Sunrise to sunset: walking Kolkata

P1020413 black and white.jpg

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.

P1020511-01.jpeg

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.

Waiting Rooms by Samantha Whates - Part I: Dunoon

Dunoon3.png

Singer and songwriter Samantha Whates is writing and recording her forthcoming album entirely on location in a series of waiting rooms, some active, some abandoned, trains, buses, hospitals, ferries, care homes. The album will address themes of loss and waiting, of transition and of time passing in transient spaces.

The first recording took place in Dunoon in Scotland, a stunning Victorian ferry waiting room on the inner Hebridean island; the second was overnight in an art deco waiting room at one end of ta tube line, as empty trains rolled in and out; the third took place in Great Ormond Street Hospital with a full band in the public waiting room on a busy Sunday.

Dylan White, who is working with Samantha on the project will be writing a series of posts for the Elsewhere blog from the different locations of the recording sessions. First up, Dunoon on the Isle of Bute:

Dunoon2.jpg

We're all waiting. Everybody waits. Hospitals. Train stations. Airports. Life itself is a waiting room. In writing and recording her new album entirely in waiting rooms Samantha Whates has tapped into something vital, universal, and as the country creaks and lurches towards who knows what, something urgent and essential.

I set off with Samantha to scope out a former ferry terminal waiting room on a Victorian pier in Dunoon on the Isle of Bute. Gulls swooped and circled as we loitered, ourselves waiting for the harbourmaster to arrive and let us through the padlocked gates. Just as we began to worry we had the wrong day a member of the crew arrived, all hi-vis and friendly bustle. As he led us out over the gangplanks towards the turrets and timbers of this strikingly restored space, Ian regaled us with tales of the great paddle steamers that would ferry Glaswegian holiday makers across the Firth of Clyde from the 1800's right up until the 60's, and tales of the wild Saturday night parties he'd DJ at here in the 80's. Only afterward I learned this town had a US nuclear submarine base around that time, it's location a faintly obscure Harvey Keitel movie, and imagine raucous squaddies quarreling on these boardwalks. With the fall of the Soviet Union the navy moved on, the base closed and along with much of this little town these rooms fell into disrepair and ruin, awaiting its next chapter.

Recently refurbished and completely renovated into its new incarnation as a local community centre and civic attraction, the freshly painted walls sing back at us with reverb and history as Samantha tests the sound of this space.

Ian leaves us to it to check the fittings and the sockets and the practical repercussions of using this place as a recording location. Beyond accessibility and acoustics, the navigation of bespoke bureaucracy and email tennis, one of the challenges facing Samantha is sheer logistics: aligning the calendars and itineraries of geographically disparate musicians and their instruments into remote locations.

Dunoon1.jpg

"One of the songs we recorded here Sailors has been arranged for Shruti - Lute - Voice. We went on the Ferry from just outside Glasgow with all our recording gear and instruments including a double bass! It felt so in keeping with the songs we choose to record there - something about the journey on the ferry looking out to the water and seeing the pier appearing in the distance. Knowing it was the first recording - I really got into the feeling of the start of the journey. Where all these songs came from. Something about putting the songs back to the source of where they were written - the sentiment and emotions felt through the subject of these songs feels so much clearer when you're on your way to these rooms to go back to that feeling and record them...."

I'm researching and drawing these buildings as part of my involvement in this project, but right now I just loiter and listen, looking out at the circling gulls over the grey waters beyond as the lilting sound of Samantha's guitar and voice stirs life and warmth back to these old rooms, summoning the ghosts of holidays, labourers, sailors and fisherman who've watched these same waters from this spot for the past hundred and fifty years or more, waiting for a bite, a sign, a passing moment.

My reverie is curtailed by Ian's sudden return. "I'm sorry to cut you off I gotta deal with that boat."

And we are hustled back out into the world as he runs to greet the next ferry's arrival. This is a port and he's on shift.

Time and tide wait for no one.

Watch a film about Waiting Rooms from Julius Beltrame, a filmmaker and photographer with an eye for place, architecture and the arts:

We are looking forward to more blogs from Dylan as the project progresses. In the meantime, if you would like to support Samantha as she goes along you can make a pledge in return for different goodies via her pledgemusic page.

Dylan White’s website / twitter
Samantha Whates on twitter