Benjamuna's Blog

Stories…. with a touch of India….

Books, books, books on College Street April 2, 2020

Many moons ago, I attended a talk about India by a travel journalist. I recently came across my notes, and among other things I had jotted down was: NB! Calcutta, College Street. When I planned my first visit to Calcutta three years ago, College Street – known to be the largest second-hand book sale in Asia or the world for that matter (statistics vary) – was high on my agenda.

College Street is rightly a street, but putting all the nearby book-ish lanes and alleys together, it becomes an area. Here you’ll find the city’s most prestigious and renowned academic institutions like University of Calcutta, Calcutta Medical College, Presidency College, Sanskrit College, Hare School and Hindu School. Not surprisingly then, the many stalls and shops sell text books and students can be seen roaming the area. In fact, text books seem to be predominantly.

I haven’t actively searched for novels on College Street, but from the many hand painted signs literary work seems to be less available. From what I’ve read, it hasn’t always been like this, but India now has Amazon and Flipkart, and people are turning to their computers here as elsewhere. Although I’m pretty sure those intent of finding that rare, long sought-after book on College Street will be able to, either by luck or hard work.
Because books are more than plenty in ‘Boi Para’; the Book Town. And that is of course an understatement … Uncountable, I’d say, at the same time I guess every stall and shop-owner has a reasonable idea about his stock.

If you’re not hunting for that special book, there are still plenty of reasons to visit College Street, like for instance the mere sight of the area. What intrigues me more than the number of books, is the various stalls; how they come in many sizes and shapes, made of different materials. Always with a man (yes, this is yet another man’s world) peeping out of an opening; small or large, made to measure, hand in glove – some not wasting a centimetre and stack their books so that their face is just about visible. What more do you need to sell a book anyway?

Some stalls are just a cupboard, others seem to be literary made of books – more spacious ones occur. And there are of course ordinary shops among the stalls, many of them highly reputable, dating years back, like Dasgupta established in 1886. College Street is also home to important publishing houses. Some of the shops have beautifully fitted furniture and a feeling of awe is never far away. Or perhaps it is fear; that all this will be lost to a modern e-world.

What I also love about College Street, is the hand painted signs (found all over the city for that matter). I haven’t seen a single neon-lit sign, only beautiful lettering. Signs may be worn and grimy, looking rather poor as it is, but they belong to the city’s rough surface.

A must-visit on College Street is the Indian Coffee House. It’s a renowned intellectual and literary hub, proud to have once welcomed Rabindranath Tagore, Subhas Chandra Bose, Satyajit Ray and many more. One might go there to admire the waiter’s fancy hats and the retro environment, but coffee is definitely better elsewhere. I couldn’t resist paying a short visit to TripAdvisor, and it’s obvious that many visitors (based on their grumpy coments) expect something entirely different than they get. In many ways I’m glad the place seems not to have lost its eccentricity and ended up a slick tourist destination. Maybe the coffee house is best left to the native people of Calcutta and their adda.

College Street is a fascinating jumble of book stalls, food stalls, people – and among the buses, cars, carts and rickshaws I spotted a flock of goats being herded down College Street – just to complete the picture!

 

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 way by heart now and I’d probably visit again once back in Calcutta.

 

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

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