First week in India –
Today (04.06.19) marks a week since I touched down in India.
I landed in Kolkata and stayed for a few days there, before travelling north to
Kalimpong where I have been since Saturday morning. Below I’ll describe my time
in Kolkata, the journey up to Kalimpong and my first impressions of the
‘hillock assemblage’ which gives Kalimpong its name.
Kolkata – Feels like
My first few days were spent at fellow SHEAR SSC student and my office neighbour Shreyasi’s uncle’s place in Salt Lake, Kolkata. I was made very welcome here by my host — hereby referred to as Mama (uncle in Hindi/Bengali) and his maid — who fed me lots of delicious food and gave me refreshing drinks whenever I spent longer than 5 minutes outside! I kicked off my stay with a nice bucket bath as the water which would come through the shower would be ‘far too hot’ apparently. This I can imagine, as it was approaching 11am and a very sticky 35°C plus— so pouring cool water over myself in this heat and after a long journey was just what I needed! It does seem a little dull to continue to carry on about the heat, but it really was unlike anything I’d really experienced before and characterised my stay in Kolkata in many ways.
The apartment I stayed in had a number of fans and A/C, so it was possible benefit from this during the near 30°C nights and the hot afternoons spent watching the Cricket World Cup, sleeping off the jet lag and/or escaping the hottest time of the day. Whenever you turned the A/C off, you could feel the hot and humid air sweeping back in and hanging in the air. Mama said he would normally have suggested that I take a cab to the centre of Kolkata and explore around there, but said that given the temperature and the fact that I’m not used to it, it would not be a good idea as I would just start to feel ill/tired. Even he said that he was finding the conditions unbearable, and that he’d lived here over 20 years! That afternoon I took a short walk to a nearby ATM and shop. When I came back, I think the maid got a fright on seeing my sweaty face! A few minutes later there was a knock at my bedroom door, and I was given a glass of water mixed with lime juice and salt to rehydrate. After a lie down in my A/C’d room, I agreed that exploring the city would have to wait! It seemed that we weren’t alone in abandoning outdoor pursuits in the day-time.
The food I ate in Kolkata is a real highlight. For breakfast
we had a selection of fruits and sometimes toast. The fruit was amazing, with a
special mention to the mangoes. I had never really been the biggest fan of mangoes,
but the ones we get in the UK are really incomparable to the ones here! For
lunch I was pretty spoiled. Most days we had rice, dhal, mixed veg, fish curry
and some fried vegetables (see pic). In the evenings, Mama, his friend and I
would go out somewhere of their choosing for dinner and a coffee in their favourite
coffee house — coffee houses in Kolkata were open late and acted in the same
way as pubs might in the UK. We visited a vegetarian Indian restaurant, a
Western/Indian hybrid restaurant and a Chinese restaurant — the oldest in Salt
Lake apparently. Both Mama and his friend were great company and had lots of
stories to tell. I really enjoyed my first few evenings in Kolkata — two of
which were finished with some nice cold beers back in the apartment. Mama drove
me around the city a bit as he could tell I was getting a little bored sitting
in the apartment — so I saw a bit of the city from the car. This included Eden
Park cricket ground, the Victoria Memorial, a number of the famous old colonial
buildings, the racecourse and the city more generally. I hope to return and
explore more of the city sometime soon.
Fellow SHEAR student and office neighbour Shreyasi has helped me a lot in the organisation of my trip, and it was her uncle who I stayed with. She was surprised(!) to hear that 3-weeks before my departure I had still not booked my train from Kolkata towards my field site! We booked immediately but were only able to secure a place on a waiting list for a train. I was 30th on the list and had a 60% chance of getting a spot — so we gambled. I should also say that we tried to get me a seat on the ‘foreign tourist quota’ as these were available. I could explain at length the reasons why this wasn’t possible, but it really is horribly complicated and rather dull. I think this can be said for the booking system in general! The short story is that I didn’t get the seat and had to stay in Kolkata an extra night. Luckily Mama was happy to host me, and I was able to rearrange with the people I was meeting at the destination. I was to take the ‘Uttar Banga Express’ from Sealdah (Kolkata) to New Jalpaiguri — departing 19:35 Friday and arriving at 6:50am Saturday. From NJP I would be picked up in a taxi and driven the 2.5 hour journey up to Kalimpong.
I gave myself plenty of time to get to Sealdah given that I was travelling around rush hour. I took an Uber there, and the driver took what appeared to a short-cut through what was basically a slum. I had been staying in a nice area of Kolkata, so it was quite a sobering experience to see the inequality in the city. In India particularly, the scale of these issues appears quite overwhelming. It is a reflection of the inequality we see the world over, amplified by the sheer size of India and its surging population, economy and ambitions. Inequality is one of a host of problems associated with India’s current approach to politics and economics — mirrored by the processes we see the world over. I feel that my time here will involve a lot of acknowledging the scale of such problems and largely admitting that there are no easy solutions.
I found the platform with surprising ease and guessed that the station-end was where the standard seats would be as it was extremely crowded at this end. I carried on walking along the very long platform and the crowd thinned out. A man with a spare seat beside him signaled for me to sit down next to him — I think I had looked at it sheepishly! I sat down and waited, as there was still nearly an hour until the train was due to depart. When the train pulled up, I found my 2nd class A/C carriage — A1 — a bit further down the platform from my seat and got on. I found my ‘berth’ with some help and threw my bags on my top bunk bed. I sat down opposite my bed and got talking to one man who was visiting Sikkim with his family who were all around my area. He had to go to another carriage though and I was left just relaxing in a nearby seat. We arrived at another station in Kolkata where a lot more people got on. A family had all the seats in the side compartment area where I was sitting. There was a bit of confusion as we rearranged bags and clarified our berths. The family invited me to sit with them and I ended up chatting with the younger members of the family, 2 boys and 1 girl who I guessed were all around my age as they were all university students or recent graduates. They spoke excellent English and we discussed a huge array of topics. There were 2 engineering students; the girl who had recently secured a job with Tata working on a software development project outsourced by BT; and the guy who had just finished his studies and was working on finding a job and/or developing a start-up. We discussed his many ideas and the discussion of BT sparked a discussion between private and state-run public services. We covered a huge amount of ground and were somehow discussing the English civil war — dominated by the other person studying history! At this point their mother/aunt interrupted us and asked if I had my dinner. I had been given some vegetable curry and roti by Mama’s maid, so I said I had. Nonetheless she asked me to sit and eat with them. I was quite surprised to see the amount of food they had brought! They had lots of stacked metal containers with all sorts of food — a real feast which they then offered to me! They gave me paneer curry, kedgeree with soy meat, some kind of chilli/chutney, roti and an Indian sweet — all of which I gladly took! I was offered more portions but had to politely refuse on the grounds that I was absolutely stuffed! After dinner I continued chatting with the rest of the family before we decided that it was getting late and we should go to sleep. They were travelling to the terminus at Cooch Behar and then travelling to Bhutan for a holiday — which they described as being viewed by Indians as just another state of India — so I wouldn’t see them again as I would be off before they woke up. I thanked them for the food and the company, made my bed and then clambered up and folded myself into the comfiest position possible. I really enjoyed this experience and felt justified in my choice to take the train instead of flying to an airport near my destination. I feel the conversation with my peers really confirmed the theory that India is set to dominate global affairs in future. This generation of Indians is well educated, tech-savvy and very ambitious!
It had taken me a while to sleep but the motion of the train
was quite sleep-inducing so I got a good 5 hours or so. My alarm went off at
6:15 for my 6:50 stop. After a while I jumped down and grabbed my bag from
under the bed of one of the people I was chatting to the night before, put my
shoes on and threw my bag on my bed. I then sat down on the bed/seat below my
bed and was told by the person I spoke to at first that we had been delayed
overnight and would be arriving about an hour and a half late! I wasn’t going
to go back to sleep now so it was just a matter of waiting and chatting to the
person next to me. We eventually arrived at NJP just before 9am. A lot of
people got off here as it is the main entry point into The Hills — a popular
tourist getaway for Bengalis looking to escape the stifling heat of the plains.
NJP is in the city of Siliguri, located in the middle of the ‘chicken-neck’
which connects India’s North-East to the rest of the country — often called the
‘Siliguri Corridor’. It has a population of around 700,000, so is considered
the main business centre of the region. It is hot, busy more somewhere tourists
pass through rather than stay. After battling through the crowds to the exit, I
phoned the driver who was waiting for me. He appeared out of the throng of
taxis and cars and guided me to his Suzuki — one of many. Almost all the cars
here are Japanese! I jumped in the back and off to Kalimpong we went.
The drive from Siliguri involves navigating the bustling streets of Siliguri, where the air is a little cooler than Kolkata but still very hot. I had the window down but at times had to roll it up because of the dust. After you break through the urban area there is flat road along the plains which takes you towards the river Teesta — a large river running down from the peaks of North Sikkim, through the Dooars and ultimately into the Brahmaputra, Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal. The Teesta provides a natural border for the Darjeeling district, the new Kalimpong district and the state of Sikkim. It is heavily dammed because of its high-levels of potential energy — owing to the fact it descends almost 2000 metres in altitude over a distance of around 90km. Once you reach the Teesta, the NH-10 — the main ‘artery’ for Kalimpong and Sikkim beyond — snakes up alongside it, bridging it in a few cases. The road is frequently disrupted by landslides and witnesses a number of car accidents — a google search will show you this. Nonetheless, apparently 6000 vehicles use it daily and link ‘The Hills’ of West Bengal and Sikkim to the rest of India.
Despite my sleeping on the train, I felt absolutely exhausted after a short time in the car. I tried my best to stay awake to take in the scenery, but I ultimately failed! I had one of those sleeps where you’re unsure whether you were asleep for 1 minute or 30. I woke up as my head swayed as we turned a corner. I lost track of time somewhat, but we were approaching the steep climb to Kalimpong. Turning off the NH-10 you begin to zig-zag your way up the hill. It is quite a climb with houses and businesses dotted along the roadside. As you climb, the denser and more populated the hillside becomes. We soon reached Kalimpong-proper and the driver snaked up towards my hotel – Cloud Nine. My first impression of Kalimpong was that I had never known a town to dominate the hill-top with its outskirts sitting beneath it. It felt reversed to the UK in many ways, where you often find that the town lies at the bottom of the valley. My second impression that this trip was going to involve a lot of walking up and down hills!
My hotel and the
first day in Kalimpong:
On arrival Cloud Nine I was warmly welcomed by the owner Binod and his family who run the hotel themselves. I was shown up to my room and given some options for breakfast. My room is tucked away at the back of the hotel. It faces the hillside so I don’t have much of a view out of my two windows, but there is a communal living room next door with a beautiful view of the town and valley below. The bathroom has a hot water boiler, shower head and flushing toilet with toilet roll! It’s a ‘wet-room’ but I’m happy to have these comforts at expense of dry feet! I washed and had an omelette for breakfast and then slept off the tiredness I felt on the journey. I then met with Praful Rao of Save the Hills, whom I have been in contact with for a number of months now and who I will be working with throughout my stay here. He is good friends with the Binod the hotel owner. We chatted in the living room for an hour or 2 and I ate a paneer curry and paratha as we spoke. We planned the following few days and then he went away.
It was now about 5pm. I decided that I would take a walk into the town centre as I had not really seen this properly on the way in. It’s about a 15-minute walk from Cloud Nine to the centre of town. I am getting used to the constant horn honking as cars pass by to let you know they’re there. This happens a lot in Kalimpong as the roads are narrow in places and there is are only small stretches of pavement, which tend to be pretty crowded. Most people just walk on the road, you get used to it after a while. The resident population of Kalimpong is about 40,000, with a significant number of people passing through, there is quite a buzz to the town. The town centres around a main road which runs along the ridge of the two hills which make up Kalimpong, with lots of other roads linking up to this road at 2 ‘roundabouts’ at each end. It is very crowded and loud, but there is quite a nice atmosphere where everyone appears to be quite friendly. I had read about a place on google called the ‘Art Café’ which looked like it had nice coffee/tea and great views of the hills. I found it tucked away on the 2nd storey of a building just off the main road. I had a masala chai and updated my Facebook status to update that I was in Kalimpong and show off the views! I then walked back up the snaking road to Cloud 9 and ate dinner. I went for veg chop suey but didn’t expect that the noodles would be crispy! It was nice enough anyway. I decided to stay up and watch the Champions League Final. I had no need to get up early and felt my afternoon nap would see me through the game, kicking off at 00:30. Binod had said that it would be on the TV in the living room if I wanted it. I settled in to writing my diary and waited for the match – an incredibly dull game in the end!
So far, I’m delighted that I’ll get to spend an extended
period in Kalimpong for my fieldwork. It has a really friendly atmosphere and
is lively without being overwhelming. I’ll be updating my blog weekly hopefully
with more specific reflections on my research topic. I’ll also be travelling
around the region over the next 6 weeks, so there will be for me to write