Closure in Calcutta (Part 1)

The southbound Darjeeling Mail from NJP to “Cal” (as the cool kids refer to West Bengal’s beleaguered capital) is crowded with Bengali families returning from rain-soaked vacations, and Tay and I must share a narrow upper berth in the sleeper car. It is cramped and uncomfortable, there are cockroaches on the walls, but at least we are not sleeping on the floor, as some people are.

I crack open a new novel, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, which begins with a bloody train wreck scene on the same line I am riding. Discomfiting, yes, but also satisfyingly serendipitous. Nearly three months ago, as I rode this line in the opposite direction, I also came across a pertinent passage in the book I was then reading—Dominique LaPierre’s City of Joy, which said that Mother Theresa first heard God’s voice on a train from Calcutta to Darjeeling, commanding her to work with the poor.

As people settle in for the night, a middle-aged Australian woman, traveling alone, offers Tay and I her lower berth, so that our doubled-up perch is not so precarious. Her name is Carmel and this is her fifth visit to India, each time to go trekking in the Himalayas. She has just completed a week-long walk along the Singalila ridge, which she says was “magical,” despite the weather. Arriving in Cal, just after sunrise, the three of us share a taxi to the same hotel, where we all retreat to spacious, air-conditioned comfort. Carmel says to look her up when we pass through Sydney, six months from now.

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For the next few days of errands, emails, and meetings, I am immersed in Calcutta. The entire city is, once again, preparing for festival: Diwali decorations (strung lights and candles) and in-progress Kali Puja shrines. Countless painted idols of Kali, the blue-skinned, red-tongued, malicious facet of Durga, with a necklace of bloody demon heads, are being transported about the city and pandals are raised as well, massive bamboo frames with stages and draped cloth.

Calcutta is hot as I walk along street and sidewalk, worlds away from Darjeeling, even though I am on my way to meet with Binod Mohan, owner of five Fair Trade and Organic-certified tea gardens in Darjeeling. My rickshaw-wallah has dropped me off on the wrong end of Kyd Street, and, as I make my way through dust and grime and waves of heat, I am amazed at everything happening on this one sidewalk. As traffic honks and speeds a few feet away, a child gets his hair cut, an urban shepherd guides a group of goats, a family picks through a trash heap, men sleep or bathe, lathered up and squatting next to a public spicket; an orange-robed Brahmin offers incense and flowers to a shrine of Shiva, another man sits on the concrete, mending a fishing net and shoots me a toothless smile and head-tilt.

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After a few dark, abandoned doorways, I find the correct entrance to Chowrangee Mansions, a typically decrepit Britsh-era box-wallah building with dark, betel-stained stairwells, and ancient, gated elevators. Mr. Mohan’s office, however, is modern and cool and I am served some of the best tea I have tasted in India as we talk for over two hours, me scribbling in my book and sipping cup after cup.

Then it is a long, traffic-choked taxi ride through Calcutta’s northern sprawl, our last meeting with Debasish, Sarmishtha, and Anuradha. Tay and I submit our final report on the malnutrition of tea workers, the result of three months’ work. It is a job well done and there is interest in our results—from garden managers, from some unions and NGOs, from my Fair Trade friends in the U.S.

Tay and I have brought our backpacks, because Sarmishtha and Debasish are appalled that we paid 800 rupees for our night in the hotel (less than $20, a splurge for our budget), and they insist on our staying in Sarmishtha’s home, near the Hooghly River. This new arrangement suits us, and we are happy to spend as much time as we can with our friends. We all know that we may never see each other again, but we don’t admit this. We already said goodbye once, so this is bonus time and we just enjoy each other’s company, in these precious moments.

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