Date Night in Calcutta

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Although still gazing northward toward our new and unknown home in the village of Birpara, Jaipalguri District, we remain wallowing in a character-less strip, 20 kilometers from Calcutta center. We’ve been taking the public bus to the JSK office each day, where we are writing up the questionnaire for our study and also getting to know our new workmates. Otherwise, we are enjoying the air-conditioning and room service of the over-priced V.I.P. Hotel on the desolate Koikhali More.

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Still, we are in Calcutta, a city equally famous for its long, glorious reign as India’s Colonial jewel and former capital (“the Paris of the East”) as it is for its subsequent decline into the most over-crowded slum of the world.

“Once,” wrote Naipaul, “Bengal led India, in ideas and idealism; now, just forty years later, Calcutta, even to Indians, was a word of terror, conveying crowds, cholera and corruption. Its aesthetic impulses had not faded — there was an appealing sensibility in every Bengali souvenir, every over-exploited refugee ‘craft’ — but they, pathetically, threw into relief the greater decay.”

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But on Friday, we’d had enough of work and pulled away for a downtown day-trip to the main commercial mayhem around Sudder and Park Streets, a soggy, romantic adventure on Calcutta’s various public transport systems.

We moved with the masses through Communist Party–controlled Calcutta (the ubiquitous hammer-and-sickle graffiti is all the more interesting when combined with Hindu swastikas). My greatest exposure to the city’s seething poverty, however, has been in the pages of Dominique Lapierre’s The City of Joy, a wonderful reality-based novel about a poor rickshaw puller named Hasari Pal (The City of Joy is also a Hollywood film and an aid organization). Twenty years after the book was published, these words are still mostly true:

“All the cities of the former Colonial world have banished them from their roads, as one of the most degrading aspects of man’s exploitation of his fellow man. All, except Calcutta, where even today, some hundred thousand slave horses harnessed to their rickshaws run up more miles per day than. . .India’s domestic airline. . . Invented in Japan at the end of the eighteenth century by a European missionary, their name derives from the Japanese expression ji riki shaw which means literally, ‘vehicle propelled by man.’”

My guidebook (The Rough Guide to India) informs that many of the rickshaw drivers “supplement their meager income by acting as pimps. Rickshaws come into their own during the monsoons, when the streets get flooded to hip height and the rickshaw-men can extract healthy amounts of money for their pains. Most of the rickshaw-pullers are Bihari pavement-dwellers who live short and very hard lives. Haggle for a realistic price but feel free to give a handful of baksheesh too.”

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Unfortunately, at our most desperate moment, when we emerged from the Dum Dum metro station into pouring rain and found ourselves splashing through mud-colored, ankle-deep runoff, there was nary a rickshaw-puller in sight. Eventually it was a pedal-powered version that pushed us through the darkness to a taxi stand, where we haggled the night away, me and my baby, standing in the traffic of Calcutta.

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