Oh, Calcutta! Forgive the title of this blog – nothing else seemed to suggest so much in so few syllables. I spent our last day in Varanasi pacing up and down a lot. Nas had a 39 degree fever the day we were due to embark on a 14 hour journey to Calcutta. Failing to take our train would have caused no end of trouble, but it probably would have been less hassle than phoning my beloved’s father and asking him to help arrange the shipment home of the body of his first-born child.
We paid for a cheap day room at our guest house so Nas could rest as much as possible before the journey, and I filled the day sitting on the ghats talking to locals and drinking Chai. We got a rickshaw to the train station, where we learned that most trains were delayed. One American said he’d disembarked a whole twelve hours later than scheduled. We found our platform, dumped the bags down and settled in for a long wait. Luckily for us, our train was only a few minutes delayed, but by the time we climbed aboard, we’d befriended a Norwegian couple and a cheery Dutch guy. We enjoyed recklessly leaning out of the train doors to catch a breeze, taking advantage of India’s absolute lack of authority figures telling you you’re not allowed to do something.
The male half of the Norwegian couple was not having a good time. He looked as if he would have welcomed death. It’s one thing to get sick, it’s another to get sick in India, and it’s yet another thing to get sick on a long train journey in India. My physical inconveniences were related only to excessive stature. Me and my huge bag had a narrow bunk in a berth I shared with two little old Indian ladies. The foetus position was called for. Space did not allow this to happen easily – my bunk was one foot wide. Determined to achieve my goal of sleeping the sleep of the unborn, I hooked my leg and arm around some strappy hoops and shoved my butt out into the shared airspace of the berth. Since I was wearing my blue Dickies, I couldn’t help but hum ‘Blue Moon’ to myself, wondering if the sight of a skinny blue western butt would make a little old Indian lady scream when she woke up with it hovering over her face. I hoped not.
Calcutta’s Howrah station was the first ‘normal’ station we’ve encountered so far, in that it’s a grand old building with a taxi rank outside that seems to fulfill its designed function. Our taxi to the hotel was uncharacteristically quick, cheap and without exasperating detours to silk shops. Soon after checking in, I took a stroll around the neighborhood while Nas unpacked and showered. You probably don’t want to know this, but it’s REALLY hot and sunny in Calcutta – more than thirty degrees during the day. The locals seem to find it a bit nippy, judging by the amount of sweaters and jackets being worn.
We’re staying in the Chowringhee district. I took to it straight away. I didn’t get any where near as much hassle as in Delhi or Varanasi, and the big boulevards make finding your way around pretty straightforward. The only confusion arises from the fact that the street names have old and new names. For example, our street is Free School Street if you prefer the British Imperial name, or the Mirza Grahib if you’re of the modern persuasion. The trouble is, most Indians couldn’t seem to give a fuck, so some street signs, shop awnings and maps say ‘Free School’, while others say ‘Grahib’. Some say nothing at all. This makes map reading and orientation twice as difficult as it should be.
I ran into my Dutch and Norweigan friends, and tried to enjoy an omelette in a cafe despite cockroaches dancing across the tables like Fred and Ginger. We also found a bar. After ten dry days in the holy city of Varanasi, the sight of a large bottle of Kingfisher being set down in front of me was most welcome.
We also had the best meal we’ve had so far in India. In England, you’re forever being told that Indian restaurants in the UK aren’t ‘authentic’. My experience of Indian restaurants in India so far suggests this is total bollocks – they’re exactly the same! Menus are dominated by vindaloos, tandooris and kormas. The ‘Peter Cat’ restaurant of Calcutta is famous in the region for Bengali haute cuisine. The waiters wear traditional Rajasthani outfits and the chefs are recognised as among the best in the subcontinent. We arrived at just the right time, as shortly after we sat down a queue of people formed outside. We had vegetable samosas that have as much in common with the samosas you get from Tescos as a head massage has in common with being punched in the face. They were more like good cornish pasties – light and fluffy rather than stodgy and greasy, and filled with perfectly cooked vegetables in a thick, rich sauce. We’re going back for more. They also served Kingfisher in pewter mugs. I can’t say enough good things about drinking cold beer from pewter mugs served by chaps in full Raj regalia.