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The Black Hole of Kolkata

Written on: Thursday January 22nd, 2009

Being flung into the streets of Kolkata during rush hour is like being dropped onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange during peak trading.  But instead of being surrounded by hundreds of frantic traders, you are engulfed by hundreds of vehicles; replacing the barage of screaming voices is the perpetual, and I mean PERPETUAL, chorus of honking horns from all the traffic.  The vehicles vary from commercial trucks to battered busses to motorized rickshaws to archaic taxis that wouldn't come close to being street legal in USA.  Competing for space on the pavement are an assortment of other moving entities, ranging from pedestrians, cyclists, dogs, cattle, donkeys, goats, and two additional versions of the afore-mentioned rickshaws, one being powered by pedal, while the other's powered by the dirty and calloused feet of a slight Indian man who appeared to have passed retirement age over a decade ago.  Needless to write, the hour long ride from the airport to Sudder Street left me wide-eyed and white knuckled.  But very much unlike the NYSE, where an hour's work for the saavy trader may yield six figure profits, the total sum gained by my taxi driver was a meager $1 from me and each of my three traveling companions.

Sudder Street is the area deemed by all the guide books as the tourist-friendly section of town; consequently, it is the only area in Kolkata where you see a significant percentage of white faces.  Having found an acceptable place to lay my head, my new friends (Chris and Katie) and I decided to get away from the tourist trap, and head off to parts unknown.  As we gradually strolled away from Sudder, the tourist sightings became non-existant.  We were on a quest for a tasty meal, but found ourselves in a more industrial neighborhood.  So at the suggestion of Chris, who had previously lived in India for ten months, we took a rickshaw to a more distant area and found a local eatery at which I dived into my all time favorite dish: palak paneer.  With our bellies content we strolled about, shopping and sampling the chai offered by so many street vendors, before calling it a night and heading back to the hotel.

The next morning I woke with a hunger to see the city.  After a brief glance at the map in my LP, I set off for the Black Hole monument.  Along the way several enticements caught my eye.  I passed through the northern end of the Maidan, a hugh open air park, littered with trash, that is essential to daily life in Kolkata.  Here I took the time to have a cup of chai and watch a cricket match for a spell.  Leaving the competition I sauntered north toward BBD, an area in which it was evident that this land was once under British rule.  Here I stopped briefly to gaze at the Raj Bahvan, an immense structure that currently housed the governor of West Bengal.  Just around the corner was the church of St. John, on whose grounds the Black Hole Memorial existed.

Having heard the famous "Black Hole of Calcutta" comparison from my early childhood (which might have had something to do with the lack of cleanliness of my room), I never actually knew the history of this saying. I was intriuged to learn that it came to existance in 1756.  It was in that year that the nawab of Murshidabad captured the city from the British.  As a result, dozens of the colonial upper heads were imprisoned in a basement beneath Fort William.  The next morning after their imprisonment, approxiamtely 40 of those captured were found dead due to suffocation.  The British papers exaggerated the scene to muster up moral support in the UK, and thus was born the infamous Black Hole legend.  Today a humble statue exists to honor those who lost their lives.  The statue was moved from its original location to the church grounds in 1940.

Continuing my explorative journey I headed east through the BBD to St. Andrew's church before turning south and working my way back to the Maidan.  Now, a word about the city of Kolkata, in general: it was dirty; it was loud; it was busy; it was in disrepair; it was smelly.  And despite all this negativity, it was incredibly interesting!  Continuing south, the landscape of the Maidan suddenly changed from an oversized collection of ancient school busses, to vast open fields where small heards of goats, sheep and horses grazed.  After passing through them I came to the most impressive structure in the city: the Victoria Memorial.  Built in honor of Queen Victoria, the building is more English than Indian.  But it is spectacular and the varied artwork inside is reason enough to make the visit.  Exiting the complex I decided to grab a bite of street food goodness before continuing on to the planetarium.  Sadly, the next showing was to be conducted in Hindi, so I opted to skip it and head to another famous location.

One might write that Mother Theresa is synonymous with Kolkata.  She spent many years there, helping the unfortunate and bringing the eyes of the world to the problems of this city.  The mission where she worked and lived was still going about its duties, and had even set up a small museum to honer her.  Going through it, I was impressed with the way they chronicled her life; she really was a kind soul.  Her actual bedroom was still in tact, and could be witnessed through a gated door.  Similarly, one could visit her tomb, as her remains are also housed in the complex.

Having had an exceptionally explorative day, I was ready to meet up with Chris and Katie for dinner and drinks.  We had a simple dinner and found the only pub in the area, just around the corner from our hotel.  Here we talked and laughed and shared travel adventures over a Kingfisher Strong and a shot of Blender's Pride.  The celebration continued after the bar closed, as we went to their room for a nightcap.  It was here that Chris was able to acquire a genuine 'Biman Hotel' button-down shirt (think cheesy bowling shirt) via a trade with one of the bellboys.  Amazingly, it fit, and was the source of our final laughter as we said goodnight.

The following day was spent meandering the city and preparing for my next destinations.  With internet connections slow in this area, I spent six hours researching flights, downloading photos and updating my blog.  Eventually evening came and I met another fun group of folks from Wales and Sweden.  We hit it off immediately, sharing stories and beer until the wee hours of the next morning. 

Eventually it was time to move on.  As I headed to the airport, I couldn't help but be in awe of this unique and spectacular city, which was not on my original itinerary to visit.  Fortunately, my travel flexibility paid off and I was able to experience all that is Kolkata.


From will and Maria on Jan 27th, 2009

All I wish Is that I was back in beloved India Kickin it with you bro have fun.