In revenge for the burning of his wife, Sati, the God Shiva decided to destroy the universe. The God Vishnu, thankfully, stopped Shiva by flinging a discus at him. The weapon also severed Sati’s charred corpse into 51 pieces which were flung across the landscape. Her little toe landed on the banks of the Hughli River, and became a pilgrimage site that eventually grew into Calcutta: an overwhelming city of some 18 million people.
I arrived in Calcutta by train on Monday, and in describing my first impressions it is hard not to succumb to clichés of poverty. Some of the scenes on the street are punishing. Trios of naked children. Cripples wave their stumps at passersby for donations. Entire families live on a patch of sidewalk. I saw a woman lying on the pavement with two infant children. One was suckling on her breast but the woman herself was unconscious. Beggars plead in my ear and tug on my sleeves. Homes built of scraps of cardboard form against the sides of buildings. Thin men pull rickshaws or push heavy carts. The street vendors sleep on top of their stalls at night. Others sleep on the highway overpasses, inches from traffic.
But alongside of all this is a contemporary thriving city. There are smart Starbucks-clone cafés, juice bars and bookstores patronized by young couples and businessmen. Bollywood stars hawk everything from jewelry to steel rods from enormous billboards. This is not a city of homogeneous squalor, but a place where the desperately poor somehow live alongside the comfortable middle class. Sometimes directly under their feet.
Speaking of feet, I‘ve spent most of my time in India looking down. The uneven sidewalks and pavement sleepers are one reason for this, but everything, it seems is happening at ground level. The sellers, the beggars, the taxi derby are all terrestrial phenomenon. There could be angels soaring above all of this and I would have no idea.
I had an interesting conversation with some new Indian friends on my last night in Mumbai. My hotel was in Colaba, the tourist centre on Mumbai, and I had noticed that I received far less aggressive attention from the touts and souvenir sellers than some of the other foreigners did. The drum sellers and pashima scarf vendors never pestered me after I refused, but I saw the same men tail other tourists for blocks hoping to plead a sale out of them.
I was trying to figure out why this was. I thought that maybe my relatively small stature and conservative dress made me less noticeable to these guys. Compared to some of the enormous dreadlocked Aussies I might as well be invisible. Then I thought maybe I am just dark enough to pass as a local. No one would confuse me for a dark-skinned Bengali, but I could be a Parsi. And on a couple of occasions, men asked me for directions in Hindi assuming I was a local.
But my friends Angad and Tara had a different explanation. They said that these touts and sellers can spot an easy mark a mile away. That is their job, after all, and they have perfected the ability to instantly size up a potential customer. It is not that they don’t notice me, it is that they can immediately tell that I am not interested in buying and nor am I likely to be talked into it. I hadn’t given these guys enough credit. They were reading me right all along.