I’ve been back in Kolkata for over a week now. I came back to meet my partner Rachael, who arrived here on Friday night (2 days ago). I am in a different city. Well, I’m seeing it differently, at least.
I have developed a slightly thicker skin, I think, callouses over my soul, so to speak. You have to. Walk past just one family home of cardboard and plastic on the footpath, just one eyeless beggar, or be followed by a man whose pleading, broken mantra is “no money, no food”, would be enough, but it’s day after day, image after image, body after body. In the face of it, your mind, soul, conscience goes into cramp. And you get tougher. And you mourn your own toughness, because you like to think of yourself as compassionate and able even to make some kind of difference. India, especially the big cities, is bewildering. It even makes you feel your own feelings of grief or neurosis or self-esteem are a bit of an indulgence.
While I feel tougher, I’ve also opened up so much. Being with Rachael here, we’re of course talking voraciously and with awe and shock, so I’m being reminded of all my initial (and still continuing but held at bay) feelings about Kolkata. Little brief weepings are unavoidable and useful.
It’s wonderful she’s here. Someone who I can talk with at an intimate, passionate, fluid level, my dear partner who I feel such simpatico with.
It’s still a big effort doing anything, going anywhere, but I feel this visit, I’ve done so much more, because I’m starting to become vaguely aclimtaised, accustomed.
A few days ago I went to the Indian Botanical Gardens, then back again with Rachael yesterday. It was created in the late 18th century, and includes a monumentally huge Banyan tree. The tree feels more like a little forest – a whole colony of aerial roots, tendril-like but also elephantine and web-like – such energy and persistence. It’s over 250 years old, supposedly almost a kilometre in circumferance; the main branch was infected by a fungus and was removed in the 1920s, but of course it persists. It’s in India, after all.
The garden itself is of course strewn with rubbish, the trees are covered with a film of pollution, but to me it is a real oasis – families picnicking, kids playing, couples kissing on ancient concrete seats. We also saw a small group of huge monkeys, nonchalantly sitting in the shade, waiting to be fed bananas from children who were much less unnerved by them than I was!
While I think of it, I’d like to put in a little advertisement for Earthcare Books – a tiny but so full store of environmental, feminist, political, spiritual books run by a very cluey and stylish woman. It’s on Middleton Street, behind the Drive Inn (great outdoor restaurant-cum-used car dealership!!).
And, we finally found The Indian Coffee House. I won’t write about it. Just immerse yourself in this photo…
Oh, and why skin as a title? Well, it’s not just because mine is thicker but because it’s very very pale. Here in India, for the well-off, skin whitening products are very popular, which is so disturbing on many levels, but above all, for most people, white skin is a curiosity. Rachael and I are both getting that clinical examination/stare, and for once (for me) it’s usually not about my spinal curvature but about my skin. For her, it has that added layer of being a woman. And this is very much a man’s world. Men are not even bothered by the fact I’m with her, they will keep staring, sometimes quite openly ogling. It’s not easy to cope with, and impossible to do anything about, really. It just is. In my vulnerable moments, it breaks my heart, angers and upsets me. But so often you just have to get on with it. India is non-negotiable.
One more thing – I went to the National Library here, the biggest in India. The librarian I met really opened up when I asked him if they follow Ranganathan! No, they use Dewey combined with AACR! Getting a book is a very laborious, but pleasurably antiquated, process – card catalogue, request slips, duplicate copies thereof… Beautiful buildings (really a colony of libraries, departments, not just one building), still ambience, and millions of books in dozens of languages. Gorgeous. I was exhausted getting there, though, so didn’t stay long.
Rachael and I leave for Darjeeling on Tuesday night. I can’t wait.