I wake up and look at my new Casio. I have been on the train for 16 hours.. It's around 8:30 a.m now.. ok that's cool, another 9 hours or so. I can hack it. The book I am reading is like a cheesecake: all lines dense, wondrous, tasty and astoundingly precise. Thank god for reading. I read, I get off my bunk, I walk around(up and down the dirty train), I smoke, I get back on my bunk, I read, I snooze, I have a chai, I eat some peanuts.
Over and over.
My cell phone rings. It's Iqbal, the lovely man that guided my Amritsar trip. his ex boss lives in Kolkata.
" B- have you contacted Gulzar?"
"Well, why not?"
"uh- well I thought I would do it once I get there."
"call him up."
So I do. Gulzar is wonderful, gets me in contact with Satya, who gets me in contact with Agni. They are all sms ing me with numbers to call and places to see, all reassuring me of support once I reach Kolkata. I should accept this, instead of being my stubborn independent self.
I'm hungry. It's now 6. Hmm we should BE there. Why has the train stopped? It's the second person telling me we will reach at 8:30ish... Nooooo. ugh. Diwali is happening now! The train stops again. Blast! Bang! Boom!.... firecrackers going off like gunshots, lighting up the sky like long neon scarves, and at times like concentrated falling snow. I'm spending Diwali on a crowded smelly train. At least I'm spending Diwali in India with Indians!!! I can't lie: it's bittersweet. I do hope we reach Kolkata before the night is through...
Ahhhh FINALLY! We make it. I say goodbye to all the new acquaintances I made, and to James, but we end up talking our way out of the train station and onto the street. Once outside I see the Hooghly Bridge and yellow taxi cabs and I get hit with a strange nostalgia. New York City. My smile is so absurdly wide. This city is oddly comforting and familiar. Calm yet stimulating. I already know I will feel anonymous here... I already know I will like it here. Some cities touch you. Unreasonable but true.
James and I walk a bit further and take a cab to Free School street. I tap the cabby on the shoulder and point to my pack of ciggies, head bobbing, and he gives me matches... haha, only in India! Here I was trying to ask if I could smoke, and he facilitates my dirty habit. Sweet.
Once on Free School street (and its pronounced freeuh schooluh street) I find a guest house. Its unsavory, just like the pushy hotel owner, with his repulsive Bengali belly hanging out of his wife beater, but honestly, Kali Pooja is happening now and I just want to drop my bag and discover. James follows me. We get a chai and decide what to do. I say lets get to Kalighat, the Kali temple. Bengalis worship Kali, and it's even possible that Kolkata is named after her. She is the goddess of devastation, darkness and rebirth(more on Kali later, my favourite goddess deserves her own post).
The temple is sort of hidden in a maze of alleys, jammed with market stalls selling flowers, religious trinkets, bangles, brassware and of course, pictures of Kali. I ask how much the two white and two red plastic bangles are. First vendor says 30, second vendor says 70, third vendor says 50, so I tell the fourth vendor I will give 25 and he doesn't fight me. Cool. I later find out the significance of the red and white bangles.. I'll tell you about that soon.
OH MY GAAAWD the amount of people is truly AWESOME and the experience is just as explosive and huge and intense. People pushing, but without hardness or aggression (this needs to be lived to be understood, sorry to say). The temple is tiled with floral and peacock motifs (looks quite Portuguese, not Indian at all, actually). I see black haired animal bits. What is that? Then I see blood, then I see a black goat head. Ah yes- the goats are sacrificed to honor the demanding Kali, thereby buying 'God Power'. A man approaches and asks if we want to see Kali, we say yes. He says 50 rupees and we say yes again. We are taken, woven in amongst the hundreds of pilgrims to the front of the line. He discusses something to a man wearing a uniform. Money talks. We cut the line. It's hard to see her for there are so many bodies crammed and in constant flux. then I see the three red eyes and the gold tongue. There she is, crowned, dark and powerful, covered by hibiscus flower offerings. A 'priest' standing at her altar (there is one on each side) gestures for money. I hand him a 5 rupee note and he takes it (I can't believe I finally got rid of it! For some reason Indians dislike the 5 rupee bill) and then we get tikkaed (the reddish orangeish dot the priest places on your third eye, blessing you). We are ushered out. We find our shoes. We look at each other. "Holy Shit (James)! We made it to the Kali temple on the Holiest of days! We rule! Now let's eat something.."
I get my trusted lonely planet bible out and look up yummy places close by. Kewpies is famous for Bengali fish, and it is the only restaurant still open. We rush. It's a bit of a nightmare to find, so many miniscule alleys. I ask a man in uniform. He honestly tells me to ask the cross guard. I bravely cross the intersection with my silly large book open to the map and point. He is busily directing traffic but seems non-plussed by my enquiry. 'Yes, you are very close, just make a sharp left then two intersections then a...."
I hear a deep and confident voice behind me, " let me help you. Where are you trying to go? " I turn around and see these kind black outlined eyes behind stylish glasses. A warm round smile, a round nose, a soft face. She is an angel, appearing out of nowhere.
She walks us to a taxi and firmly tells the cabby where to go and how much to charge us. And as we hop in she looks at me and says, "make sure he doesn't charge you more than 30." Angel.
Kewpies is on Elgin Lane, but we can't find Elgin Lane, only Elgin Road. Must be a typo James says.. 'A typo' I think? Really? It's 9:45. Gah!- are we going to make it?. The restaurant closes at 10. Twisting here and there, we ask again. 'yes yes Elgin lane is the next sharp left.' We retrace our steps. Now I am running almost, and James is a few meters behind me. We will never find it. Let's just give up. It's ten to ten now.. I slump and slow down... and - like a phoenix rising from the ashes (not really, but you know) there lies Kewpies, hidden, dark, but there! Just when I had given up! Yay we made it!
Uh no. Closed. Nords.
'ok' I tell James, 'let's eat wherever'. We hop into a cab to go back to Freeuh Schooluh street and we see a chirpy looking SUBWAY sub restaurant on the way. James looks at me quickly and we both tell the cabby to stop.
We're hungry, after all. I know, shame on me to be eating at a non-Indian joint, but whatever. Once we enter, a woman kindly calls all these restaurant numbers for us, to see if any are open. No such luck. We eat subway subs and chill for a bit.
Cab back to the unsavory hotel. James and I hug it out, exchange emails and part ways. I am thirsty. The nasty hotel owner tries to sell me a bottle of water for 20 rupees (they are usually 12-14)..I look at him. I check if the bottle has been opened. Of course it has. I look at him. He smiles a devilish smile. "You're not new to India, are you maam?"
Despite his obnoxious nature, I smile. I mean, I got blessed on the holiest of days, nothing is crushing THIS spirit!
I start climbing the stairs to my room "No I'm not, unsavory one. Good night."