Outside the air conditioned terminal, the heat of Calcutta descends immediately. Rows upon rows of old yellow Ambassadors – like Ford model T’s painted bright yellow – line the road. The drivers, dressed in loose, long beige cheesecloth pajamas, stand in huddles talking. We find a taxi and get in; ours doesn’t have as brightly a decorated interior as the others, but it does have a carefully constructed shrine – of flowers and bright pictures – on the dash. My first impression of India will be those gleaned from the window of our cab: a 40-minute ride from the airport to the train station.
We pull away from the relative tameness of the airport, and into this city of more than five million. I say relative tameness, because — as I will come to understand over the coming months — nothing in India is tame, or even very normal according to my definition of the word. As we merge into traffic, I quickly come to realize that it is the buses and lorries that hold the prize for the brightest decorations in India: dusty Tata trucks with hand painted God Is One signs, images of demons and gods, yellow and orange flower garlands dripping from any surface, and metallic flags that twist and intertwine with all the other decorations. Apparently, we’re not in Kansas anymore. Welcome to India, I think to myself.
We pass a group of cycle rickshaw drivers lazing idly in the early morning haze, and a group of women dressed in bright but filthy saris; they are picking through mountains of garbage that line the side of the road. As we pass Ideal Apartments, a housing complex covered in blue and purple glass tiles with grey, prisonlike bars covering the windows, we nearly get pushed off the road by a bus veering to the right-hand shoulder.
Scenes common to the countryside in a country like Canada are everywhere here: I watch from the window of our taxi as a boy shepherd herds a flock of sheep along a sidewalk. This is in a city of more than five million people. To add to the surrealism of it all, some of the sheep are dyed bright reds and purples. Cows and bulls roam freely in the streets; they seem to know they’re sacred and can do whatever they please.
The dwellings seem not to have running water, because what are private activities in countries like Canada seem to be public in this city. All along the sidewalk, people are gathered at communal water pumps. Men wearing loincloths squat beside the pumps, covered in soapy lather and filling buckets with water in preparation to rinse. Women in saris pour buckets over their long black hair, while others fill cooking pots. Everywhere, men are pissing and shitting against walls.
I quickly realize that traffic in India is nothing short of insane. Rickshaws – not auto rickshaws or cycle rickshaws, but rickshaws pulled by walking men — are piled with people and suitcases and boxes, with the families that belong to these possessions walking beside them.We watch as grown men, standing like children waiting for a race to begin, line the sides of the street hoping for a break in traffic. Some of them make false starts and start to cross, before coming face-to-face with the madness of the drivers and wisely reconsidering. On the left of our taxi, an old man wearing only a ragged old dress shirt has his back to us, his wrinkly, bare bottom exposed to the world. On our right, an ageless man, dirty with dreadlocked and matted hair, sits on a traffic island and stares blankly into the throng of humanity. I wonder if these people have been counted in the official population figure.
We stop at a traffic light, and a girl who can’t be more than eight runs up to our taxi, a small and malnourished little boy balanced in the place where her hips will one day be. She holds out her hand and — despite knowing I shouldn’t — my reaction is to give her a few rupees. She takes the money, and continues to look at us with pleading eyes, alternating her gaze between us and the gaunt little boy, an outstretched arm and a palm facing the sky, begging for more. Two more children notice that she’s been given money and approach. Before the light changes to green, our car is surrounded: five children on one side and three on the other. I realize I am probably a terrible person. Welcome to India.
We continue on through the traffic, nearly getting into a three vehicle pileup: us, an ambulance, and a motorcycle. At another stop, an emancipated figure wearing only a loin cloth leans against a pole, nonchalantly smoking and staring blankly into infinity. Finally, we cross the Howrah Bridge, one of the busiest bridges in the world, and arrive at Howrah station on the other side. Not bad: a 40-minute private taxi ride for about $6 Canadian.
We have arrived too early, and our train is yet to be posted on the departures board, so we find a wall to lean against and watch the city and its people go by. It is hypnotising: not once is there a break in the pedestrian traffic.
I remember reading somewhere that the way Indian man tell if a woman is a prostitute is by staring her in the eyes: if she stares back, she’s a prostitute. So I fix my eyes ahead, not wanting to become another example of so-called Eve Teasing in India, and allow the hundreds of legs to capture my attention: the bottoms of saris, the ornate silver and gold anklets from which tiny bells dangle, the grey polyester slacks and dress shoes, and the barefoot holy men wearing only loin cloths. A woman’s voice comes over the loudspeaker, announcing our train: the 2301 to New Delhi will board at platform nine. About 10 minutes later, it pulls into the station and we wander down the platform, gradually cracking the code of paperwork involved in riding an Indian train, before finding our three-tier air-conditioned sleeper car near the end. We pull away from the city that Paul Theroux called a corpse off of which Indians feed like flies, and by 5:30, I’m exhausted. I drift off to sleep as Calcutta fades away along with my first day in India.