and blurred bikes speed by, pulled like caught fish - withering with their might to sway in the streets scented of frying oil, bidis, sandalwood, chai, and rotting fruit. Blending in again as I did in Nepal I faded into the backdrop of tarp covered tea stalls manned by chaiwhallahs dunking and simmering the thick spiced vats. Hinting of the monsoon, a tearful held breath released through the smoke gives us a five day downpour puddling the streets and clearing the sky of Diwali. I am a brown face plastered into the shade of the sidewalk, next to ragpickers, students, and businessmen. Like the temple-made trees adorned with idols and depictions of kali and shiva, I raise no questions.
I had hopes of entering the hills of Orissa and Chandigarh in pursuit of the rumors and whispers of Naxalite rebels: the Maoist inspired insurgency of the dispossessed now engaged in guerrilla warfare with the Indian government. A state now much a hand to the maturing capitalist class swallowing up the country. But this hope of such adventure was brought to ground. I was told I'd need a guide, one I could not pay perhaps my next trip to India will include this. Something tells me it will.
Upon this realization I resigned myself to contemplation, discussion, and walks of solitude through the madness that is Kolkata. I've now overused this descriptor, but the streets the air, the sounds, they are indeed sweet. Like scalding sugar, molten and deep fried, drawing to its aroma insects, men, women and children. A energy swarms the streets and sidewalks. One of my hosts, Rono, was editing a documentary he filmed that depicted the exploitation of informal rock quarries in Bengal. This was enough to help spark much discussion, from extractive industries to occupy Wall Street, socialist revolution, The Godfather, and race in America. Our discussions in the open aired dining room, bright as the day and dim as night were far reaching.
To understand the extreme contradiction that India is, is to look upon the luxury goods dangled on display wall outside of the shopping center only a stone's throw from the bi-collage of poverty that churns like a self emulated body crumpling and rising - you can't look away. The dismal rift of rich and poor strikes one square in the face, again, and again. I cannot lie I became used to the limp bodies of babies in the arms of begging women. Evacuated chests and dirty matted hair, families living between the advertisements for Hollywood flicks and beauty products. Yet it is not fair to say "I got used to" that would imply more experience that I shared with and then accepted. I adapted by recognizing the reality and my inability to change the direct conditions of abject poverty. This adaptation, as it has been said, has blessed humankind to persevere through the worst conditions, yet it may doom us to accept such conditions further than we need. The accepting complicity of corrupt political parties, piss poor policy, and a deep hierarchical social code- at least from what I could see day-to-day on the surface, gave insights into this adaptability I just mentioned.
Before setting out on this journey I once thought that there was a point at which a society or class, exploited and oppressed would snap and revolt against its oppression (regardless of whether the actual root of oppression was correctly identified). I no longer think there is an objective threshold at which a society or people will say enough. Not after the cumulative experience of travel so far. Not after the Indian subcontinent.
A land vastly more diverse and old than what my American worldview could, or even truly can, comprehend. From the Nepali villages, the faded Victorian marble and the red clay ghost that is Delhi, civilization and modernity are reinvented in my own understanding of the world and history.
I've been told about the great Mughal courts, the lavish sultanate, the great Hindu kings, the ancient Indus civilizations- recorded only in stone and fossilized grain, all mighty empires ruled by a small minority; but I wondered about the common men and women who defied this power.
The nameless places to history, the people who won't appear or be recorded, these are things that fascinate me. Passing through the heart of the Indian country en route to Delhi in the middle of the night I watch the black obscured country roll by.
I think of my upcoming voyage through the Andes and up the Ucayali river to the Amazonian capital Iquitos. The nostalgia for the unknown, too much Chris Marker films and Pablo Neruda. "He wrote to me and said: 'I've been around the world 7 times over and now all that interest me is banality'"
But we seek our own glories. Something travel normalizes. I'll reflect more and continue to post on India from Lima.
The Americas, as I now barely know Lima with an American heart, are truly young. There is an youthfulness, a vitality in this home of mine, one I could not find from Morocco to India. It is not the new world discovered- there is a heart that is pumping in the great land from the Canadian arctic a la Tierra for Fuego, something the next year of my life I'll be looking to discover.
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