Kolkata: First Impressions.
The December night was London-summer warm, the streets wreathed in a thicker smog than Britain has seen in my lifetime, beautiful halos around the streetlights and roads disappearing into haze. We ignored the perennial throng of coolies and tiny insistent beggar-kids, loaded up the two waiting cars and set off into town. As I left the airport and stepped out into the midnight Kolkata mist the air caught in my throat like dry ice. Whether from the shock of the Indian air, humid and heavy with dust and fumes, or from some noxious airport air-freshener, I soon got my breath and my bearings back.
Several things struck me during that first journey. For one, the buildings were unlike anything I've ever seen in Europe or Canada (the only places I have travelled, to date); more ornate than most and strikingly less flat - most had balconies and even those without seldom have flat facades. Right angles weren't taken for granted the way they are in Europe. Scaffolding was made of stung-together bamboo which enveloped the houses in crazy, curving grids. The buildings were at bizarre angles to the airport road, built later and cutting a swathe through many of the existing developments.
A few other things jumped out - quite literally in the form of stray dogs. We slowed down only slightly for a lazy road-block, manned by police who sat warming themselves round a fire in an old oil-barrel. The cars of the city were largely unfamiliar because they were of makes discontinued in the West decades ago. Most notably, the city's cabs are a fleet of old yellow Ambassadors; splendidly grand cars with no suspension to speak of and ricketty windows. Many walls were daubed with writing - almost all in Bengali - on politics, often accompanied by a hammer and sickle. West Bengal has been a communist state for around two decades even though capitalism has crept forth in a big way these last few years. Another thing which was quite alien to a British visitor was the style of driving. Cars forever honked when approaching other vehicles and at first I took this to be a symptom of aggression. This wasn't the case at all. While in Britain the standard message of a horn is 'get the hell out of my way' a Kolkata horn usually just says 'here I am'. Largely, I suspect, to make up for the lack of wing mirrors on the cars. Most of the larger vehicles were painted in bright colours, often with slogans like 'my India is great', and the prominent, curiously redundant request for the driver behind to blow their horn.
I felt very welcomed upon arriving at my in-laws. My fiancee P and I were greeted by the closest thing her Bengali family had to a matriarch and came in to three tremendous, resounding HWAAAWHs on a conch shell. This was a traditional way to begin a ceremony - in this case the boron-kora. She continued by chanting, anointing my forehead with sandalwood and daubing P's red with sindoor, and waving an arati - ceremonial flame - beneath each of our faces.
This was followed by a midnight feast - rice and dal and rotis and torkari: a Bengali banquet to fill the hole left by British Airways' failure to provide the vegan food I had carefully chosen from their extensive drop-down menu. At home I'm a vegan but most of the things that bother me about Britain's heavily-industrialised dairy industry don't apply here; I would also prefer not to turn down all the amazing non-vegan food in Bengal and I know my stomach can take it. I wouldn't eat eggs but then Indian vegetarians generally don't either. After dinner we removed our shoes and were led into the main bedroom where our mini-puja continued at P's father's mini-shrine. There were photographs and icons of religious significance and over our heads matriarch-auntie recited lines of rapid Sanskrit as we stood with our palms pressed before us.
First Day: Wedding Shopping
In the morning we woke early to the caws of Kolkata's ubiquitous crows, wailing in the streets, and the sound of a neighbour's conch. When we finally got out of bed we had a little time to eat breakfast and take in our surroundings now that the sun was blazing - a beautiful second-floor flat adorned with ornaments from around the world. Their balcony with huge potted plants looked out onto the street; the building opposite our bedroom window had a tree growing around its drainpipe and unfamiliar grey-necked crows hopped everywhere.
Once we'd got our bearings we set out to shop for our wedding outfits. Our's was a relatively small Indian wedding and there were only three days of official celebrations planned. The first day involved mehendi and a sangeet - dancing girls, drinks and around a hundred and twenty guests. The second day, the ceremony itself, involved more singing, dancing, feasting and another three hundred people. The reception was the really big event with about eight hundred to a thousand people invited. On either side of this there were parties of various sizes with friends and relatives and amazing Bengali food. The day after the reception was scheduled for a big, semi-official wind-down before escaping for a three-day honeymoon in Darjeeling.
What this all means was that each of us needed three outfits with varying degrees of grandness. P and I would wear Indian dress throughout - three different sarees for her, two kurtas and a sherwani for me and a dhoti for the ceremony. My brother opted for two kurtas and a tailored suit, much cheaper to get made in Bengal than in Britain. We picked these out surprisingly quickly, they were such gorgeous things to wear, and even P's were all chosen by the next day. P teased me for weeks about the dhoti – a sort of giant nappy for men - but it wasn't nearly as bad as I'd feared.
The Partying Began
Next night's party was thrown by the parents of a guest from the previous night, a delightful and shockingly spry couple in their seventies who I knew only as auntie and uncle. She was a famous beauty in her day; a hit pop song was written for her a few decades back. She cooked amazing food and performed another welcome ceremony largely consisting of me eating rice with uche and sag. Her husband told me about his adventures visiting Antarctica and Africa. His face was lined with eight decades of laughter and storytelling and he ate a different breakfast every day on the principle of choice. This party was in our honour and came in the form of a barbecue in a roof garden with beautiful views out over the city fog. We met many charming Bengalis, a close-knit group of friends of P's parents, and ate far too much delicious food. Barbecued paneer turn out to be so tasty that I vowed to try the same with tofu the next time I got the chance.
One afternoon a couple of days later I headed with my brother to the zoo for perhaps our only chance to see elephants. A man sold us chickpeas at the gate - for the monkeys - but all the animal enclosures had signs saying 'please do not tease or feed wild animals' and the monkeys were kept behind three layers of cage for our protection. Overall the zoo wasn't too badly maintained and apart from the skinniest bunch of bunnies I'd ever seen, the animals didn't seem especially unhappy. Some of the cages were pockmarked and empty as though their inmates had escaped. Others included incongruous cats – there was one in the emu's enclosure waiting for a chance to bring down the bird ten times its size.
Before we left I was stopped by a woman and a small girl with a big grin and a look of wonder on her face. She asked me about my hair and how long it took to grow. Later we were chased by a young boy with a camera who begged us for a photo. We stopped for him and he delighted in showing his friends.
'We were the best exhibits there', my brother said later.
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