The Sunflower Guest House was much better than our hostel in Goa, and instead of cockroaches, we had the company of a lone lizard. This I could handle.
We woke up at 5:30am, hopped in a retro taxi and were off on our mission to find the Laughing Club in the Rabindra Sarovar park. Last time Byron was in India, he found a group of people in the park at sunrise practicing laughing yoga, with the most hilarious belly laughs you’ve ever witnessed. I was determined to also get the opportunity to see this. However, we vastly underestimated the size of the park as we wandered around keeping our ears tuned for laughter and our eyes open for middle aged exercise groups. Each time we asked a security guard, they had a completely different opinion on where the club met, leading us in circles. Finally, we asked a local (which we should have done in the first place), and they pointed us in the right direction. We found the sign explaining the club and the health benefits of laughing yoga, but were disappointed to see we had missed their 6am gathering.
Hungry and exhausted from walking loops in the park, we searched for breakfast on the sleepy city streets. Every store door was closed and locked, even the cafes. We passed a few men on the street heating up food over a sidewalk fire and serving it to people standing around, but I did not want to subject my stomach to street food. However, we walked block after block and there was nothing. My stomach growled as we passed more sidewalk “restaurants”, so we gave in and ordered two of whatever they were cooking. The price was right at 12 rupees (19 cents), and the curry and roti (like pita bread) was filling and flavorful. I just prayed my stomach could handle all the bacteria that was surely inside.
On our way to the next destination, Byron pulled out his camera to take pictures of the ornately painted buses and auto rickshaws. We were careful not to take pictures of the people since we wanted to be respectful, but many of them motioned to Byron that they wanted to have their photo taken. These were people living in the streets with nothing to their name other than the shirt on their back, but they grinned big toothless smiles when Byron showed them their picture on the tiny screen. Children posed, women smiled, groups of old men laughed with their friends, and we captured some great moments on the street.
As far as I know, Kolkata is the only city in India that you can still hire a rickshaw pulled by a human instead of the bicycle or auto rickshaws. There is some controversy about whether human rickshaws are ethical due to the disturbing fact that one human must pull another human in order to earn a living. I agree that the conditions of that sort of labor are demanding and harsh and I wish there were more favorable job options for the people in this position. However, for many of them, this is their only way of making enough money to sustain themselves, and when other cities banned hand-pulled rickshaws, these men were jobless. Environmental activists may also argue that for every human or bicycle rickshaw that is taken off the streets, a new auto rickshaw will replace it and add to the pollution and traffic. Needless to say, it’s a complicated issue and I’m not sure I have a clear answer to where I stand on the matter. However, because rickshaw rides are one of the pieces of Kolkata’s history and culture, we hired one for a distance of about a hundred meters past stalls selling colorful religious flowers and pots of neon powder. We paid the man quadruple what a normal fare would be and thanked him profusely, but I still felt a sense of guilt and extra gratitude for his work.
I couldn’t see the Hindu temple until I was standing right in front of it, due to the labyrinth of flower stalls surrounding it. There was a flurry of activity with people buying flowers and religious items, blessing goats that would soon be sacrificed, and shoving their way up to the altar steps. A guide spotted us and ushered us through the process of removing our shoes, cleansing our hands, touching a hibiscus flower to our foreheads and shoving along with everyone else in a religious mosh pit for the chance to throw the flower through a small window at the statue of one of the gods while making a wish. Upon exiting the altar, we were anointed with a red dot of paint on our forehead and walked past the sacrificial area where goats were killed for the gods. The guide took us to a small tree covered in red and orange paint, string, candles, money, bangles, and all sorts of religious trinkets. One by one, he recited a prayer and blessing for each of us after touching more flowers to our foreheads and tying a string from the tree around our wrists. I am not a religious person whatsoever, so I don’t claim to be an expert on it or have an educated opinion on the matter, but it all seemed a bit superstitious and pointless to me. It’s hard for me to believe that if I touch my head three times, tie a string around my wrist and throw a flower that the gods will look favorably upon me. Maybe I’m just skeptical, but we followed along with the ritual doing our best to take it seriously.
On our way to watch the goat sacrifice, we witnessed crowds of people touching the baby goat’s head, placing money on it, and adorning it with wreaths of flowers in its last few minutes alive. We saw the most recent sacrificial headless goat body being taken back to the butcher area where someone proceed to tear the skin away from the meat and bones. Apparently the meat is used to feed the poor, which made the whole idea a bit more palatable to me.
A groups of teenage girls and boys came up to us and asked to take a picture with us, so we obliged and posed with them for a few photos. Soon, a whole crowd of people swarmed us shouting and pushing in order to get a photo with us as if we were superstars. At first I was okay with it since it’s not every day you get treated like a celebrity, but since this was a holy place of worship, we tried to calm the crowd and sneak away before we disrupted anyone else’s prayers.
I was a little hesitant to observe the goat sacrifice since I’ve never seen an animal die, but I figured this was part of the culture and I should witness this. We stood to the side of the execution room (for lack of a better word) and watched a man carry in a baby goat–kicking and bleating. The goat’s neck was locked into a wooden slot on the chopping block and the drumming increased in speed and intensity as the executioner (sacrificer?) lifted his machete over his head and came down suddenly with a whack. The head rolled forward and the tongue shot out before the men picked up the head and anointed themselves with blood. The headless body was convulsing and started twitching and kicking in a circle while blood was pouring out of its neck (in a morbid version of the Three Stooges Curly Shuffle). It was a grotesque sight to say the least.
I was ready to leave after witnessing the sacrifice, so we took the metro to Victoria Memorial. The building is surrounded by a serene park and was built using massive slabs of pristine white marble to celebrate Queen Victoria’s jubilee after her death. The inside had high ceilings with elaborate stonework and paintings and contained a museum about Kolkata’s history and its duration as the British capital of India.
After our fill of history, we walked past Maiden park, which was apparently land that the British cleared in order to better defend the area from attackers. The streets were brutally hot and noisy, so when we finally found a place to eat, we were ecstatic and tried not to think about the dilapidated status of the establishment. For $1.25, our plates were filled with dals (lentil sauces), rice, mixed vegetables, papad (crispy chip), bread, and homemade yogurt. We waddled back out into the heat to the South Park Street Cemetery, which housed bodies of the British. Each person had a personal monument the size of a small house with massive pillars and elaborate stonework, even babies that died before the age of 8 months.
Determined to make the most of the day, we went back out into the heat and took the metro to Central. This dropped us in old Chinatown, which had seen decades of neglect and deterioration. The sidewalks were filled with shacks of the likes of Hooverville, with plastic tarps, garbage, and wooden scraps used to make four walls and a roof. Women and men sat in their “doorways” (holes cut in the scraps) and looked out at the street with sullen, sunken faces while their naked children ran around with dirt encrusted hair. It’s hard for me to even fathom this sort of lifestyle and this level of poverty.
We continued through the slums and into the bazaar, which was utter chaos. The streets were lined with people selling everything you could possibly want–an entire shed-worth of tools, a classroom supply of back to school items, and all sorts of kitchen equipment. It was near impossible to walk through the thick crowd of people shopping, but we eventually squeezed past the first bazaar into the veggie market, and then the flower market. Marigolds, sunflowers, hibiscuses and countless other colorful varieties were laid out on the streets beneath Howrah Bridge. The vibrancy and freshness was overwhelming, as well as the sheer quantity of flowers that were sold every single day.
We stopped for an icy cold glass bottle of Mountain Dew, and were offered a seat on a wooden bench next to a middle aged woman in a sari. She didn’t speak a word of English, but she offered me spicy crackers. Then, she motioned for me to smile for her son taking a picture of us sitting together. A man selling chai tea came around and she insisted that she buy me a cup while smiling and nodding. I couldn’t say no, of course, and her kindness melted my heart. We took at least ten more pictures of us sharing tea together, arms around each other like we’d been acquaintances all our lives. All I had was a small candy, but I gave it to her to show my appreciation for our special interaction, amazingly accomplished without speaking any words.
On Byron’s first Semester at Sea voyage, he met an Indian boy, Nirav, while taking a train. They’ve kept in touch over the years, so tonight we were invited for dinner at his family’s house. We rushed to meet up with Nirav, and had no option but to take the dented fifty year old bus. Buses don’t really make stops in India, and it’s a free-for-all depending on how well you can mount and dismount a moving vehicle. We saw the bus slow down while stuck in traffic, so we ran after it and Byron hopped on before it started moving again. I was behind him, so the bus picked up some speed, forcing me to run after it, debating how agile I was. Luckily the driver had pity on me, the white girl frantically trying to chase the bus in rush hour traffic, and he slowed down enough for me to hop on safely.
Nirav was Byron’s age and was working on becoming a successful accountant, so his English was impeccable and his intelligence was evident from our conversations. He took us to his parent’s flat where we were greeted warmly by his mother, father, and sister. They were lovely hosts and ensured we had more than enough food and water while we chatted about our trip and asked questions about their lives here in India. When it was time to eat dinner, Byron, Nirav, and I sat down at the table while his mother and sister served us and watched us eat to ensure they could add more to our plates the moment it was empty. I felt guilty eating before them, and having them wait on us hand and foot, but it seemed like the culturally accepted thing to do. Even when I was full to the point of bursting, they insisted we eat more and more and more. I made sure to thank them profusely for their generosity and delicious food. After we finished eating, the rest of the family sat down for their turn to eat while the three of us went to a local hookah cafe to chat and relax. Today was one of my favorite days in India, and I’m still impressed by everything we managed to fit in.
We were still on a mission to see the Laughing Club in action, so I woke up at 5:15am, nudged Byron until he woke up also, and headed out. We tried Victoria Memorial park first, but the laughter was nowhere to be found.
We rushed in a taxi to Rabindra Sarovar park and found them immediately next to their sign. They even had their own small stage and chairs just for their club. We came right at the end of a session when thirty middle aged Indians, both male and female, were stretching and marching in place. Luckily, there was a second session and we were warmly invited to participate in the fun. The instructor stood on the stage and led us in some breathing exercises that involved forcing belly laughter with exaggerated hand movements. I didn’t even have to fake my laughter since I was cracking up so much just watching all these people laughing for no reason, other than it being good for your health. We thanked our hosts for the good laugh and went in search for some breakfast.
Luckily, we didn’t have to eat on the sidewalk this morning as we found a McDonald’s with delicious chicken sausage (no beef in India), egg, and cheese sandwiches. Nirav suggested for our last day in Kolkata we should see Kumartuli, which is an area where sculptors work endlessly at creating effigies of the Hindu gods for worship. Each workshop had a different role in creating the finished idol, where some were shaping the straw frames while others were adding clay or paint and to define the detailed features. These were created on a huge scale, but all were almost identical looking, all without the help of modern machinery.
Nirav also mentioned that there was a Chili’s restaurant in Kolkata, which grabbed my attention immediately. I didn’t think there was any way this could be the same Chili’s I know and love from back home, but sure enough, the giant red chili pepper on the menu told me it was. Nirav met up with us for lunch and we all pigged out on nachos, rice, beans, and cheese.
We spent the last few hours in Kolkata hanging out with Nirav, trying local foods and learning about various cultural phenomena. We even tried “pan”, which is sold on every corner and consists of a large green leaf filled with all these spices and sauces and even tobacco or betel nuts for those that prefer it. The idea is to stick the entire leaf, bulging with the ingredients inside, in your mouth and chew until it forms a liquid which you then spit out onto the sidewalk. It was a bizarre experience, but the taste was indeed unlike anything I’d ever tried. After saying or goodbyes, we boarded our train at Howrah Station and tried our best to get some sleep before arriving in Varanasi.