Letters From Bharat: Oh, Calcutta


I’m staying in a hotel about a block and a half from the hostel where our students are. That’s a story in itself. When we arrived at the hostel they put me in a private room where I took a shower and a nap. But when I returned from dinner they had moved my stuff into the guy’s room; four of us in a room with 3 single beds.
They had overbooked and were very sorry but it would only be for one night. My room would be ready the next morning.

Since we had brought groups of 20 for 3 years and had booked our room several months ago, and since I hadn’t slept much on the overnight train trip before we got here,  I decided to make a statement—and walked out with my luggage, down the street, around the corner and into another hotel. My price doubled, from $15 a night to $30, but I picked up a few amenities. Like air conditioning.

I was supposed to meet up with the group by 1:00 pm, but I thought I would swing by the Blue Sky Cafe, a popular breakfast place for expats, and decided to walk through a different neighborhood on the way. I have a pretty good sense of direction, by which I mean I can tell my right from by left. If it was a right, a right, and a right to get there by going in front of the hostel, then a left and a left should get me there too. I walked two or three blocks and turned left.

An hour later I was lost. Apparently there is no grid here, and I was going deeper and deeper down narrower and narrower roads. Did I mention winding roads? After turning off the main road, I was on, well, let’s call it butcher street. Shop after shop had fresh chickens and sheep handing in the open stalls, mixed in with tailors and food vendors and metal workers and tire shops. And more than a few beggars.

imageI bought a tin cup from a vendor on the sidewalk and chai from another one. And I pressed on, into the decaying infrastructure that is Calcutta, the broken sidewalks, the fading colors, and diminished dreams. I was certain I would soon find the third right of my well known path. I did not. By now I was just looking for the New Market, so named because it is only 200 years old—the largest indoor bazar in the India. I came out on a main road that, following my innate sense of direction (left and right) I expected would bring me to the New Market. But after walking 20 minutes, past a large crowd standing in the road being lectured on the virtues of giving blood, I didn’t recognize anything, including any street names.

I wasn’t scared. I could easily have hailed a cab. I was just confused and wanted to find my way. On my own, if I could. Sensing my bewilderment, a woman on the corner stepped in front of me. She could have been an over-dressed student. More likely a hooker. She wasn’t the first woman to approach me. “Sudder Street?” She asked. “Sudder Street?” She didn’t seem to know any other English.

That’s the street where the Blue Sky Cafe is, and a few low-cost hotels frequented by middle class tourist. I nodded and she pointed. I smiled and turned left, in the direction she indicated, and within four blocks I knew where I was. And I had just enough time to get to our meeting.

She didn’t ask for anything, although I would have gladly paid. For the directions, at least.

All she wanted was what we all want. A little respect. And a little gratitude.

She deserves both.

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