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INDIA | Saturday, 12 December 2015 | Views [441]

Today was one of my favourite days to date. As usual abandoning my plan to get up early and go to the flower market I went through the morning stop start routine ending up with meditation, this time including the Tiratana Vandana, a section from the Confessions chapter of the Bodhicharyavatar and the five precepts. I was fortifying myself.

I then tried to find a laundry, I'm finding it hard to follow instructions when I don't speak the language, and successfully found A laundry, whether it was the one I was directed to I'm not sure. The laundry was no more than a shed like kiosk on Rippon Street with piles of wahing in front of it and two ironing board inside. Plus, incredibly, someone who spoke good English. I was told that it would cost me 20 rupees per item of clothing so, not knowing if that was good or not, I left to think about it. I did not have my clothes with me in any case as I intended to go straight on to Fluries, which has a bit of a reputation, according to the Lonely Planet guidebook, for English Breakfasts and such like treats.

For me, Fluries is a little like a downmarket Maison Blanc although I could not complain about the Eggs Benedict, minus layers of crispy bacon, and plate of french fries that I ordered. The filter coffee was good too. It was all a bit too twee for me, however, and pricey (that counts as a whinge).

After breakfast I tried to hail a yellow taxi to take me to Rabindranath Tagore's family home and museum, which I had initially thought was on nearby Middleton Street (but that is the RT Centre!!) I was a bit put out by having to take another long taxi journey and when the taxi driver did not understand me I was quite happy to abort the mission and head back to my room for a nap and then to hail a taxi using the Ola app that I have on my phone.

Nap I could not so I booked a cab over the internet and was downstairs in the three minutes it took for it to arrive. This time the driver not only spoke English but he wanted to practice it. Veejay, the driver's name, also gave me some advce on who to tip and what to tip (basically whatever I wanted to, which seems like a really good idea that I had never thought of), and assured me that the 20 rupee per item being demanded for my washing was not unreasonable plus, something which I was concerned about, that each sock would not be counted as one item. Moreover, he also deposited me safely in front of the Rabindra Bharati with the promise that he would call me later in the day to arrange to take me to the flower gardens the following morning. I cannot help feeling a little suspicious.

The Rabindra Bharati was one of the highlights of my trip so far. Tagore's grandfather was an incredibly successful and diverse businessman and built up huge estates, businesses and a fortune that his son and Tagore himself seem to have managed well. Their famly home, as the pictures show, is an oasis in the midst of decayed grandeur on all sides, due part to it being a museum and also I believe an educational establishment. To add to the calm, Tagores poetry set to music is piped out over the estate. 

I knew a little about Tagore but thoroughly enjoyed reading more about his life and philosophy, looking at his paintings - he came to painting in his 60s - which have a vigour and colour that strangely stands out more in displayed post cards, and particularly the rooms dedicated to his connections and relations with Japan and China. Here there was plenty of interesting stuff about the silk route, the Tagore's being traders including trading in Opium to China, and about the cross fertilisation of Buddhism between these countries over the years. 

I was not permitted a camera and foolishly did not take a note book as there were also extracts from his writing that I would have copied long hand. In particular there were two lines in a poem about friendship that I loved and tried to memorise (something like 'to meet a friend is to be born....') and obviously have failed to do so. Another piece where he describes his admiration for Japanese aesthetics (something like how the simplicity inherent in aesthetics creates a beauty and rigour absent where abundance can lead to a certain looseness of ethics and ...). I wanted to remember it for Vidyadaka because it made me think of his character and the rigour, vigour and simplicity of his room. Vidya means something like aesthetic sensibility I think also. I may go back with pen and paper before I leave.

Since I was way up in north Kolkata and it was not too late and since Nadeem has successfully goaded me into being a bit more courageous I decided that my next Ola taxi ride would be to Kumartuli. This is what the Lonely Planet Guide has to say about it: 'a short walk north of Shobabazar Ghat, lies the warren of Kumartuli, where a community of kumars or potters hand-craft lavish statues of voluptuous goddesses used for the city's religious festivals.' So, as you can imagine, not to be missed. The guide book also says 'the statues take form from straw and river clay, before being spray painted....'

My Ola taxi hailing technique by the way, so far failsafe, is to book the cab with the ap on my phone (all in friendly and perfect American English including such words as awesome) and then hand the phone over to a local when the taxi driver calls to ask him to explain in HIndi/Bengali where exactly I am to be found. As I say, so far so good, no-one has run off with my telephone.

ANYWAY, the cab journey to Kumartuli was long and tortuous though not far as the crow flies (Kolkat crows have a grey neck and belly by the way) and the streets were looking increasingly bleak. My exit strategy was to leg it back to Brook Street in Central Kolkata and I would have done so had I been able to communicate this to the driver. In the end, taking a little courage I paid the driver and exited the car by a public urinal somewhere I was not sure in the north part of the city. The driver was then incredibly kind and pointed me to where he thought I should be going, getting out of his cab to show me and I think he also called me later to see if I needed a ride back to the city. 

Once I had gone down the side street I had been pointed to, voila, there I was quite suddenly in the said warren. I was already pretty scared and this did not leave me, although I was struck by a particular and quite peaceful and creative atmosphere. The streets were narrow and branced off in many directions and there were the artisans creating voluptuous goddesses out fo straw and clay. In fairness to me it was not just voluptous goddesses. There was a pretty good stature of Gandhi and, if you look closely at one of the photos one of the Buddha. 

I was the only tourist around and was not getting much eye contact from the locals. By one of the stalls I saw my first rat scurry under a basket and, amidst the numerous dogs and puppies, for the first time, one dog began barking angrily at me. Part of me would love to go back to Kumartuli and to explore it further. It has a faded grandeur as you can see from the other photograph I took, I was reluctant to take too many, and the creativity of the people and warrens to explore also attract me. That's for another day perhaps as I let my feet guide me gratefully back the way I had come and on to the main road where I put myself and my phone in the hand of strangers again to call the Orla taxi that took me home. All for 150 rupees. A bargain.

Briefly now, dinner this evening was from an authentic Bengali restaurant, so they advertise themselves, and it was great. A vegetarian Thali with lime and soda and water to drink. I was heading to the Lonely Planet recommended Arsalan but, now being the bold adventurer, I went outside of the book and scored a hit. Vajrabandhu would have loved the meal, I thought, particularly as it came with a fabulours runny sweet mango chutney.

Bit long today. Hope you're all well and love from me. I'm really pleased that so many are following the blog and I'm trying not to get blogitus (this is where one becomes one step removed from what is going on by thinking about how one will write about it - I've read about this)



Tags: art, city exploration, fear

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