Sunrise to sunset: walking Kolkata

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By Alex Cochrane:

Kolkata has been called a city of furious energy, the city of joy, a dying city. It is teeming, intense, broken and modern, old British empire and a stronghold of Bengali pride and culture. It’s crumbling and developing, wealthy and poor. It’s digested a tragic history but has a unique soul where it’s almost obligatory to have chats, or ada, with random strangers in the streets.

Four am and I’m drifting through a north Kolkata neighbourhood. The streets are quiet, owned by scuttling rats and packs of dogs who strut and bark at my intrusion. It’s their time to own the streets. The night’s storms have slickened the streets and freshened the air.

Figures swathed in cloth sleep on the pavements, on rickety frames, under rickshaws, on mats, on ledges and on carts. Whole families curled up together under tarpaulin shelters, their washing strung out on nearby railings. The poverty is not as bad as it used to be, but it’s still a depressing sight.

The first tram of the day clanks and grinds its way through the still-dark streets. We sit in first class where instructions are written in English, for the old British colonialists. The streets are still silent but there are flashes of activity. The wholesale markets are up and running. We pass through one at the crossroads with huge mounds of coconuts; another has bundles of sugar cane ready for distribution to the juice crushers.  At another crossroads, groups of men stand around, sipping on early morning chai. These are the mechanics waiting for work.

Now the day is getting started - fires are being coaxed into life, figures are stirring, families are washing by the gushing street standpipes. Lights are lit on chai stalls cubby holes, pavement stalls. Power is hijacked from spaghetti junctions of illegal hook-ups. The first of the porters are pulling carts with huge piles of cooking pots. The crows hop about, looking for food and material to build their nests.

Soon it will rev up to full throttle, to the full cacophony of noise and traffic. Soon, along Rabindra Sarani or Chowringee Road, the pavements will be choked with so much trading you’ll be forced to walk on the road. The streets will smell of ghee, spices, urine, overripe fruit, smoke, pollution and incense from the Hindu street shrines. The beggars will rattle their tins and the rickshaw wallahs will ring their bells to attract business.

Since I was last in India, I had forgotten how busy its streets could be. The streets come at you from all angles - broken pavements to trip you, traffic to dodge and open drains to avoid.  The traffic is ferocious and fluid, furiously flowing round the ambling street sweepers with their carts of rubbish. The traffic snarls, beeps and roars at itself. Hawkers sleep, hawkers hustle, hawkers hawk. Conductors shout their destinations from ramshackle colourful buses that bolt off with sudden manic energy. Kids play cricket on a bit of wasteland amongst the tramlines.

Is this chaos intoxicating or overwhelming? In his book, The Epic City, Kushanava Choudhury, explores his ambivalent relationship with Kolkata. “Calcutta”, he writes, “is an impossible place”. When he was a boy he dropped a water bottle into an open drain and watched sink into the dark sludge with a great sense of loss. “Any of us, any time, could fall into the black river that bubbled below the sidewalks of our city and be sucked into oblivion.” This city built on a swamp that compels him to return home from New Jersey to the astonishment of his family.

We walk to the flower market in the shadow of the Hooghly Bridge. Great mounds of flowers are gently emptied out of large sacks. The sparrows descend on the flowers in search of insects. The market is a muddy warren divided into sections for marigolds, roses, leaf. The mobile flower sellers wander off with lines of orange and yellow flowers hanging down from around their neck. They put their hands on their heads to avoid crushing their delicate wares.

Pushing through the marketplace, we emerge onto the ghats where locals are bathing and washing. A man sluices out a row of pools for the birds to drink from.  By the river, a priest is blessing a man. They are crouching down with incense and flowers at their feet. A group of men with shaved heads watch and wait nearby. An air of sadness hangs round for them for this is a ritual of grief for those who have  a lost a parent.

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We catch a ferry. I’m astonished when I see a man latch onto to the tyre on the side of the ferry, surfing with the wash. No-one bats an eyelid. This is why I love India. As the ferry nears the jetty, the man hauls himself onto the ferry and dives into the river, swimming to a jetty with moored fishing boats.

From the ferry, we walk to Kumartuli, the neighbourhood where gods and demons emerge out of clay and mud. It’s a warren of workshops, where statues are lined-up in all the different stages of creation - from crude straw and mud forms to colourful, painted gods waiting for transportation. We stop off to feast on delicious Bengali sweets and pastries.

Back around Park Street, men listlessly sit about or sleep under carts, sit at doorways to dark interiors, waiting for the intense heat of the afternoon to pass. Business has slackened a little but the pavement still offers every service you could need. Have a crumpled shirt? The iron wallah will sort with an old heavy iron heated up by a charcoal burner. Men stand ready with the tools of their trade at their feet - extracting wax from your ears, repairing your mobile, cutting your hair, polishing your shoes.

The evening sun floods the rooftops with a golden red glow as it quickly sinks away. Kites soar around the buildings, scouting for prey. Lizards scamper amongst the flower pots. Then in the last flush of daylight, it begins, the first murmur, then a growing sacred chorus rising and drifting across the city. It’s the call to prayer, the mosques summoning the faithful. As the call tails off, the sun sinks behind the horizon on this city of endless contradiction and its ceaseless human parade.

***
Alex Cochrane is based in Glasgow and blogs about exploration, travel, history, historical erotica and other curiosities on his website. You can also follow Alex on Twitter at @alexdcochrane. You can also see more images from his Kolkata walk here.

Passages / Transambulare

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By Anna Evans:

The passage is a city, a world in miniature.
– Walter Benjamin

Our walk back through the city, in the fading light, when everything starts to look different. We take the Metro upwards, with the idea that we can descend back towards the centre via a series of steps marking our route. I am charged with navigating streets unknown to me: guesswork, anticipating the disorienting effects of the darkness. Already, it begins to fold over us, obscuring the paths we take, bending downwards through the lit city streets.

You expect the secrets of the streets to unveil themselves like a map, as if you could look at them from above; but they only come step by step, there is no panoramic view.

It is at this time of day that the city begins to reveal itself. When street lamps are lit, exposing walls and the narrow passageways between buildings. The lights illuminate brightly so that the wall seems cast in yellow stone, and the shadows of overlooked corners steal away to find new hiding places.

The shutters suggest a neglected abandon, broken and crumbling. For a moment I am mesmerised, drawn inwards to claustrophobic interiors, the living darkness; concealment of unspeakable shadow. Echoes of the uncountable possibilities of the concave life of the city.

Out on the streets daytime is retreating, furtively, while the night is lit up like a museum display. Steps leading upwards, and at their base the silent scream of graffiti on walls. Unabashedly colourful, it becomes a mural, taking its place within the narrative of the streets.

As we walk, you identify one of the symbols that mark the famous passageways, the lion’s head, and opening the heavy wooden door we enter, perhaps there is a passage through. At the entrance I take a photograph…

***

It has been a day of wandering streets, drawn into courtyards and entrances, seeking glimpses of interiors, arches and vaulted ceilings. The traboules, the network of passages between buildings, crossing through the streets of old Lyon.

When the city was occupied in the Second World War, Resistance fighters used this system of passageways to evade the Gestapo and as meeting or drop-off points. Perhaps this is why they feel underground in some way, like stumbling upon the unseen and hidden side of the city. An in-between space, they suggest undercover operations, secrets and trespass, a code you have to know about; off the map.

They are a passage through where it looks like there is none.

***

The photograph shows a series of staircases lit up, rising to the top of the building. Railings ascending, the stairwells connect the floors, crossing sides and linking them together. The stairway exposed, ironwork and stone pillars; it is as though one partition, one side of the edifice has been removed, like a doll’s house.

In the photograph, the yellow light is eerie; it accentuates murkiness and incandescence. The ascent of the stairs a gradual slant upwards, shadowy and bending towards the reflected cast of iron railings. Lit up, haunted space. Through the closed door the city continues, spilling its inside into the outside. It is like seeing what usually takes place under cover, behind the walls of the building. Like an undercover car park, subterranean and suggestive. The illusion of mystery; what it looks like when no one is around.

Looking at the photograph, I notice the figure again; remembering how entering the passage had seemed like an intrusion, into a space we thought was empty. In the way that cities have always that possibility of an encounter, in passing by or meeting another, in crossing over. Footsteps following onwards.

In the contrast between bright and dark, the figure both blends in and is exposed. Like a shadow emerging from the walls of the building, ghostlike, and appearing only as the photograph is taken. An apparition. An echo of the light and the shadow. As if the figure is both there and not there.

It is the stillness of the figure that strikes me now. It is as though they have been sitting a long time, on the stairs, outside of laws and history. The lit cigarette, like a pause. The brightness of the light making a silhouette. The smallness of a human figure positioned in space and timeless, against the city streets. A witness to all the hidden and secret encounters, and to everything that might take place in a passageway.

***

Anna Evans is a writer and researcher from Huddersfield in the north of England, currently living in Cambridge. Her interests are in migration and literature, cities and movement, and she completed an MA in ‘Writing the Modern World’ at the University of East Anglia in 2017. She is currently working on a project on the places in Jean Rhys’s fiction.


Imagined Cities: Stories from Berlin and Beyond

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Some familiar faces and new friends are getting together in Berlin on Sunday 5 May for a a literary event at the Sir Savigny Hotel, hosted by Influx Press. Our editor in chief Paul Scraton and contributor to Elsewhere No.01 Gary Budden will be reading, along with Berlin-based writers Donna Stonecipher, Linda Mannheim and Charlotte Wührer.

IMAGINED CITIES: Stories from Berlin and Beyond, is a night of literature exploring urban spaces and how we write them – from the German capital to London and New York – and the event will feature flash fiction, prose poetry, short stories and excerpts from city-based novels. It promises to be a lot of fun and we hope to see our Berlin-based friends there!

Sir Savigny Hotel
Kantstraße 144, Berlin (Google Maps)
7pm – Entry Free
Facebook Event Page


Cities in the rain

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By David Lewis:

Once, in Amsterdam, it rained forever.  Rain spattered the aeroplane window and the strange and beautiful journey to Centraal Station, rain shrouded the Hotel Botel’s solid presence on the swollen Ij river, rain seemed to drain the flat sky of the last of the light.  For three days we woke to the rain outside the cabin, felt a cool rain-wind in our faces on the deck, watched a coot’s nest bobbing in the wake of a passing barge. Rain on the red-brick façade of the railway station, darkening the old walls, rain on the cobbles, rain in the canals, falling softly, unceasingly.  Our days were dominated by water.

We were guided by the memories – not the ghost, for he is still mooching through the rain, still causing trouble - of writer Jeff Young, fresh with Amsterdam stories when I first met him thirty years ago.  From his Amsterdam days I inherited a brown leather jacket and a heavy Dutch butcher’s bicycle, and in my mind’s eye he limps along Herrengracht in his junk shop overcoat, turns a corner, disappears. We drank in his bars, smoked Dutch roll-ups, had coffee in the windows of his brown cafés.  I remember young leaves on the trees along the canals, the endless silver curtain of the rain, soft, gentle, almost apologetic. In the flea market on Waaterloplein I found a battered book, sepia images of the vulnerable doorways and ornate windows that we passed daily, generating a sense of déjà vu, of having known the city in the past.  It gave a watery depth to our walks: we never seemed to be dry. From the Rijksmuseum the old painters reached out to us through the rain, washing the tall counting houses along the great canals in clouds and bright skies, illuminating street conversations with a sunshine we never saw. I remember the Frans Hals canvases in Haarlem, scrubbed puritan faces in blacks and greys, explosive white lace flashes at throat or cuff: outside, the rain-crunch of gravel, the green shine of leaves in a clipped garden, the screaming of swifts falling on us like an unseen cloudburst.

Amsterdam was a sea city on the edge of Europe.  At night we walked home through Centraal station, beneath the great trains silently leaving for Antwerp, Rome, Vienna.  It was city of wet golden distances and black waters, a city of brick streets, cyclists, walkers.  On the evening of our last day we drank in the little hotel bar, a glass box on the deck, the golden lights and blue flags outside smeared by the streams of water.

If we choose, if we are fortunate, places do not leave us.  Liverpool too is a sea city on the edge of Europe and, cycling along old brick streets to city parks and smoky bohemian cafes, I allowed Amsterdam to tint the whole city.  Eventually all Jeff’s gifts continued their journeys without me – the butcher’s bicycle was given to the elderly American in the flat downstairs; beyond repair, the leather jacket was artfully displayed on a dustbin and walked off on its own.  And it was not hard to imagine the city as a water-city, as had once been dreamed; canals and huge industrial channels opening from the Mersey, seeing Liverpool’s old streets as a criss-cross of narrow waterways. Gradually this feeling slipped away, and the old streets felt less watery.  But even today, if I am lucky enough to walk the city in the rain, the belief that Liverpool is a city of ghost canals rises to the surface once again.

***

David Lewis has written five books of history/landscape/psychogeography about his native Liverpool and Merseyside.  He posts urban/rural images on Instagram - davidlewis4168 and mutters about the world on Twitter - @dlewiswriter

Postcard from... the Canal Bank

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By Paul Scraton:

To reach the canal bank the path moves past a stonemasons, where headstones wait in rows for future owners behind a chain link fence, and through a colony of allotment gardens, mostly locked and shuttered for the winter. Gnomes, felled by the last big storm lie on the lawn. Puddles gather in the centre of sagging trampolines. Leaves that fell months ago clog the drainage channels. The courts of the tennis club stand empty, the nets packed away. Grass grows long on the American Football field. Across the Atlantic they are preparing for the Super Bowl. Here, the season is long over.

Past a patch of wasteland of chipped bricks, blackened fire circles and piles of empty spray cans, the path runs alongside the canal now, through a tunnel of overhanging trees. Every so often a road crosses above, taking buses and cars in the direction of the airport. Thousands of people must pass this way each day departing or arriving in the city, but down here by the water is the domain of only a few. Joggers and cyclists. Council workers cleaning up the verges. Dog walkers. The canal itself still takes a barges or two, laden with coal, gravel or scrap metal, but as long as it is not frozen this is a place that belongs to the grey herons and mallards and the rowers with their metronomic strokes and heavy breathes. Their coaches ride ahead on little motorboats, issuing commands through a loudhailer, the only sound competing with the jet engines of the planes as they come into land.

In the summer, with the allotments in full swing and the path part of a major cycling and walking route, the canal bank will be alive with people. Alongside the rowers there will be kayakers on the water. The smell of barbecues and the sound of pop music from the gardens. The ringing of impatient bicycle bells. In the winter it returns to the edgelands. An in-between place. On the opposite bank from the path, smoke rises up from a houseboat in the shadow of a young offenders unit. Workers park their cars in front of steel and glass office blocks serving an airport well past its sell by date. Beyond the high fences, all is quiet and still in the army barracks built for an occupying army that left decades ago.

Places get their character from their surroundings. From the tennis club and the gardens. The proximity of the airport and the still waters of the canal running through the middle of the scene. But they also get it from the weather. From the season of the year. From the time of day. Now, with the rowers out of sight and earshot, everything on the canal bank is calm. Even the planes seemed to have stopped taking off or coming in to land. Winter mist above the water. The sudden movement of a jay, spotted through the trees. A siren in the distance.

A large branch, felled by the storm and not yet dealt with by the council workers, blocks the path. It doesn't matter. This is far enough. It's time to turn back.

Standing on a windy corner of Ku'damm in Autumn

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By Emily Richards:

It is six o'clock in the evening and I am waiting for a bus because I chose to miss the last one. Here at Olivaer Platz in Berlin, as the people run out of their offices to jump on buses, speed across lanes in their shiny black BMWs, or swerve on their bikes through traffic in their anxiety to be home, I am unable to move, mesmerised by this autumn evening.  I have passed through this place, one of the busiest in Berlin, at different times and for different reasons for twenty-five years now. Once it was strange to me. Then, it was home. Now it is strange again.

It is not yet dark but there is a haze upon the air, and some of the street-lamps are already glowing silvery-bright. The autumn light turns from gold to a translucent pallor, tinged with the colours of the red, gold and brown leaves swirling in the wind. The flowers on the corner of the Platz, planted in a gesture of beauty amidst noisy traffic, still grow in green profusion, though a dimness is settling over them as evening falls. They are the first to lose their outlines in the twilight; the first to be overlooked as our faces turn towards clocks, mobile phones, LED displays to see if it's hometime yet, so that the longing which has built in us all day can be released like the tension on a trigger.

But I won't be going home just yet. I'm kept here almost against my will by the fading light, by the faces of Berlin that pass me by one by one and look at me for longer than English faces would, on this evening, two days after the general election. In the election, a radical right-wing party gained over a quarter of the vote in parts of Germany, and thirteen percent overall. I look at each person who walks, ambles or hurries past, and their faces look different to me.

I never noticed how misshapen and worn a human face can look. Sagging skin, stooped shoulders, a grimacing mouth; orange blusher scarring the too-pale face of a middle-aged woman who plunges in uncomfortably high shoes to her next appointment. Her head's skewed around awkwardly to pin her mobile phone to her shoulder as she talks into it, gesturing vaguely, staring at nothing. A tall, elderly woman with thinning brown hair and feet too plump for her old black shoes walks as stiffly as if on stilts, slowly raising each foot high above the pavement before grinding it back down. A younger woman with half-shaved head, dressed entirely in black with wide Cossack-style trousers and Russian boots, walks boldly past, but her clothes are dusty, nearly grey in places. A young man ambles in front of me, dark hair closely gelled to his scalp, eyes glued on the tightly-clad bottom of the young, hard-faced woman ahead of him, whose heavy gait is disconcertingly masculine for someone with such a bleached-blonde ponytail and such conventional make-up. Her double chin sags and the lines around her eyes crease as she swings her head round, shouting into her phone. An old man – but surely he's not much older than I am! – with a loose mouth, a white fringe of hair and a red nose stands for minutes in front of a rubbish bin, staring into it, looking for bottles he can take away and turn into money; then he looks around swiftly, bends to the ground and snatches up a fag-end before swinging away, arms flopping wide and uncontrolled in his badly-fitting beige jacket.

There is a sense of dissolution in the air.

The summer dissolves; the outline of the Ku'damm, of its buildings, buses, lamp-posts and cars, seems to dissolve in the haze of this autumn evening, in the rustle and whisper of the leaves moved by the wind. Before my eyes, the safety I once found here dissolves too. The reassuring, orderly security of these middle-class Germans loses its outline in the dusk, their aspirational Wirtschaftswunderland revealing itself as the illusion I should have known it to be. I did know it, really. But the shared illusion was a comfort, and, as such, transcended its own illusory nature to demonstrate its greater truth: that security, beauty and order all matter, and that those who are denied them or have lost them or mistrust them will turn to more dangerous illusions of their own; for example, that rejecting everything outside your own culture and experience will keep you safe. In this way they remove safety for everyone, not least themselves. For what if one day their fellow voters turn to them and say, "But you had a foreign grandparent did you not? You were once kind to a refugee, we hear." Then you too will be cast out. This is what happens. But by then you'll have done your damage, and it will be too late to be sorry.

Yet nonetheless, on this autumn evening, the wind whispers to me that something is stirring, something is afoot, something is changing. And I prefer this in the end. I prefer it, though I don't know what it is, what it will demand of me, what it will do to me.

And now here is my bus. And like all Berliners I might be foolish enough to miss a bus once, but I won't miss it twice. For who knows when the next one will arrive? Who knows when I'll be home.

You can read more from Emily on her blogs The Castle Captures Me and Boring in Berlin.

Beyond the Camera: Copenhagen

IMAGE: Laura Harker

IMAGE: Laura Harker

By Laura Harker:

The late-November winds blew down Nyhavn, biting my cheeks as I walked between colourful canal-side buildings and small wooden huts selling hot glog wine and sugared treats. Tourists and locals were meandering along the road, enjoying the Christmas markets that just opened a couple of days previously. Following the pavement around to the left, I came to a stop by the Royal Danish Theatre, its high glass walls loomed over the mouth of the canal, and the wooden decking was slippery underfoot. I peered inside and saw huge floor-to-ceiling photographs of stage actors in the theatre’s entryway and spacious café, none of whom I recognised from TV or cinema. This huge theatre also wasn’t something I recognised from the silver screen, and I’d never seen the view in front of me until now. Water in the canal sparkled under the low sun that cast a soft toffee light onto the ripples, a sight that the camera could never truly capture.

I’d only been in Copenhagen for half a day, and already my preconceptions were slipping. Even before I stepped off the plane at Copenhagen Airport, I had an impression of the city firmly in my mind. After being drip-fed information about Scandi-noir crime dramas from newspaper TV columns and mentions of Danish films by heavyweight directors like Susanne Brier and Nicolas Winding Refn in film podcasts, I’d immersed myself in Danish cinema and now wanted to see the city for myself, away from the rose-tinted glare of the camera. Even though I’d never been, I was convinced that the hours spent watching detective Sarah Lund chase suspects around the city in The Killing would be enough to get my bearings.  I’d even watch the city age and develop, going from political liberation in A Royal Affair to the gun-shot scared buildings during the Nazi occupation portrayed in Flame and Citron. Reams of show reel loosely sewed the city’s history, culture and geography together.

It’s impossible not to be influenced by what you see on film; a 90-minute snapshot greatly shapes your preconceptions of a city. James Bond’s London is all cocktail bars and Windsor knots; Amelie’s Paris centres around a bohemian Montmartre made up of quirky bistros; Hollywood shows us the American Midwest as a blur of white picket fences in God-fearing towns. I’d decided that Copenhagen would be chunky knit jumpers, muted Scandinavian tones, and omnipresent hygge.

Right at the end of the film Open Hearts one of the main characters gets in her little red car and drives around the city, the shaky handheld camera and low evening light giving this impromptu tour of Copenhagen a somnambulant atmosphere. As we’re taken around the city, it has a dream-like feel as lights in shop windows twinkle, cyclists and pedestrians are unwittingly caught on film, and the camera flicks across facades of hazy, non-descript buildings. In the run up to my trip, I used this scene as a starting point, recollecting shots from this final scene and weaving them together from scenes I’d watched elsewhere. I imagined walking through the city, through each scene, making note of each notable landmark: the town hall in The Killing; Tivoli Gardens in After the Wedding. Taking my mind along the pastel buildings along Nyhavn Harbour, knowing that the Charlottenborg Palace would soon pop up, and I could turn around and face the white-washed façade of the Noma restaurant across the river. My mind panned like a camera, framing the city in vibrant technicolour.

I told myself I knew the city: I could walk through movies and TV shows, I knew the tone of the city, I just had to follow the leads of directors, actors and film crews. I decided to leave the guidebooks and recommendations from friends at home. But I soon realised that wandering around the city isn’t as simple as flipping a page or cutting between scenes to get to the next attraction. It takes time working your way through a city and getting to all the sites. These slow walks or bustling train journeys always end up on the cutting room floor in the movies.

At the end of my first full day in Copenhagen, I climbed to the top of the Round Tower, looked across the burnt-orange skyline and realised I actually didn’t know this city at well as I’d told myself. This wasn’t going to be the Copenhagen showcased through film and chasing scenes in my head would be pointless; there’s no wide, sweeping shots of the city and there’s no camera that pans out, neatly framing each landmark for you. The nearest you get is staring out the window of the metro of the S-train as they pass underground, behind buildings or through industrial estates. You don’t have anyone telling you where you should look once you’re away from the TV screen. It takes longer to find the attractions if you’re your own editor and narrator, making your way on foot through streets.

I decided to write my own script for Copenhagen after that first day, and took to the streets on foot to explore and experience it for the city it really is, away from the stories told by a fil industry. Walking the streets, my view of the city wasn’t cut short by edited shots or hasty direction. I saw landmarks and buildings I’d seen on screen, but I also found a completely new side to Copenhagen, one that hasn’t had the gazing eye of an audience on it. And it is in these unpublicised, unglamorous areas and neighbourhoods in which the true soul of the city hides, far away from the intrusive gaze of the camera and the editing skills of a post-production team.

Laura Harker is a freelance writer based in North Yorkshire. She blogs at northquarters.com