India / Travel

A ride around Kolkata

Kolkata is so full of raw humanity that one should be warned, upon arrival, by a big sign: “Warning! You are about to enter Kolkata, the city where humanity displays itself at its fullest!” Translating my hypothetical sign: “Get ready to be stolen or cheated in ways you could not possibly imagine, and yet to meet the nicest people and see the most genuine smiles”; so that, when I talk to the first person as I leave the airport, I can be prepared for what’s to come.

Juggling Taxis

The first person I meet happened to be, as it usually is, a taxi driver. He is a young man, well dressed, and recently shaved. Tired from the trip and needing a taxi, I don’t oppose when he asks me, ‘Sir? Taxi? Where do you go?’. ‘Alitpur’ I tell him, and he responds with a dry number ‘2000!?’. Not even knowing how much Indian rupees were valued at, but knowing that it was probably a tourist charge, I reply, ‘1000.’ To that the man rapidly agrees, ‘Ok, 1000!’. ‘Damn’, I think. A sign that I should have started even lower!

 He tells me the trip won’t take longer than one hour, one and a half max. We get into his modern white taxi, and I begin to see the life of Kolkata. The classic yellow taxis cheer up the dark and dirty streets while the lights flash on giant poster signs that feature news on how to be a truly modern man, or a more beautiful Indian woman. But my interest in observing the reality outside suddenly halts. The taxi stops, the driver gets out, opens my door, and tells me that I must change taxi. Not understanding, I say I had not agreed to do this. After some battling and rebutting I understand that his taxi had an ‘airport license’ and so he uses the car to catch tourists with high fees, and passes them over to other taxis for a fee. In doing so, he manages to collect more money in a shorter time, without actually bringing me to my final destination. That’s a first one for me. Almost laughing, I say ‘lets see where this takes me, no biggie.’

 As it turned out, the journey was just beginning, as it took over three hours to reach the other side of the city and arrive in my hotel. This experience taught me that one should never lower one’s guard here in Kolkata; there might always be a surprise around the next corner.

Blessing Shiva

Walking along the banks of the Hoogly river, I am trying to reach the Kalighat Kali temple. One of the oldest ones of the city, some say that even the city of Kolkata takes its name from the temple. Kali is the fierce manifestation of Parvati, wife of Shiva, but is a good-natured mother of all. Her impulsiveness makes her the pure personification of Shakti, or life energy, that is the light and fire that makes us be alive.

There are people everywhere, selling fruit, veggies, religious paraphernalia, posters of the goddess Kali. Before I even reach the temple, a man self-assigns himself as my guide. With no prior mention of my nationality, he begins to speak to me in perfect Italian. I can only think: ‘how did he know?’ Entering the temple portal, he takes my hands and pours water on them from a transparent jar, the water is brownish, almost gray. He tells me that it is holy Ganges water. Then he gives me some flowers, explaining carefully when and where I must do what and how. He takes me by the hand, looking straight into my eyes: ‘Be careful with your pockets and things.’ ‘Thieves’ he tells me.

After leaving our shoes outside the entrance, I am right behind him cutting the queue and entering the temple of Kali. I manage to push myself through half-naked people chanting, beggars stroking my feet and priests blessing people with red tikas on their foreheads for good fortune. My un-named guide tells me to take some of the red rhododendron flowers and throw them to the goddess. In the midst of the chaos I see her, Kali. She does not look quite human, and has abstract monstrous features. As her name suggests, ‘Kali’ means black, she has a deep black colour, her three eyes are bright orange, and protruding below her face was a long golden tongue which she brings out to scare away evil forces. As I try to take in this sight, I get pushed forward by the crowds behind me, so it’s time to move on and let others observe and bless the goddess.

Outisde the temple, we face another statue, that of Shiva. Ahe man tells me that I should make a flower offering to it. He helps me through the ceremony: ‘Give blessings to mother, to father,…’. Name by name, I take flowers and ask for blessings, “Namaste Shiva, Namaste Shiva, Namaste Shiva”. Shiva is the god of destruction, he is the one that helps to overcome obstructed paths and reinvigorate blocked energies. Here all these things seem to make sense. The guide asks me to give a money offering, showing me the offerings on the Shiva statue that had already been provided. He says that I must put at least 1000 rupees, more than 10 dollars, which seems to me like a lot. I tell him that I will happily decide by myself how much I wish to give to Shiva. As I put down the 500 rupee bill, I see him frown. Displeased, he says ‘You are offending the god. The money is not for me, its for the temple, for everybody.’

I had read, in fact, that the temple Brahmins distribute food to those in need every day, and I had previously seen many icons with offerings which people seemed to take seriously here. So I give the 1000 rupees he demanded. As we go back to the starting point and I put my shoes on, I pay the guide who has been helpful. He smiles and thanks me for it, even though I gave him a much smaller amount than the offering to Shiva. This makes me wonder about the validity of the offering: was he actually satisfied with his payment? Or was I naively fooled into believing that the offering was actually for the temple?

These doubts fade into the background as a little girl comes over to ask the guide for some money to buy herself some candy. She had no hair, so one of her parents must have passed away recently. The guide hands over to her enough money to buy herself some candy. She smiles and her eyes glitter. This act of kindness that seemed so natural for him, made me realize that here people shared everything. Something is never only yours, it’s your family’s and your friend’s. The other face of the likely bluffs that I had witnessed in this place of raw humanity took the shape of beautiful acts of kindness, social solidarity, and strong moral fiber.

3 thoughts on “A ride around Kolkata

  1. I had a similar taxi adventure in Jordan…some taxis don’t have a licence to drive near the border crossing.. Hang in there!


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