Thursday, 3 December 2009

Tigers and Headless Goats!

This ol’ blogging thing keeps taking a bit of a back seat at the moment I’m afraid – but when I get to it, I really get to it. I’ll be sitting here for approximately the next 30 hours – so lots of time to perfect the next ‘episode’ (I’m on the overnight train to Mumbai and won’t be arriving until 9pm tomorrow night – it’s 3.30pm now).
So – where was I? Oh I remember: Darjeeling. Well on our first afternoon in Darjeeling we were fortunate to run into a lovely and incredibly sweet young couple from Denmark who’s plans seemed to be running quite nicely in tandem with ours so we’ve spent most of the last week in pleasant company and not had much time free to write – but we finally said our goodbye’s at the Howrah train station in Calcutta a couple of hours ago and it’s back to just me and my Mac (oh yeah – and my husband too – stinky feet in my face and all!).
So – we finally gave up on Darjeeling and the clouds and jumped in a jeep down the mountain – and whatdya know? Just as we were heading out of town for just a brief moment the clouds cleared in the distance and we got our last sneaky peak at the Himalayas and the chance to say ‘farewell’. Not to worry – we’ll be back I’m sure! And then we were heading down down down to board the night train to Calcutta. Now, based on everything I’d heard and read about Calcutta I was bracing myself for the absolute worst of the worst: Dirt and poverty in profusion. So I was very pleasantly surprised by the city that greeted us.

Now I doubt very much whether it made the shortlist for ‘best cities to live in’ in the last 50 years and since Mother Theresa seemed to have her hands full in it’s city limits for most of her waking life it obviously has it’s fair share of problems

– but next to New Delhi, it’s positively radiant. I mean, by Delhi standards, it’s clean, it’s friendly and it’s relatively quiet. We didn’t have plans for a protracted stay in the city and in fact were merely passing through on the way to Sunderbans National Park but I might almost go so far as saying it was a pleasant stay and I wouldn’t have minded a couple more days. (Please don’t get carried away and go booking your ticket to Calcutta on my recommendation - I did only say ‘almost’).

We found a decent place to stay and from the safety of our hotel lobby we managed to arrange a three day boat trip to the Sunderbans: the biggest river delta in the world and home to the largest concentration of tigers in the wild left on the planet. So, in theory our best chance to see these magnificent beasts, outside captivity.

It was a 3 hour drive from Calcutta to the launch site and from there we would remain mostly on the water for the next 3 days. Within a relatively short period of time we had left the city behind and entered rural West Bengal to get a real taster of how most of rural India actually lives: in a word – simply. The scenery was stunning. A flat land of tropical, lush, watery farm land. Paddy fields interspersed with fresh water ponds and simple mud huts with thatched roofs were dotted along the ‘highway’. Occasionally a small town would appear with the usual snack stands and street side vendors selling their wares and brewing their chai and then a few moments later we were back out into the open plain and surrounded by the simple reality of life in the Sunderbans. With a population of over 4 million, most of whom have little, if any access to power, daily life is extremely basic, and dictated by the limitations of mother nature. Most of the inhabitants wake and sleep according to the hours of daylight provided by the sun and while the occasional hut is equipped with solar power or the luxury of a generator, most survive with no power at all. It is truly humbling to enter the homes of these people (which we did on our first evening in the region, when we left the boat to visit a riverside village), and realize that the equivalent of almost a quarter of the population of Canada live in this way, with mud floors and a single ‘platform’ providing sleeping quarters for the entire family, while the chickens and goats are cooped and tethered just outside. Surprisingly the interior of the homes seemed incredibly clean and well cared for despite the fact that they are mostly made of mud. Considering the devastation that had swept through the region only a few months ago due to a cyclone of monstrous proportions it was nothing less than impressive (especially when you consider the amount of filth and dirt that seems prevalent in urban India). The families in this area may be poor, but that doesn’t stop them being house-proud. Most of the people live off the land, from hand to mouth, barely above the poverty line but somehow they survive and live with dignity and grace, relying on the river to bring them food in the form of fish and supplies via boat, while at the same time defying the river to bring it’s forces of destruction.
One of the greatest potential forces of destruction around them is of course the mighty Bengal Tiger! It is not uncommon for a tiger to ‘visit’ one of the many riverside villages at night in search of a goat, or maybe even a person, to provide a meal – but of course the tiger is stealthy and remains mainly elusive and aloof for the purposes of tourist viewing pleasure.

So although our trip to Sunderbans was a wonderful chance to appreciate the lush scenery of this Mangrove delta and see some marvelous birdlife (a twitcher’s paradise) in the form of many varied Kingfishers, Egrets, Cormorants and Storks our hopeful dreams of tiger spotting were sadly to remain unfulfilled. We also enjoyed the added bonus of a run in with a gastric visitation of a rather unpleasant nature in the form of diarrhea and vomiting (probably the result of breaking my cardinal rule in Calcutta and drinking a juice that was likely mixed with ‘unhealthy’ water) which was also accompanied by a lovely dose of fever and chills. But this only slightly took away from the joys of slowly chugging down the narrow channels of the Sunderbans between viewing platforms to look out into the jungle. Our trip was also enhanced by the presence of our very own resident ‘Mother Theresa’ in the form of Jane, a yogi from Manchester who had accompanied us on the boat to deliver supplies of medicine and blankets to the sick and needy, still left homeless after the afore-mentioned cyclone of 4 months previous. Her light and calming energy (and the occasional pilfering of her medical supplies) helped lift our spirits and gave us another person to share our thoughts and musings on India with. Her presence also gave us the opportunity to get an ‘expert’ opinion from an India regular. Jane has been visiting India for many years now, and as a yoga teacher and daily meditator has an ease and gentleness about her that makes it hard to be agitated around.

So all in all the 3 days in Sunderbans were quite an escape, and a relaxing break from the maddening chaos of the rest of daily India – especially the last day when the worst of our ‘symptoms’ were clearing, almost as much as the skies which had thus far been somewhat cloudy and we were rewarded with a final sunset of heart wrenching gorgeousness that didn’t quite compensate the glaringly obvious lack of the sought after tiger sighting – but certainly cushioned the blow.

It was definitely quite nice though to return to solid ground and a night in a bed with a real mattress (instead of a double folded blanket to sleep on) and our one full day in Calcutta before our departure was spent wandering quite close to ‘home’ (our Hotel on Sudder Street).

We visited the impressive Victoria Memorial and hunted out a taste of real home in the form of a very expensive but worthwhile Italian pizza joint and a great slice of Brownie from the best cake shop in town (we were still suffering withdrawals from our overdose of cake hits in Darjeeling) and that was pretty much it.
In the evening we did manage to come across a crazy man on the way to dinner (or so we thought) who it turned out was not actually crazy but just doing a mad dance in the middle of the street in an attempt to eject a genetically modified sized version of the biggest cockroach you have ever seen in your life from the inside of his flip-flop. The response this display elicited from my darling husband was absolute dismay. India is officially on probation. He has declared that if Goa does not impress the pants off him he’s on the next plane out of here – so it looks like I might finally get some alone time in India!!! By the time our Paneer Kati Rolls had arrived (a typical Bengali snack – featuring a tasty version of a rolled up roti and filling of your choice – in this case Paneer, the local cheese) the hissy fit had subsided and his appetite had returned – but truly I’m not so sure how much more of the filth my fragile photographer can withstand before he’s ready to snap his last shots, shape up and ship out so I’m putting the cockroaches on my hit list. If I see one when I’m in my shoes – it’s a gonna – sorry guru Jane – ahimsa just went out the window for this little yogi in training!!!
Since our train today didn’t actually depart until the afternoon we decided on an early morning outing to the ghats on the bank of the Hooghly river to check out a little more local culture and finally found something that put a smile on my honey’s face: A wonderful flower market where the flower sellers of the city congregate to stock their stalls for ‘offering’ supplies.

It was spectacular and marvelous and full of fascinating faces and colorful characters equally as enthralling as their chlorophyll filled counterparts. We all snapped away to our hearts content with surprisingly few requests for bakshish (the Indian for ‘tip’) and many happy and sheepish grins from our models as we gladly showed them the results of our looming lenses (the magic of digital SLRs).

Calcutta was back in favor as we headed for our final breakfast and planned a quick late morning visit to the Kali Temple to see the ‘intense’ side of India.
After a short cab ride and a stroll down the busy street full of flocking devotees we arrived at the Kali temple and the mayhem began. We realized that if we wanted to get inside the temple this side of Christmas we were going to need some assistance, so we agreed to let one of the temple ‘priests’ accompany us to the front of the line for a small but agreeable sum. Once at the front of the line there was still an incredible amount of pushing and shoving to be done to make it through the gate, (while several of the locals continued what seemed to be an overly aggressive altercation right in front of our faces and at one point I was sure I was about to get a stray fist in my face). Once we were within the central enclave and within reach of the Kali statue it was only marginally calmer but I could barely believe what all the fuss was about. What we actually viewed was a gaudily painted blobby head with 3 eerily staring eyes surrounded by offerings, glimpsed only briefly between other viewers arms and heads and the looming figures of the many temple attendants collecting offerings (more accurately demanding donations or violently shoving the empty handed on their way – that would be us!). And all of this in bare feet, while our shoes sat outside in the safety of a storage locker to be picked up on exiting the temple. The whole experience lasted only a few short minutes but for many seemed the exciting culmination of a lifetimes ambition – this being the oldest and most important Kali temple of the 51 in India that represent Kali, god of destruction and therefore an important pilgrimage for Kali devotees. Following our Kali viewing we decided it was time to have a gander at the other spectacle of the temple area: the sacrificial alter, that had apparently been getting a thorough dousing of sacrificial blood all morning. As we approached I heard the blood curdling scream of the next goat in line at the platform and before I had time to question the wisdom of my decision to actually check out this horrific and barbaric practice out I realized that we had arrived just in time to see the executioner swing his blade high in the air above his head and then bring it down on the poor innocent goats skinny little neck, ending it’s sad little life. Thankfully my view was obscured at the point of impact but what I did see is an image that will probably haunt me for the rest of my days. First a man with his hands over the severed neck of the goat shielding the onlookers from the squirts of blood flying from the headless body that writhed uncontrollably on the blood-spattered concrete, and then the now detached head being tossed aside. And shortly after a second goat in the same condition writhing equally as violently beside the first this time with no hands to cover the severed neck – and so – the view of spinal cord and neck musculature, dissection style, in cross section. I had seen enough. And by the look on Line’s face (my Danish friend) so had she and it was time to make a hasty exit before we both threw up in our mouths.
And here we are, full circle, back at my earlier proposition that India is full of barbarians. And while some will argue for the ancient practice of sacrificial rights as a methods to appease the gods and in this instance the great god of destruction Kali and it’s relevance, to me, it seems a practice that has absolutely outlived it’s value in this world. And I have to ask: what positive can be said about a race who clamor over one another in an almost violent rage to view a plastic three eyed god, while goats are slaughtered in its honor only feet away? (Apologies to my beloved Indian friends who are the exceptions to the rule in this country of Barbarians.)
As we taxied back to our hotel to retrieve our luggage and be on our way I reflected on it all and took it all in. The longer I remain in India, the more clearly I see how obvious and distinct the castes of India are and how deeply ingrained into the fiber of this place they have become. The untouchables that unroll their mattresses on the street as night falls, and defecate in plane view of their fellow citizens are literally inches away from being animals. They have no respect from other by default and instinctively have little respect for themselves. They have no will to improve their status as they understand in the DNA of their cells that it is futile, and walking through their world you realize that you are merely a spectator of their lives and this system. It’s like watching Coronation Street, Brookside, Dynasty and James Bond all at once on the same TV screen. There is no way that these 4 realities should co-exist in the same space at the same time – but they do. In India there are many levels: 7 castes – and you can see each one operating independently of the others but occasionally intersecting so that some in ways rely on others to continue as they are – but the awareness of the other human life belonging to a lower caste is almost as a ghost like presence. It inspires the sentiments of injustice and hopelessness – but the players seem un-phased by their lot.
Having studied religion in school until the age of 16 (a requirement by law in UK), I was already pretty well versed on the main practices and beliefs of Hindu’s in India and the basics of the caste system but when I first arrived in India I also read ‘White Tiger’ to give me a more personal insight into the reality of India today and I’m certainly glad that I did. I have moments when I look around and realize the profound truth of what the writer is trying to say – and find a much deeper understanding and recognition of it’s truth and reality in the India of today than I first garnered while I was reading. The caste system was built to perpetuate itself and it seems almost impossible to break the cycles set in place by it, so it will be fascinating to watch and see what the growing economy of India will bring and if the scales will tip or whether the rungs of the ladder will stay firmly in place – but it seems to me, that if the rest of the world is watching as closely as it doubtless will be – something will have to give – but how and when – well those are some mighty big questions?

1 comment:

  1. Reading this post reminded me of religious studies as well and learning about the caste system. Caste system possibly another outdated piece of history that is rotting alongside political and economic systems. But what do I know, I'm just a guy sitting here, reading, writing. Thanks for the read!