Day off from volunteering. Wake up early to squeeze in some journal time but after an hour of writing I barely cover yesterday morning. Sensory overload compounded with the mania of being lost in a post-apocalyptic war zone. Bus to Mother House. Finally it dawns on me that women always get first rights to seats on the left. Most of the time genders are segregated by sides but I simply couldn’t see it because the buses are so overcrowded. Now I feel like an idiot for having sat on the women’s side without offering up my seat.
I hear a loud smacking sound from the ticket salesman standing at the rear exit; one I have heard often but never been able to explain. Now that the bus is less crowded, all the world’s mysteries are explained. The ticket attendants, the same ones who hang off the edge of the steps and shout at pedestrians, will smack the glass windows, using a ring on their fingers as an amplifier, in order to signal different instructions to the driver. One smack means all commuters are safely aboard and the bus may proceed to the next stop. Two smacks means someone is requesting to disembark. When the buses reach full capacity it is often so loud that the rear ticket agent will relay the smack to the front ticket agent, who will then pull a string, connected to a bell, by the driver’s head. What an art!
I feel comfortable in Kolkata now. Directions, culture, bus stops, nuances; all starting to fill in. Walking down the smaller streets toward Sutter for the second time and already I feel desensitized. Homeless, mounds of garbage, public bathing, live pasture animals in tight urban settings, packs of wild dogs; all seem trivial now. I am, however, flabbergasted by one new scene of unimaginable surprise.
A man rides his bicycle directly past me. On the rear of his squeaky bike he has mounted a small rack, with a wooden dowel extending two feet perpendicular from either side. Along the dowel chickens hang upside down, their feet bound by rope, and they sway limply in perfect unison to the bumps and turns of the road. I marvel at the harmony death can imbue. There must be nearly twenty chickens in all. A few minutes later I see the same man ride toward me and stop at a street-food vendor’s stand. He slides one carcass off the stick and tosses it haphazardly in the direction of a woman five meters away. She appears to be in charge of the makeshift kitchen. In mid flight, the bird begins to flap it’s wings vigorously, plumb’s itself, and docks on the sidewalk like a cartoon character –scooting a few steps upon landing. My goodness! All those chickens are actually alive. They are simply resigned to their fate so they hang lifelessly en route to slaughter. With it’s legs still bound, the retailed chicken is no match for the murderous old woman.
Children no older than eight hold the hands of their siblings, no older than five, and lead them bravely down the busy streets. Rickshaws sound their clown horns behind me to clear a path. Emaciated rickshaw drivers pull the portly passengers. I clear people, cars, buses, and motorcycles by centimeters. Meet my group at Galaxy Hotel and have breakfast close by. Inside the restaurant, a man cleans the filter on a wall mount air conditioning unit without much regard. Thick black chunks of filtered soot fly everywhere. People eating near bye don’t seem bothered by it.
The Russian girl from yesterday has joined the group somehow. I was certain she had perished after I left her to walk the streets of Khaligat alone. She continues her yammering pace of conversation from our last encounter. After light consideration I decide not to join the group for their planned sightseeing expedition today. Paranoia and depression are rearing their ugly heads. I want to hide in my hotel room. Our British friend has been speaking some offshoot of English for the past twenty minutes but I haven’t understood one word. I keep nodding like a sedated clown between the yammering Ruskie and the garbled Brit.
Walking back toward Mother House I decide to investigate some hotels for my next possible landing spot. A man follows me out of one hotel and offers to aid in my search. I tell him I’m looking for The Sunflower Hotel and he suggests the path is down a dark, narrow alley. Suspicious of his intent I leave him behind. Five minutes later, after asking again for directions, I am pointed back down the same dark alley to find the hotel. I feel guilty for not trusting the original shepherd.
On the bus ride home I pass an immaculate Audi dealership next to a dilapidated malaria clinic. I offer no commentary, even to myself. Men ride on tall piles of scrap metal loaded in the back of cargo trucks. Lock myself in my hotel room. Mind is fluttering. Wash clothes in bucket. Sudeshna calls the front desk and tells me to expect her in the afternoon. When she arrives I am blown away by her warmth and kindness. Her genuine smile stands noticeably discordant to the indigenous misery of this city. She rides in the back with me while her driver navigates us through the madness that is Kolkata traffic. Her father sits silently in the passenger seat. She offers rich historical accounts of buildings, roads, and importance during, and after, British rule. I receive an entire dissertation on the history of Kolkata. After a thirty-minute tour of the city Sudeshna is dropped off at her newspaper’s central office and I am left with her driver to be returned to the destination of my choice. I realize then she is a prominent journalist and I have just been given a unique injection of perspective.
We drive down a major street with endless rows of cricket fields; most of which are occupied. A horse stands oddly out of place on the sidewalk with no one around for miles. A piece of rope, no longer than twelve inches, binds its two front feet together – essentially rendering it immobile and stranded.
Next to a food cart, a man squats near a goat tied to a tree. He fires rocks with a slingshot at a crow perched on a near by branch. Fire. Miss. Reload. He hides behind the goat for cover. The goat stares aimlessly at the curious man. The marksman fires again and misses. This time the crow finally catches on and flies away. The man unties the goat, picks up a sturdy looking stick, whips the goat with great effort three times across the ass, and walks off down the street with this goat on a leash. How often has he pulled such a caper? Is the goat merely camouflage for his endeavors in slingshot-crow-hunting or does the goat serve a different purpose?
Dropped off at Mother House and walk to Sudder Street where I was told I could find bars. It’s time to drink. I find a dreary door in a side alley. Never have I walked into a bar more bleak, more somber, than this place and I have been to many of shit holes in my time. The staff is all overdressed and standing near the television. Three patrons sit at separate tables, all looking down, staring at their alcohol with despair. This must be a den of communal shame. Thankfully two young couples come in shortly after I arrive but there chipper conversation is noticeably out of place for this melancholy wasteland.
As I drink at my usually hurried pace, I find deeper levels of loneliness. I hope the bar washes the glasses with soap. I don’t want to think about what the water looks like.
Street food for dinner. I sit on a small bench, staring across the street at a tangle of electrical cables hanging off a pole. Teresa walks by and stops to chat. We walk back to Mother House together. Conversation is easy and humorous. As we pass a shop, I notice a freshly severed cow’s head on the ground; blood not yet congealed around it. We break for hot samosas from a street vendor. Bus home alone. I am numb to the commotion. It is so loud in this city that it becomes ominously quiet. I decide to stop for sweets to munch on. As I pay the proprietor, a cockroach scampers over my foot. Try to buy beer but the store is closed. Yearning for something to make me feel whole.