Looking for the exit,
The Harrington Street Arts Centre
The Seedy Underbelly Glimpse Odyssey
In 3 months a city opens up to you. So much so that it lays itself bare for you to see its ugliness which it had so carefully guarded earlier. Like new lovers coming to terms with each other’s dark secrets, the city shows you glimpses at first. Glimpses of its squalor, the sordid filth that flows through its veins, the maggots that infest its dark corners.
After you’ve soaked in the inklings of decadence, it hits you with all its debauchery. Such nocturnal sights that leave you speechless from fear, breathless from excitement, and a certain measure of drunken ecstasy that wants you to revisit the slovenly haunts again and again, many times over.
After a few nights out on the deserted streets, the dark alleys, and the troubled slums, you begin to figure out things for yourselves. You learn how to protect yourself from the armies of lepers that chase you all night long. You know how to escape the brigades of limbless beggars that see you as prey.
You grow confident, encouraged by your hardiness and emboldened by your attraction to the grievous. And you indulge. Hesitant at first, but slowly warming up to the grime with each passing night. Mornings are spent preparing for the evening, restlessness oozing from the body like puss from infected sores.
And then you start exploring. Experiences of one kind don’t satiate you any longer. You crave for newer sights, different levels of squalidness. You start frequenting the lesser known temples of the nightcrawlers, putting yourself at risk just to be able to get into those establishments that remain shut all day long.
In time, you know the routine. You know where the one-legged prostitute sits awaiting her customers. You know exactly the way she hobbles up to the car windows and the nature of the deals she strikes. You know where the pimps lounge. You know their pseudonyms and the brand of cigarettes they smoke.
You know where the deprived lot go to fulfill their desires. You watch them come and go. Sometimes in outlandish clothes, often in expensive cars, always inebriated. You now know some of them, and their fathers too. The ladies always give you a smile, however hammered they are. The guys just nod.
You no longer remember the city that you’d arrived in. You only see a dark formless mass that comes alive after the sun goes down. You lose touch with your friends who move about in the daytime. You start living the nightlife full time. You eat night food, take night walks, do night things, and sleep daysleeps.
The reluctance you’d had a hard time shedding during those first nights leaves you gradually. You are more comfortable wielding the camera now, clicking with newly acquired sureness. You are careful though. The nocturnal beings are as suspicious as unforgiving. You disguise yourself, put on a mask that doesn’t come down when you are out.
Sometimes you interest them. The last few weeks, you almost become one of them. Not quite, but nearly there. They start asking after you, no longer coming after you. They probe, and when they find out you are mostly harmless and largely dumb, they leave you alone. You are free to hang around.
You start accepting gifts from them, a joint, a fruit, a smoke, something to eat, something to drink. Occasionally, you get a ride, or a beating. Most are content just telling you stories about themselves. They aren’t interested in yours. Not that you have much to tell anyways. They warn you against repeating what you hear.
Most of the places you visit are cheap, real cheap. The cheapness shows in the cutlery, if it has cutlery. It shows in the lights, if there are lights. It shows in the people, if you can see them. The food is cheap too, much like everything else. However, it tastes good. You don’t know what you eat, and you are afraid to ask.
You promise to visit again, but you know you won’t. They know it too. They don’t care. After 3 months, you feel you’re no longer an outsider, but you’re mistaken. You are every bit an outsider as you ever were. It’s only the loathsome warmth that emanates from the sleaze which tricks you into believing you are what you think you are.
On the streets of Calcutta, 2014
At Puga Residential School, Ladakh,
At the butcher’s
In the midst of weekday rush-hour bustle, this bar patiently awaits its patrons. Inviting as it may seem, few have the time to enter. It’s moment of glory comes in the evening when people swarm the place - the same place they neglected during the day. It’s amusing how we don’t relax when weary. Relaxation is reserved only for leisure.
Art Forms in Nature, Karl Blossfeldt,
The Harrington Street Arts Centre, Calcutta
Inside the tram
The government is downplaying it ahead of Xi Jinping’s visit, but Chinese incursion in Ladakh is real. It’s been two years since we wrote this, but it seems little has changed.
Broadway Hotel, Chandni Chowk, Calcutta
Hatibagan, Calcutta, 2014
What goes on in old buildings
The streets of Bhowanipore that we’ve become so familiar with over the last three months seem different today. Maybe we just see them differently on the eve of our departure. The shopkeepers are early; the shops are getting ready for the Puja. Frenzied whitewashes, frantic renovations; continuous drilling, hammering and sawing. Much hustle-bustle all round.
Every morning, the storekeepers wash the pavement outside their stores, some perform pujas inside their stores. Others dutifully take off their footwear and say a prayer in front of the little temple on the pavement. A priest comes in the morning, washes the idols, performs a quick puja, blesses the gathering, collects money, lights a few incense sticks and after ringing the bell a few quick times, leaves hurriedly, perhaps to the next temple.
Going to the metro, we have the cigarette shops first, followed by the bookstores. Then a few stationers and a long line of jewellers. A couple of phone repairing shops, and then the vegetable sellers. The next lot is occupied by the fish sellers in the morning who on their way out in the afternoon wash the place clean, trying to drive out the stench from the pavements. The food vendors then come in and sit there, with their boiling kadhais of oil in which float helpless pieces of fritters that soon transform into monstrous pieces of deep fries.
Coming out of the metro we have the eateries first, their patrons crowding the pavement; then come the small fruit sellers whose arrangement is punctuated by a few flower sellers. Then come the cloth stores and the bag sellers. There’s this handsome shopkeeper who helps his young employees set up the inflated lower halves of rubber human dummies. The teenage employees mischievously caress the pelvic region of these dummies when he’s not looking. The tea sellers, more stationers and fruit sellers come next. This is where we cross the street.
Some days we buy a guava, an apple, or a banana to eat on the way. Not today. We are leaving. Bhowanipore and its crowd will be missed.