Benjamuna's Blog

Stories…. with a touch of India….

Rickshaws in Calcutta March 27, 2020

Filed under: INDIA,Travels — benjamuna @ 9:11 am
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The hand pulled rickshaws are undoubtedly part of Calcutta’s (now Kolkata) DNA. They date back to colonial times and have since become an important part of Calcutta’s transportation network. People who has lived a lifetime in Calcutta, might have seem them decline in numbers. But for me, visiting Calcutta for the third time, they seem to be omnipresent, at least in some parts of the city. Pulled by thin and sinew men in checked lungis, they seem to belong more than anything else. According to a website (indianeagle), Kolkata does currently have 18,000 rickshaw pullers and 6000 rickshaws. Not all of them are licensed by the municipality.

I have been told many stories – and read them as well: The hand pulled rickshaws are slowly disappearing. Human Right’s organisations would like to ban them, for obvious reasons. The city itself would like to put a stop to them because it doesn’t look good. In a modern world, it reminds us of slavery. I have been told that rickshaw wallahs have been given a right to continue their trade until old age, or until they for other reasons are not able to work, or pass away.
But a rickshaw wallah may pass on his vehicle to his son (no women in the picture here), or other male family members, or sell it. And who would come to know, in this big and seemingly chaotic city? And should the authorities ask questions, a wad of rupees might easily solve the problem. On the other hand, people are getting more educated these days, and only those in need, or with no other option will resolve to the trade.

It can’t be denied that a hand pulled rickshaw is a practical vehicle, especially when the streets of Calcutta are flooded during the monsoon. Moreover, they work like hand in glove in the narrow lanes and alleys, – and those are many in parts of Calcutta. The rickshaws deliver goods from one place to the other, carry children to schools and take them back to homes, and carry women to nearby local markets.
The rickshaw seems like an efficient solution, because the traffic is tough in Calcutta. The iconic yellow taxis very often refuse to take passengers, for reasons I cannot fathom (other than that they earn enough, or they think it too troublesome to go certain places at certain times of the day).

Beautifully hand-painted rickshaws at Park Circus, Calcutta.

I have never seen a single (white) tourist being transported by a hand pulled rickshaw, although it must certainly happen from time to time. I have debated with myself whether I should try it out, or not. After all, being a rickshaw wallah is a job like any other and should be respected. And the rickshaw wallahs are often immigrants, hailing from poor, neighbouring states like Bihar and Odisha. So why shouldn’t I support them, instead of the lazy taxi drivers? But somehow, I can’t see myself perching on the seat of a rickshaw, but it might just be a wonderful way to experience the streets of Calcutta.

Goods are also transported by the hand pulled rickshaws.
Children are taken to school.

Unfamiliar with Calcutta, one might easily condemn the hand pulled rickshaws. But once there, all the men plying the streets of Calcutta pulling rickshaws and carts, or running through the streets carrying enormous loads of goods on their heads, they all seem to belong, and I can’t imagine Calcutta without them. Whether it is right or wrong, it’s not for me to judge in this piece of writing.

Peace, on a busy Calcutta street …
A common sight on the streets of Calcutta.
 

A chance meeting in Calcutta March 10, 2020

Filed under: INDIA,Travels — benjamuna @ 7:51 am
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Whenever I get a new guide book, I look up the shopping section and search for book shops. As was also the case when I opened my new ’Made in Kolkata’ and found Earthcare Books. Located only a short walk off Park Street, the shop was an easy find on Middelton street. I walked into a courtyard and found the shop behind a cafe.

        Earthcare Books is small and just the kind of bookstore I love, it also has a section for gifts and cards. But what caught my attention was the black and white postcards and prints by Irish photographer Thomas Patrick Kiernan. The photographs were taken on the streets of Calcutta and in some other cities in India; the motifs well known, but captured beautifully.

        Having singled out a few books for a maybe-later-buy, and picked a few postcards, I asked the man behind the desk for the price of the prints. “10 000 rupees he said,” which struck me as steep and too much for an impulsive buy.

        I returned to the shop three days later. When I entered the courtyard, I noticed a man, obviously European, sitting outside the bookshop. We greeted briefly, and I entered the shop. I didn’t waste any time, I once more asked the same young man about the price (I could always have misheard him three days earlier), and he confirmed the 10 000 rupees. As my home-stay doubles as an art gallery, I had consulted my host and knew what I had to ask: Did the prints have an edition?
        “No, they don’t,” a voice behind me said. It was the man outside the shop, he must have overheard the conversation and instinctively I knew he was the photographer – which he confirmed. I immediately felt ashamed about complaining about the price, and he must have understood, because he said, «You have any right to question the price.»
        And then he went on to explain that if he numbered the prints, he would never be able to guarantee that no more prints would be made. So, better not. He invited me to sit down, and the conversation lasted for the next hour. He told me he was using old fashioned film and even in India it’s expensive to buy and develop.  The paper was of a very high quality and thus expensive. «On that, I don’t budge, but it makes the prints more expensive», he said.

        He offered me chai, and went out to fetch it. When the small clay cup was placed in front of me, I asked him about his camera. He picked up a small Olympus up from his bag, looking vintage – after all it’s not digital, and told me he’s always using a 50 mm fixed lens. I’m not surprised. There seems to be two kinds of photographers, especially those concerned with street photography: Those with a bag full of lenses, ready to cater for any situation. And those swearing to a fixed lens.

Kiernan claims it’s less than ten copies in circulation of this particular print, I got the last. “It might become valuable,”, he smiled.

I asked him to convince me to buy The Clock, the print I had singled out, but he wouldn’t. “I’m no business man, I don’t really care if I sell my work or not.” A remark he immediately seemed to regret; I don’t think it was his intention to degrade his potential buyer.

        He told me he couldn’t stay in Calcutta, or India for that matter, for more than a few months at a time, it was too much of … everything. He would go back to Ireland and do odd jobs, like gardening, but he had some money and could live a relatively comfortable life. An old Nokia phone by his side told me his needs weren’t too extravagant, and web pages and social media had absolutely no place in his life.

        “Street photography in Europe is boring,” he said. “I have tried, but it came to nothing.” And we agreed that India is quite the opposite, overflowing with all kind of craze. He picked up some of the postcards I had chosen, and added, “These photos from the 90’s can’t be reproduced today. Calcutta is changing, and so is India.”

        He told me how he worked, how he never planned or staged anything, and yet, his compositions are not always accidental, he showed me several of his photos with a ‘twin motif’ and only a gifted photographer would able to put his ideas into action like that. “I shan’t deny that I’m influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson,” he said, and picked up some of the French photographer’s books to show me.

        Now, he is slightly adopting a new style, and opened a mock-up of his new book, his previous book sadly out of print a long time ago. And that convinced me; the last copy of The Clock – leaning on a shelf above the entrance door, had to be mine. I would have to let go of the frame though; it would never fit into my carry-on which was all the luggage I had.

I happily walked out with the small tube containing the print, crossed the street, hurried up Little Russel Street, crossed Ho Chi Minh Street and entered into the noisy Shakespeare Sarani. I knew the by heart now and I’d probably visit again once back in Calcutta.

 

Asalpha: Chal Rang De! February 22, 2020

Filed under: INDIA,Travels — benjamuna @ 4:37 pm
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We catch a local train at Churchgate station in Mumbai. I brace myself for a long journey because going places in a megalopolis often includes a tiresome pre-journey. Right now, we’re heading towards the airport to visit the Asalpha settlement. Viren, my guide, has a nose for the unexpected and from what I have googled, I’m in for a different experience!

When in Rome, we do as the … in this case Mumbaikars do. Sitting down is not an option, Viren persuades, claiming standing in the doorway is part of the ultimate Mumbai experience. Rolling northwards with my hair in a flutter of panic, the movement of the train, accompanied by Viren’s steady voice-over, eventually eases my mind.

We get off at Andheri (the ultimate Mumbai experience tells me to jump off the train while moving) and head for the metro station. It is surprisingly empty, no hustle and bustle as we walk undisturbed through the barriers, and hit the stairs. When the train glides onto the platform, we put one foot in front of the other and board in a civilised manner.
“Welcome to Europe,” Viren chimes. And yes, the metro coach is clean and cool, and we realise that a seat-row meant for four will not be occupied by six.

After this short and blissful journey, we reach the Ghatkopar suburb and Asalpha is close by now; placed on a hillock, we get a good view of it from the metro station. It’s a colourful sight, but either the paint has faded, or the photos and footage on You Tube have been heavily Photoshopped; a lot many photographers must have hit the hue and saturation buttons hard. Still, the rainbow-coloured settlement stands out from the monotonous browns and greys marking any other settlement or basti I have seen.


According to a website, the Asalpha hillock came alive with colours over a weekend in 2018. A group of 750 volunteers came together to paint walls and create murals. All thanks to a woman who – on her way to work – watched the area from the train every day, and the idea hit her: Chal Rang De (Let’s paint it).
       

We are about to start our ascent when I spot a meticulously painted wrought iron gate. Before I’ve had a chance to get my camera ready, a woman comes into sight, as if she’s behind bars – but some bars!  She probably greets more than one tourist in a day; soon she and Viren are engaged in animated talk which I’m not able to follow.

This is promising, I’m thinking, and soon trot along accompanied by Viren’s voice-over. Due to heavy morning rain our excursion has become a mid-day tour, but the ground is still slippery and this is definitely a watch-your-step-experience. At the same time I’m manoeuvring two cameras, a water bottle and a camera rucksack which most probably will end up on Viren’s back.

I have always been intrigued by the colours of India, be it the colourful and bright female clothing or pastel-coloured houses. The winding roads, or paths, rather, going uphill are lined with pink, turquoise, yellow, light blue and green little dwellings. Some house small trades, like the one we peep into where a man is busy ironing. And who knows what else is hidden behind all the doors? We spot at least one beauty salon. Money has always been made just about everywhere in India.

Viren must have researched the area well, because a maze of alleyways lead to the top. We’re taking right and left turns in a steady attack of the liveliest part of the colour range. It’s not only people’s homes that liven up the area; water barrels, buckets, water hoses, and of course – the unavoidable blue tarpaulins. There are splashes of colours everywhere and – it goes without saying – the people of Asalpha (and their washing on omnipresent clotheslines), are no less colourful. Asalpha is also known for its murals, or street art, and it makes the climb all the more fun.

Children are running around the lanes, but space is restricted. There are no open or green areas, the lanes a steady uphill (or downhill). In a doorway, a mother picks lice from her daughter’s hair, ten-year-old brazen boys flash smiles with impeccable white teeth, little girls hide behind their mother’s saris; everyday life in a basti.

“Asalpha isn’t really a slum,” Viren claims. And poverty is not what springs to mind as we’re nearing the summit slightly out of breath in the humid environment. But India’s general wear and tear is visible everywhere.

Having reached the very top, we sit down at a wall that doubles as a bench. Facing the opposite direction, I realise how colourful Asalpha is. The settlement on the other side of the metro line is an amalgamation of brown and grey save for the blue tarpaulins doing their best to add some colour to the gloomy landscape. With the airport so close, we’re lost in the fascination of the steady flow of descending jets. They seem to plunge right into the Andheri slums that almost border the runway of Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport.

We meander downhill and Viren choses another route. New murals come into sight, they range from graphic to childlike, psychedelic even, generous women with children allow us to take their pictures and if colours could smell I’d be completely intoxicated after such an adventure.

I was at Asalpha in September 2019 with the Zamorin of Bombay.

 

A Mumbai morning toilet January 28, 2020

Filed under: INDIA,Travels — benjamuna @ 5:41 am
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The stalls along Colaba Causeway had not yet opened, I could walk undisturbed and in long strides. It would take me around fifteen minutes from my hotel to Cafe Mondegar, where I was going to meet a friend. A couple of hours later, and I would have to force myself through throngs of tourists and the whispers of «Shawls, Madam, Pashmina, silk …»

        When I reached the café, I was early, but I didn’t want to walk any further just to kill time. It was already hot and clammy and I decided to hang around in the shade in case Sanjay was early. Of course, that would never happen. Sanjay would have to take a three-wheeler to his local train station in Dadar, get off the train at Churchgate, and then come by taxi to Colaba, the southern tip of Mumbai. All sorts of delays could happen and I didn’t expect him even to be on time.

        My eyes fell on the old woman on a chair only a few metres away from me. I had seen her from the corner of my eye when I passed her, now I noticed to my astonishment that she was naked. She sat with her back towards the street, but the pavement was lined with stalls. Nobody could see her from the street, but she was visible for everybody walking up and down the pavement.
       

The woman might be in her 70s. In India, old people often look much older than their age because of the wear and tear of the country itself – at least those of the lower classes. Her head was bent and her back crooked, as if she was sheltering herself with her body. I caught a glimpse of one of her breasts; long and skinny and no longer bearing any resemblance to a female breast. I felt a lump in my throat and turned away.
        When I looked at her again, a man had appeared with a small bucket and was pouring water over her body. I was simply witnessing her morning toilet. But why outside and so unprotected?
      

I wondered if he was her husband or perhaps her son. It was difficult to judge the man’s age as well. He kept pouring water over her haggard, wrinkled body. Her hair was grey, and sprouted in every direction. I wondered how this could take place in the middle of Colaba; one of the finer parts of Mumbai and more than anywhere else a melting pot of all kinds of tourists, with a mixture of street markets, elegant government shops, famous street food and up-scale restaurants.
       Of course, I knew that in a megalopolis like Mumbai, people are – all over the city – born on the street, and they die there. In between, life takes many miserable shapes.
        It must be her son, I thought, watching them openly. I fidgeted with my camera, fighting the urge to take a picture. I wanted to show friends at home how pitiful life can be. But I held back.
      
       The man had put a grey towel around the woman’s shoulders. He was talking to her in a loud and coarse voice, and I tensed and wished I knew Marathi. Maybe he wasn’t shouting at her, maybe her hearing was bad and he needed to raise his voice. I looked at the way he was drying her; did he go gentle on her? How I hoped his hands felt caring on her body.
        I thought about my own mother at 89. Her bathroom seemed like an operating theatre in comparison. Oh, that lump in the throat again, I had to turn away and walk, but just a few steps. With shame, I hoped Sanjay would appear with his enthusiastic grin, we would hug and walk up the stairs at Café Mondegar and escape into the world of Art Deco furniture and Americano coffees.
       

The man left the towel around the woman’s shoulders. I wondered if he was the owner of one of the stalls. They wouldn’t open until around eleven, so there was more than an hour left. He was sweeping the pavement, he might be getting ready to open.
        The woman sat still as the man busied himself with this and that. Suddenly, the pavement was completely empty, and the man had his back to me, so I lifted the camera and snatched a photo. Instinct, I thought shamefacedly, and hoped the photo would be blurred and useless.
        The man reappeared with a pink dress. He removed the towel and for a few seconds the woman was again naked. Then she raised her hands and he started to help her on with the dress. It looked like a nightgown, but it was a long, loose dress. It must feel comfortable, I thought, as if to justify the pitiful sight. When her arms were through, she collected her hair in a bun on the top of her head. It took a while to get the dress on, her body seeming frail and stiff.
        The man looked around, and there came another man hurrying towards them with whom he exchanged a few words. The two men helped the woman to her feet, and led her across the pavement, only a few steps towards another chair. She is not able to walk, I thought. I wish he had asked me for help, I would have liked to give her a hand. But he would never do that, I wasn’t part of their story. Hours later, I found myself at the same corner. I had come back to buy some bangles, and had no choice but to force my way down the now jammed pavement. The woman was still sitting on the chair, her back still crooked, her head slanting upwards and for a second I thought I met her gaze. I wondered if she was still naked under her dress, if she sat there all day without panties. The thought was unbearable.
       

I didn’t believe she was homeless, not even poor, but many moons away from an existence I would call decent. Maybe a chair on a busy pavement was more of a life than a tiny room with a whirring fan as the only companion.
        I decided to look for her the next time I set foot in Mumbai. She had already become a part of my Mumbai DNA. She had rightfully claimed a place in that pocket of my brain where I kept the stories that broke my heart.

 

 

At Mullick Ghat March 28, 2019

Jumping off the bus that took us to Howrah Bridge, I didn’t know that Calcutta was about to attack my senses. The Mullick Ghat wholesale flower market swallowed us into its odorous frantic belly, and held us in a firm grip until it was time to leave.

We first entered via a narrow footbridge where people – mostly men – were brushing past in both directions; fast and furious, shouting unknown words. There was no gallantry, only a determined rush! So big was the shock that when a faceless man grabbed me – not by the pussy to quote ‘the boss’ of America – but somewhere else one doesn’t like to be grabbed by a stranger, I didn’t raise even a mental brow. The act seemed to belong to the show. I sped forward and grabbed Soham, my guide, by his shirt telling him not to let me out of sight.

Go with the flow, I reassured myself. I was pushed and squeezed from side to side, back and forth, as I made an effort to cross the bridge unharmed. Then we hit the ground and ducked into a maze of alleyways. There was a continuous movement of men speeding through the market, some with flowers on their heads, or on their shoulders, it was like a rough sea. I embraced my bag; what if somebody stole my money, my cell phone – or grabbed my camera. But they wouldn’t have time for that, would they? f

The vendors sat mostly on the ground, some on a dais. It struck me that they looked like birds in nests of flowers. I pointed my camera this way and that, but I felt in the way, I was disturbing somebody’s working day. My photos got blurry because of all the locomotion and every second time I pressed the shutter somebody walked into my picture; they became cluttered with odd limbs and half faces. My strategy is all wrong, I thought.

The early morning had felt so cool and fresh when Soham and I had crossed the Maidan from where we jumped on the bus, now it was hot and humid. “Mind the mud,” he warned and stepped aside in front of me. I hadn’t noticed, but now felt my sandals slip continuously as we meandered past the many-coloured flowers of species I couldn’t always name.

We entered another vantage point to watch the spectacle from above. The millions of orange and yellow marigolds shone towards us, from enormous sacks on the ground or from vendors’ heads. The garlands were slung over their backs like a bunch of snakes, those on the path looked like sparkling coils. In between, shreds of newspaper littered what was left of open space.

Suddenly, a big truck rumbled into the area. In slow motion, the crowd parted and gave way to the intruder who claimed its right and no one seemed to blame him. The truck looked like an enormous animal from a bygone time amongst the people and the flowers which now looked small from above.
“You might think it is all chaos,” said Soham, “but it’s not. Every one knows their place, what to do and where to go.”
        I did believe him.


We left the market and walked into open space, to the beach below the iconic Howrah Bridge where we watched more work in progress, although in a slower motion. Men, and now also women, stuffed big sacks with leaves. Up on the bridge, I could see people walking on the footpath, millions a day, I had read somewhere. My eyes eventually rested on Hooghly river, its traffic had just about come to life.

It was the most amazing start of the day!

#calcuttacapsule

https://bestwalksofkolkata.wixsite.com/calcuttacapsule

 

A streetcar named Desire (or A troubled tram) February 3, 2018

Filed under: Travels — benjamuna @ 3:33 pm
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They brighten up the postcard racks in the streets of Lisbon; the many cards of the egg yolk coloured Tram No. 28. Always captured in beautiful morning or evening light while meandering the narrow streets of Alfama. The yellow tram has become the very symbol of Lisbon, and blends perfectly with the charming cityscape of narrow cobblestoned streets, beautiful tiles and flapping laundry.
If you walk along the tram tracks from Alfama to Bairro Alto, you’ll meet ‘No. 28’ sooner more than later. Sadly, most of the Lisbon trams are almost covered with advertising and not as dazzling yellow as shown on the cards. For a long time, Jameson’s whiskey came to mind whenever I thought of Lisbon.

The trams of Lisbon were imported from the United States in 1901 in order to replace the old carthorses. The route 28 was inaugurated in 1914. In 1959, there were altogether 27 tram lines in Lisbon, but the construction of the metro and the expansion of the bus lines eventually sent the trams into decline. Today, Lisbon has five remaining tramlines.


No. 28 is meant to be the jewel of Lisbon’s streets. It takes the passengers on a 40-minute ride through old neighbourhoods such as Graça, Alfama and Baixa, along many historical highlights, including the cathedral and the castle. At the same time, it’s part of the city’s public transport network, but may seem as transportation for the city’s many tourists only. Whenever you catch a glimpse of it, it seems to burst and the passengers do not look like ordinary residents. They have rucksacks on their backs and a camera on their fronts, they fan themselves with maps and keep travel books tightly under their arms. Nobody pretends to be anything but what they are; a tourist who does what the travel guides claims to be “an absolute must.” Passengers are hardly on their way from A to B, it is the journey itself that matters.

And yes, the journey has a certain charm. The tram is coughing and creeping slowly up the steep slopes. And when you thought it was full, it still halts at every stop where an expectant cluster of Japanese, French or Danes are more than ready to squeeze in. So when you stand there like a herring in a barrel, more passengers pour in. And nobody gets off …

Those who have been lucky enough to get a seat can make the most of it since they don’t have to worry about losing their balance. The large windows are mostly open, a virtue of necessity since the air is thick, but the open windows also give the passengers some photo opportunities. With cameras at arm’s lengths, they capture the view as the tram harks up and down the narrow streets. Surely, they must also be capturing other tourists doing exactly the same but in reverse; taking pictures of the brimming No. 28 from the sidewalk.

Lisbon has numerous beautiful tiled facades, often including flapping laundry …

It is a dark and quiet evening, the rainfall makes the air a little cool. Tired, we’re waiting for No. 28, a tram seemingly without a fixed timetable, but supposed to run every ten minutes. And then, after the longest wait, we can hear it in the distance. There, it slips around the bend just before the small hill and wearily creeps towards us. We triumph, now we’ll sit all the way up to Graca and enjoy a quiet ride home. At this hour, the tram is bound to be empty. It was not!

What could possibly Lisbon and Calcutta in far-away India have in common?
Lisbon is not the only city with an egg yolk colored vehicle running up and down the streets:

https://benjamuna.com/2017/03/19/the-colour-of-calcutta/

From my room with a view!