Kolkata…not what we expected, but what is?


A nagging hesitation persisted. From early childhood Gerard’s mother admonished, “Your room looks like the black hole of Calcutta” if it was not cleaned and tidied on a regular basis. Even within India Kolkata is considered an overcrowded and dirty city. But just before leaving Varanasi, a Russian boy told us he absolutely LOVED Kolkata, and that if we liked Varanasi, it would be a walk in the park for us! As our Mail Express (in name only) lumbered into the gigantic Victorian Howrah Station, we were pleasantly surprised by the level of cleanliness and amount of dustbins that people were actually using! And outside, instead of the utter chaos of rickshaws all clamoring to get our business we were met by an orderly queue of yellow and black Ambassador taxis, waiting for their prepaid customers. All-in-all a pretty good entry into the “City of Joy.”


We’d read so many bad reviews of budget Kolkata hotels –including repeated accounts of bed bugs- that we overreacted and picked one of the more expensive. Our first choice had not kept our reservation (just as TripAdvisor had warned), but the nearby Sunflower Guest house was more welcoming – a multi-storey, fairly well-maintained old building with an antiquated elevator operated by a cheerful young man. . Even though the room is non AC its very high ceilings and silent running fan make it relatively comfortable. Several more boys stand outside our room, and beyond. In fact everywhere we go – restaurants, supermarkets, the CD store “Music World” – all have a proliferation of waiting staff, a reminder of the huge labor pool in this over-populated and underpaid city.


The hotel is just off Park Street, an upscale area of town, recommended because it’s in walking distance to a few main attractions. Nearby is an old Muslim community – the place is jumping like fleas on a dog…and you know there’s plenty of fleas and plenty of dogs! In the early morning, at the end of the street construction workers cheerfully soap their bodies before starting work – white suds flying everywhere. Old remnants of the Raj in varying stages of decay overlap with newer concrete buildings that deserve no comment. There’s something about the area that is reminiscent of the Village in NYC- the busy narrow streets, small cafes and restaurants spilling out over the sidewalk, second hand bookstores… But there’s always the poverty – pitiful beggars and families who’ve tried to set up some semblance of home on the street or in doorways. Each night we pass a family of three adults, cooking a meal in their tiny cave, once a sliver of a shop. It seems impossible for all three to lie down in the space. I think at least one is on the street. But one morning, the woman sitting on her haunches looked up and gave me a wonderful smile saying “Namaste!” And her hand wasn’t extended! It’s a living testimony of how people can get by with so little. But with all this, and so much more, it’s still not the level of chaos and human horror that we’d P1060831pictured as Kolkata.

Like other Indian cities, Kolkata has its stark contrasts: a line of decrepit human rickshaws, their owners plying for our business, while a shiny BMW drives by taking a young boy in his starched white uniform to school. Down the street a rickshaw being pulled by a skinny little old man – his passenger a lot younger and definitely overfed. Gerard remarks, “This is a metaphor of this world of Kal: the overworked and underpaid always carry the weight of the over privileged and overstuffed  – be it by possessions or food.”

The Blue Sky restaurant where we regularly eat is also frequented by the young men and women who come to work at Mother Theresa’s Home. They make up at least 50% of the western tourists, and come for a week or so, at most a month. Their youthful enthusiasm appears free of the personal conflict author Jeffery Eugenides had when he came to Kolkata to volunteer in the 1980s (The Marriage Plot). The Blue Sky reminds me of a NYC breakfast cafe – perhaps the Waverly in Washington Square! (Why am I constantly being reminded of NYC?). The waiters are fast and flirtatious, shouting orders through a small opening to the kitchen in the back, which delivers them up at rapid speed. A large garlanded painting of Mother Theresa sits on the wall, alongside a poster saying AUM SWEET AUM.


The heat (averaging 38C with humidity level of 95%) makes any kind of movement laborious – the more so because we’ve both P1060823brought heavy colds from Varanasi. But we manage to struggle down Chowringhee Road bordered on one side by colonial villas and on the other, by the Maidan, one of the largest city-center parks in the world. The Victorian Memorial sits there surrounded by formal flowering gardens. It’s too hot to enjoy them and by the time we’ve walked back and forth trying to find the memorial entrance (there is no signage), we don’t have much energy left. While other colonial monuments throughout the city have been renamed or demolished, the dramatic white marble Victoria Memorial continues to be Kolkata’s pride and joy. A somber statue of the elderly Queen greets you at the entrance. Inside 25 galleries are filled with mementos of British imperialism. But most interesting is the Kolkata Gallery, providing a history of the city, and the Independence struggle through paintings, documents and old photographs.

The nearby massive IndianMuseum was a disappointment – lots of archeological remains are housed in dusty glass cabinets and would only be of interest to a scholar. The room of faded stuffed birds from around India are questionably authentic – or if not, in dire need of a decent burial! Likewise the snakes and lizards sitting in glass jars of formaldehyde. But there are some interesting paintings by the Tagore family and other members of the CompanySchool, a group of nineteenth century Indian artists. Also a white marble Queen Victoria as a surprisingly attractive young woman offsets the somber statue sitting further up the street in front of the Memorial.


DSC_0582Back on Park Street, we stroll among the shady lanes of the Park Street cemetery. Huge trees and shrubs swallow up imposing pyramids, obelisks, pavilions, urns and headstones, all of enormous size. Some of the earliest headstones date to the early 1600s and by the late 1800s the cemetery was full and no longer used. Barely decipherable emotional epitaphs record the untimely deaths of so many colonialists and their young families who succumbed to sickness, shipwrecks, skirmishes with the natives… Civilizing came with a heavy cost.


Beaten down by the heat, we decide to hire a car and driver to spend a morning taking us around the city. The driver is a young P1060802Moslem who speaks excellent English. First to the ghat below Howrah Bridge where people are still trying to wash off their “Holi” color from yesterday’s festival, then the chaotic colorful and fragrant flower market, and the botanical gardens its main draw a gigantic 250 year-old banyan tree that has now spread over a very large area. St JohnsChurch is plain and simple and filled with the presence of young colonialists who are memorialized on its walls.headstones date to the early 1600s and by the late 1800s the cemetery was full and no longer used.


But what I enjoyed most was seeing more of this city – grand colonial buildings in varying states of repair, narrow streets with trams that look as old as the crumbling buildings they’re rumbling past. So many people, so many families staking out their pitiful spot on the curb – some seem to be getting by, while others look like they won’t make it through the night. But Kolkata has no exclusive on poverty. All that we’ve seen here, we’ve seen in so many other Indian cities. In the few short days we’ve been here, we’ve been attracted to the colonial style architecture, the energy and vitality of the street, and the friendly Bengali people. We hope to return in better health and cooler weather!


Varanasi: Old Friends, Sadhus and Call to Prayer


There are so many reasons why we find ourselves back in Varanasi for the fifth time. It’s not only because its one of the oldest living cities in the world, and a center for classical Hindustani music, or the constant flow of pilgrims coming to bathe in the Holy Ganges, or even the grand architecture along the ghat that attracts us. Of course it’s all of that and more – Varanasi is now so familiar and welcoming! We feel quite at home wandering the ghats in the morning and evening and hiding in the lanes from the heat during the day. And the fact that so many recognized and warmly greeted us during our first few hours here, made us feel even more connected – restaurant owners; waiters; chai sellers; CD vendors, the curd seller with his white handle-bar moustache. A gentle faced man who supplies mineral water from a stall that is merely a crack in the wall, greets us, then does a double take as his face lights up with recognition. Gerard has asked, “How can you remember us amongst the thousands of tourists that pass through here on a yearly basis?” Nobody gives a satisfactory response; they just seem to remember.


The streets are more crowded than usual. Shivarati has just finished and just five hours upstream in Allahabad, the two-month long Kumbh Mela has drawn to a close. Scores of sadhus have come to Varanasi to while away a little more time before going back to their ashrams or jungle retreats. Some are colorful in their orange robes, others more shocking, especially the “Naga” who are naked, their bodies besmeared with ashes, their hair matted in long dreadlocks. There is the Naga sadhu who meditates on one leg, his other leg supported on a swing! Groups of sadhus have set up in tents along the river and invite passersby to sit down and discourse, meditate, or share a chillum – there’s a lot of chillum! It all seems a little bizarre.


The newspaper reports an Italian tourist who accepted the invitation to sit with one of these sadhus. He told her he would teach her meditation, but first they would take intoxicants. What on earth was she thinking? Night came, and he invited her to sleep in the tent. (Are you joking?) During the night, when she refused his sexual advances, he beat her repeatedly. Finally she escaped, went to the police and gave them a photo she’d managed to take of the so-called sadhu. So much for the noble tradition of renunciation and brahmcharya – and the naiveté of tourists.


Varanasi, the MOST religious city in India, has a surprisingly large Moslem community and our guesthouse sits on the edge of one of their quarters. There seems to be no precise moment for beginning the call to prayer, and among the many mosques in the area, one very close to us is the first. The muezzin’s voice is clear and resounding until others join in and the individual calls become less distinct, creating a cacophony of sound. As those in the foreground conclude, the ones in the distance all merge in a melancholy melody that pulls us across the rooftops to the edge of the horizon itself. Even though this happens five times a day, it’s the early morning call at 4.45 that seems to be the most haunting. This brings back so many memories of our early years in North Africa when our relationship with Islam was relatively simple – merely a slightly different way to worship God and with many principles that we Christians could learn from. But now the line has been drawn in the sand with the Mujahideen and Jihadists on one side and the neo-colonialists with their drones on the other. It’s all so complicated and we’ve fallen into the trap of fear and misunderstanding. So easy to happen when you’re bombarded with only one point of view. Hearing the call to prayer here has reminded us of what we felt long before 9/11 and other acts of terror which want to harden us against all that is Islam.


Our trekking around India is a combination of visiting familiar and new places. As our time here draws to an end, Gerard laments, “Leaving Varanasi I feel like I’ve never had enough time here and look forward to returning.” Very similar to leaving NYC – two cities that he really loves!DSC_0518

Maha Shivarati in Ujjain

DSC_0439Ujjain was another three bus rides away, and once again took the best part of the day to reach. More remote dry and dusty places Gerard’s discovered! A religious destination with many temples along the river, and where Kumbh Mela is held every 12 years.  The town was significantly bigger and much more crowded than Maheshwar.

I had found a hotel on the internet, which seemed a little too far out of town, but had rooms available. The hotel was large with three stories of rooms.  Our “standard” non/AC on the ground floor had no room to swing a cat, and only marginally acceptable in terms of cleanliness. The whole place was newly painted periwinkle blue and white giving it a fresh deceptively Mediterranean look. In the center was a large lawn where the hotel restaurant, which was pure veg, served dinner at night. The best feature of the hotel, and one of the highlights of entire stay, was the exceptional food this hotel served up. The guidebook had warned us, that food in Ujjain was “thin on the ground!” That was true, our restaurant seemed to have no competition.


Being on the edge of town turned out to be our good fortune because we soon learned the festival we had just left was not isolated to Maheshwar. According to Wikipedia, Maha Shivarati is a Hindu festival celebrated every year in reverence of Lord Shiva. The “Night of Worship” occurs on the 14th night of the new moon during the dark half of the month of Phalguna (Feb/March), and is when Shiva, The Lord of Destruction, is said to have performed the Tandava Nritya or the dance of primordial creation, preservation and destruction.


The festival continues through the following day. It also marks the last day of Khumbh Mela, although it was not celebrated in Ujjain this year. (Held every four years, the location changes among several holy cities.  We passed through Haridwar when four years ago Kumbh Mela was held there. Memorable – but we didn’t stick around.)

DSC_0421Back in Ujjain, the place was jumping! We gave up trying to enter the main temple and pushed through the throng of pilgrims and visitors to the ghat where it was even more crowded. If this is just Shivarati Maha, thank God we weren’t here for Kumbh Mela!

Ujjain is supposed to be especially atmospheric at dusk when the temples rising above the ghat are majestic and ringing bells and incense fill the air. But on that day it was too crazy for us to wait and find out. A few hours were enough before we retreated back to the hotel and another meal. We’re definitely feeling our age! Throughout our brief two-day stay in Ujjain, amongst the tens of thousands of people, we didn’t see a single other western tourist. The only English spoken was by our waiter, and even that was touch and go! And as far as returning to Ujjain – been there and done it!


The following day we took the SLOW train to Varanasi. It meandered through the countryside stopping frequently at little stations with picket fences. All in all, a scheduled 40 stops over a 28 hour journey! Most of the train is sleeper class and there is no pantry car. A polite gentleman begins a conversation in halting English with me. He says he is a railway servant. Then when I’m lamenting the fact there is no pantry car, he asks if we like chai? Our response is obvious. At the next stop he beckons us to follow him to the platform.  A man holding a tray with little decorated china cups and a large metal thermos is waiting. He pours tea for the man and his friends, including us.  Sugar is offered to our liking in a separate bowl. Obviously this man is an important “railway servant.”  We stand in the early morning sunlight on this pretty country platform sipping tea from cups that I immediately want to purchase and bring back to the US. Another golden moment in India!  The man alights at the next station – to my disappointment.  I’d already begun to anticipate lunch!

Fit For a Queen, Served like Kings


Gerard saw a picture of Maheshwar online and decided it would be worth visiting. Built next to a river, with a 16th C fort, the town is way off the tourist trail. It took three bus rides and most of the day from Khandwa (where we spent one night) to reach there. Finally getting down at the bus station, we were not impressed. Another busy and dusty town….we wondered if we’d made the right decision to come. There was no sign of the river or fort, and no rickshaws or taxis in sight. No one seemed interested in giving us a ride to our guesthouse.

But like not judging a book by its cover, first impressions are not always right. Maheshwar turned out to be so much more than expected! We stay on a side road leading to the old town, in a charming little guest house run by an elderly man. The place is immaculate; the rooms tastefully decorated and furnished, fresh linens on the bed each day, a new cloth napkin and different set of decorated china at each meal – such elegance all for a budget price! But what distinguishes this guesthouse most from all the other ones we’ve stayed in was the way we were served – like kings! Two smiling young men were there for our every beck and call – one cooks our meals ordered in advance and individually prepared, while the younger boy serves. And it is some of the best dishes we’ve eaten in India. After every meal the elderly patron appears and asks, “Is everything satisfactory? Any complaints?” To which we reply, NO, Everything is perfect! The day we leave, the young boy hands us a flower picked from the garden sprayed with perfume.

DSC_0280Maheshwar is famous for its 16th C fort with an 1802 temple next to it. But most interesting are the quarters built within the fort in 1766 for the residence and administrative center of Queen Ahilya Bai Holkar, who was the daughter-in-law of the Maharajah of Indore. After her husband was killed in battle she was going to do sati (burn herself on his funeral pyre) but her father-in-law persuaded her not to because he needed her diplomatic and administrative skills to help him rule, while he enlarged his domain through battle.

DSC_0414In 1765 the Peshwar confirmed her as overseer of the Holkar domain and her rule for the next 30 years was “a unique period of peace and prosperity, while the rest of India was wrecked by turbulence.” Ahilya made efforts to repair the damage done to her Hindu faith by the Moslem tyrant, Arungazeb and Ahilya supported the restoration of temples and dharamshalas around the country. She took great care to ensure her Muslims and Hindu subjects were treated equally, and was revered throughout India.

The town is also famous for its handicrafts. The Rewa society was founded 250 years ago to promote the local craftspeople here. Cotton and silk cloth is still handspun and woven just as Gandhi encouraged.

2 in marFor a day and a half, we wander around the old town beside the fort. There is little traffic in the lanes and many of the houses are old, and wood framed. Stopping outside one of the most impressive, Gerard pulled out his camera. Simultaneously the head of a man appeared in the upstairs open window and acknowledged us. Raju’s wife joined him and they posed for a picture, and then graciously invited us in. All the wood beams were decoratively carved, the staircase narrow and dark. Perhaps lacking in the modern conveniences of the tasteless concrete block across the street, this house exuded character. Raju has no email but gives us his Facebook account to share the picture we took.


On the second evening, at sunset, we took a boat ride on the river. The sandstone fort glowed in the fading sunlight; on the other bank, quiet muted green fields. Much more activity on the ghats than the previous night and someone tried to explain it was because of a festival the next day. Happy to leave this peaceful town before the crowds arrived! The next morning, as our bus pulled out of town, pilgrims, families were all pouring in to celebrate the festival.DSC_0377

It’s doubtful that we’ll ever return but Maheshwar was a very unique place, even for India that’s so diverse. The majesty with which the fort towers over the Narmada River, no Indian Archaeological Survey, no UNESCO, no ticket collectors. Even though it’s an Indian tourist destination, everything was free to the public and to our eyes, still unspoiled and peaceful.


Finding Family in Hyderabad

With over an hour to wait, we amuse ourselves by watching the coming and going on the platform. Train stations are never boring. Two bright-eyed, barefoot young boys, probably brothers, are playing. They’re not begging and they don’t look hungry. They’re happy together, the elder bragging to the younger, but at the same time protective of the little boy. Tossing a plastic water bottle back and forth they dance around precariously close to the train tracks. After a while the older boy produces a silver two-rupee coin, and for almost an hour, they’re absorbed in playing heads or tails, sitting perched on the edge of the platform, one leg hanging over. Whenever a tossed coin veers off course on to the tracks, the older boy sends his younger brother down to find and throw it back up.

Meanwhile a man with a good set of protruding but remarkably white teeth tries to engage in conversation. He’s been visiting his daughter just started working at a bank in Hospet. His wife is a teacher but when I ask him what he does he says, “I have to deal with the courts.” He explains he is trying to win back land rightfully his but seized by his brother. An all too common family dispute in India that has probably sat unresolved in the courts for years. Our conversation stumbles along. Then he asks me how old I am. Cocky, I tell him to guess. “73?” he suggests with a completely deadpan face. Indians are refreshingly direct – but this is too much. A 73 year old woman in India is either confined to a wheel chair or hobbling along, bent over almost double with osteoporosis. Never again will I be embarrassed to admit I’m retired, or partially retired. ‘No, 63’, I correct him. “And how old are you?” A mere “45”, he says. I have nothing more to say to him…he’s killed the conversation.

And then a wild-looking woman, gray hair spilling out of a loose bun, a threadbare grey sari covering her skinny body, begs her way down the platform. When no one wants to give her any money she screams at them. Gerard, always mindful of beggars, even crazy ones, hands me a handful of coins for her. She yells with delight and bending down, clutches my legs and touches my feet with her forehead…kisses my hands…and blesses me. Even though beggars are a constant presence in India and we have become somewhat thick-skinned to most of them, every once in a while one is so pathetic that it’s like a stab in the heart. Later in Hyderabad we witness one of the worst we’ve had to confront in some time.. A shrunken little man, unable to do more than sit among his rags and dirt against the wall of an alley. In the dim light he is barely visible his brown form merging with his surroundings. He looks as if he has grown out of the dirt. He doesn’t appear to be able to walk and one hand grows out of where his forearm should be. He can barely stretch it out to receive coins. When Gerard lent down to give him an offering, he was overpowered with the stench of the man living in his own filth. Moments later, we saw a young Indian man walking his pet dog, snow white and healthy. The stark contrast was overwhelmingly.

We are only passing through Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh because it’s the easiest way to our next destination – two religious towns in neighboring Madhya Pradesh. Knowing little about the city, except that it’s very expensive, we had limited expectation. And after the recent terrorist bombings (most likely in retribution for the recent hanging of the convicted extremist in the bombing of the Indian Parliament in 2002) we’re even less excited about visiting. The hotel room at the Geetanjali, we booked ahead online, is only half decent, but after looking around at the alternatives that are even worse, we reconcile to what we have. It is very hot, but the window has to stay shut at night because of mosquitoes – we hover between sleep and wakefulness. Meanwhile right beside our room is an elevator with an automated female voice that announces, when it stops at a floor, in Hindi and then perfect English diction, “Please close the gate!” Unfortunately many Indians have as much aversion to closing an elevator door as they do to picking up their own trash, and so the announcement keeps repeating until someone else comes along.

Hyderabad was founded in 1591 by the Nizam, Mohammed Quli Shah. Although predominantly Hindu, the city was ruled by Muslims until independence, and both Hindus and Muslims lived in harmony. In 1949, the Nizam ruling at that time wanted to join Pakistan, but after much arm twisting and eventual invasion by Hindu forces, he succumbed and Hyderabad was admitted to the Indian Union. In recent years, this harmony has become more fragile, highlighted by the 2007 bombing of the Mecca Nasjid mosque and the most recent bombing in an up scale Hindu neighborhood (2 km from our guesthouse).

The Charminar

A hi-tech hub today Hyderabad still boasts some interesting historical sites. Our first destination was Charminar, the old Muslim quarter, but the bazaar was nothing memorable. And we missed the ChowmallahPalace, the home of the Nizam, in part the fault of our guidebook that hardly gives it a mention, and in part being Friday, many things were closed.

One of the Nizam’s prime-ministers, Salar Jung 1, was extremely wealthy and traveled throughout the world collecting artifacts that met his fancy. The diverse collection is now displayed in a huge museum and is only rivaled by that of Citizen Kane! Included are Indian jade, silver, Persian miniatures, bronzes going back to the 3rd century, carved ivory, lacquer work – to mention only a few. It’s an extraordinary collection and we could have spent several days in the museum. Thank God the English didn’t get their hands on it, or it would all be in the Victoria and Albert by now! For those who don’t know, the famous Koh-i-noor diamond – one of the largest in the world – was found here…and later ended up cut and embedded in the British royal crown!


Just before arriving in Hyderabad, Bhushan gave us the phone number of his nephew who lives 20 kms out of town. They invited us out for the day – fed us a delicious lunch and took us to the Golconda Fort. 11km outside old Hyderabad, it is has Hindu and Muslim remains from the 12th and 13th centuries.



Well preserved and set in thick green scrub land, it’s set on a hill with a citadel high above.We all, including the six year old twins, took the effort to climb up to see the beautiful views.

Back at the house, we were served another amazing meal. They invited us to come back and spend the remainder of our stay in Hyderabad with them. With relish we accepted – liberated from the Geetanjali by this wonderful family! They live in the idyllic-sounding DaisyTower, part of a new housing compound, with amenities such as tennis courts, basket ball, a flower filled park, but most important…they had a swimming pool!



The family all have wonderful names – Tejaswi is Shruti’s cousin, his wife, Rashu, her brother Varun and their twin children, Suteekshan and Medhavi. (It’s taken us some time to pronounce and remember these names!) A number of years ago we welcomed Shruti and her mother to stay with us in Boston. Since then, we’ve been guests of their extended family in Pathankot, Amritsar, Gurgaon, Chennai, Pondicherry – and now Hyderabad! From one small deed several years ago we continue to reap the benefit hundred fold! In spite of difference in age and culture, we quickly feel like part of the family.


The highlight of Hyderabad was definitely the unexpected charm of meeting these people and staying with them. Even though Tejaswi is away at work during the day, his wife Rashu was very engaging and told us many compelling stories about her extended family. We all know Gerard keeps asking questions until he gets the full picture! Swimming and a couple of yoga classes with Rashu was the icing on the cake for me.

B&V COMPUTERVarun, who works for the San Diego based, Teradata, spent hours tweaking our temperamental computer. He’s an avid reader and he and I had lots to talk about regarding literature. Tejaswi, a financial executive at Oracle with a demanding schedule, repeatedly left work earlier than usual to spend time with us. Faithful to the Mahajan ethic, he helped facilitate even the most minor travel arrangement.

Our departure was especially moving – the whole family accompanied us down to the waiting rickshaw and continued waving as we drove off to the train station, until out of sight. We won’t forget our encounter with this loving family.