I would like to say greetings from Kolkata but that would not be true. I’m back home next to the husband who is currently on his overpriced manga reader (I kid, he has actually started using the machine for what he intended it for and so, now it’s a cross between an overpriced manga reader and a dangerous tool for automating the entire house. Today finances, tomorrow, there will be a little robot that will clean the house – and one that I have to watch suspiciously in case he decides to rebel and declare robot war on me).
I am however, feeling rather surreal. India does this to me. I was only away for five days and it feels like I’ve been gone for a long, long time. There are just so many things that happen, just so many things to see that it’s an assault on all my senses and you are just so overwhelmed. There are so many things to take in, to remember and to share that I’m usually quite exhausted at the end of the trip. I still am – it feels like a blur to be back in Malaysia, as though India is the reality and Malaysia is the dream.
I love India. Make no mistake about it, I am irrationally fond of that irrational country. It’s not an easy country to adapt to at first. When we arrived, we got into an argument with our driver – who did not speak a word of English. And then at the hotel, we nearly got into an argument with the duty manager over our room. Lying down in bed in our new room, I thought the trip to India was mad and probably unwise. It’s one thing to be a child of an expat versus going there for work on your own.
The second day was just as difficult as the first. My hired car arrived at the hotel, superbly dented with a driver who could not speak a word of English. Despite trying pidgin English with him, clearly there was no communication and we were frantically signaling each other. Furthermore, I’ve discovered a country where Google Maps just don’t work in – India. The driver thought we were mad, who on earth knows road names in India, and how on earth was her going to find Jawaharlal Nehru road in the middle of the city? Damn these silly women, can’t they go to Victoria Memorial like most tourists do?
Funnily enough, as though by fate, we drove by a road behind our hotel with an advertisement by a hotel regarding their event management services. Their ad read: “No tension.” And it was a good enough as any mantra to abide by, and each time something happened during the trip that would have given me hypertension, I chanted to myself, “Tension not, tension not”.
When you allow things that would usually rile you up in your own country to slide, do you see the beautiful and mad parts of Kolkata to emerge. This is the part of India that I adore. So eventually, we figured out a way to communicate with our otherwise very accommodating driver and things continued on rather smoothly.
I’ve never been to Kolkata, and was keen to soak up every little difference Kolkata was to Delhi. Kolkata lacked a lot of sophistication Delhi has. It certainly lacks the hunger that Delhi has for capitalism and business, but I reckon it’s probably due to its Communist government. The last time I’ve seen the infamous sickle and scythe symbol was in Prague, a dreadful remnant of their communist past. It’s fascinating to actually be in a city where communism was alive and well and that symbol is used proudly, in every day use.
It being a business trip, I did not have any time to walk around and soak in the city. The only time I did have was when my driver would switch off the engine to conserve fuel (although I reckon he used up more doing that) and thankfully or unfortunately, depending how you look at it, it happened very frequently.
Kolkata, as a city, was mad for protests. In the five days I was there, I saw three and was made aware that I missed one on February 13th, where the communist party encouraged everyone to protest the hike in food prices. I saw one in front of HSBC, protesting for minimum wage, one in front of a posh club where all these people were doing a sit in. And then down by College Street, where there are hundreds of little stalls selling any book that you need (I got Eizwan’s Java programmer book here, latest edition, a steal at only RM 40!), there was some sort of campaign going on.
There were loud and passionate speeches, punctuated with shouts of Vande Mataram. Which of course, were ignored by the majority there who were just doing their shopping. It’s just so Indian! There were all these protests going on and everyone else just went about their daily lives. Not to mention there were all these chaiwallahs selling their teas and peanut vendors selling peanuts to hungry protestors doing their sit ins.
Foodwise, unfortunately, due to work, we ate mostly at the hotel. It is not as sad as it sounds since food in India is almost always, if you keep to the local stuff, brilliant. We did have a few chances to eat out, and the most memorable one was at Azad Hind Dhaba to have Kolkata’s most famous snack – the kathi roll. The kathi roll is essentially a paratha, with spiced chicken with egg inside with, and I realized it only after I bit into the roll, fresh onions and chilli with a gorgeous squeeze of lime. For the uninitiated, it is generally a rule of thumb for foreigners, no fresh or uncooked vegetables or unbottled water for hygiene reasons. But I thought, what the hell, and threw caution (and my diet) to the wind and ate the roll like there was no tomorrow.
I did come down with mild food poisoning on the last day for eating like a local but it was worth it.
While there were some differences to the Delhi I knew, many things still stayed the same. This was India after all. Even I regressed back to the spoilt 14 year old who moved to India many years ago. I got back into drinking more tea than coffee, I woke up every morning listening to MTV and Channel V’s Mindblasting Mornings. It was Bollywood mornings, and I caught up on the latest songs, Laung da Lashkara from Patiala House is my current favourite, bought stupidly cheap books and complained about the pollution, the traffic and just about everything.
The only shopping I managed this time was a bit of FabIndia and going mental at Music Express. I got about 20 Bollywood movies in total. My Bollywood movie collection is a prized collection of mine, since these DVDs have English subtitles as opposed to the poorly translated Malay subtitles. I’m a little sad that I was unable to catch Tanu Weds Manu and Saat Maaf Khoon. Ah well, till next time India, and till next time, I’ll fill up on my DVD collection.
And before I knew it, it was already time to leave Kolkata. We had a long lazy breakfast on the last day, almost to soak in, and I actually felt sad to say goodbye to the wait staff at the hotel I was staying in. They were so friendly and welcoming, heck, most everyone I met in Kolkata, be it for work, at shops, and restaurants had been so warm and friendly that I felt quite sad to go home. As I headed to the airport, I’m going to miss the little things that made India so special – down to the vendor that sold disco balls in the streets to anyone who would like one for their car, or the manky cat and the mosquitoes inside Kolkata’s International airport. Okay, maybe not the mosquitoes.
But I’m happy to be home with the husband and the cats. And almost as always, I return from India, feeling excited and rejuvenated about life – like I can seize the day and do anything. Suppose you can survive India, you can survive anything. Already I am planning to go back to India, this time round, hopefully I can bring my mother-in-law who has been wanting to see the Taj Mahal all her life. And then to the tea plantations. Maybe to the safaris.