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The sun is getting low in the sky over Calcutta, long shadows slice through the afternoons haze and rest across her wide boulevards and Maidens. Cities are like love affairs. Each has its own character and its own reason for you being there. At first they are exciting, everything is new, they are there to be explored. You experience wonder and trepidation as you wander through roads and lanes, shops and markets, people and sights – these are the things that cannot be experienced in any other city, her geography, her infrastructure, her mystery – this is the mistress to explore.

 

Over time you get to understand her. You develop a routine, the same coffee shop in the same street, the same barber, the same bar with the same barman. You seek solace in what you know – she then has you, your mistress she looks down on you from her rooftops and religious spires she reaches out to you and asks you the question, do you want to be my wife.

 

Calcutta is  a place I fell for many years ago, because of its name – a gateway to the East a place of wonder. She had a certain romanticism surrounding her. She was a woman that one sees from afar, on another platform or at a passing bus stop, always causing wonder, wondering just what she would be like. She is intellectual  and smart, tidy and has a certain class and is terribly British, she is easy to know. She is comfortable and welcoming – however she is just a little boring. I could spend a certain amount of time with her, but eventually I would leave her.

 

Bombay is not the kind of city you take home to meet your mother. She is a fling with great passion, she wears short skirts and high heels and often goes up escalators wearing no knickers – After a night with Bombay you question to yourself “How much do I leave on the bedside table,” Bombay’s streets, its slums, its poverty and riches, she will eat you up, suck you dry and spit you out. She’s an urban whore. To paraphrase Catch 22 “Bombay is the kind of girl you fall in love with, because she is the kind of girl you can sleep with without falling in love with.”

 

Delhi can not be trusted, she has two sides and she knows it. She comes across all smiley and nice, but is truly a bitch. She hangs around at photocopying machines and chooses her mate or really her prey. She is slightly schizophrenic and suffers from an addictive personality. She is a city that needs help she needs to be booked into therapy and a clinic for damaged cities’ souls.

 

I am on the train, a 31 hour trip, leaving the kind warmth of Calcutta’s bosom and heading back to face that mistress of mine Bombay. The kind of city that good boys should stay away from, the kind of city that terrorists try to kill. But she is too streetwise, those little boys with their guns. She took them in made them men, then spat them out without their trousers or their souls. Bombay that mistress of mine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“What do you want” the fifth annoying hawker in five minutes asks me. “I can get you anything.” “Guns” I reply. “Is there a gun shop around here.” “Toy guns,” inquires the hawker, scratching his rather long nose. “No, no real guns, high caliber sniper rifles, damn airport lost mine, the kind that will take a man down at 500 yards, can’t trust anybody these days, airports heh” I sigh with frustration. “You will need a license in India for those sir”. “Surely not, surely there must be a shop around here someplace,” I peer into a bag shop, the shopkeeper smiles at me expectantly. “ Would you like silk scarves sir, I have a shop just here” the hawker tries to steer me into a silk scarf shop. “What caliber are they?” “What?” “What caliber are your silk scarves?” “No sir these are silk scarves, export quality.” “Well they are not really what I am after, thank you for your time.” I walk off into the crowd leaving a rather bemused hawker with his silk scarves.

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Calcutta is a shopping paradise. It has streets that would rival Oxford Street or 52nd street. Shop, shop, shop. Consumerism is here and middle class India loves to shop. Actually Calcutta is very much like New York. With its Ambassador yellow cabs, Park Street could easily be 1930s Broadway. The architecture though is distinctly colonial and in fact the British truly have left their mark here. The Maidens (large grass areas) provide all sorts of clubs – cricket, badminton, polo and the Kennel Club are all here. All very la di da.

 

Fancy coffee shops sit next to record shops and book stores that are awash with self help books – the secrets of life, how to become rich in 10 days, yoga for people that can’t be bothered, Mein Kamph, and other light reading. India is on the rise and there is plenty of advice as to how you can retain your spiritual self, make other people wealthy and ignore the realities that surround you.

 

The middle classes are the new India, consumerism is on the up, India’s future is there on the smiling faces of its shopkeepers. Turn a corner though and you are into the other India. Chah wallahs, street food, pissing in the street, people sleeping rough and rickshaw wallahs that don’t even have the luxury of a bicycle. So don’t worry there is still a high enough level of poverty to keep old India alive for a few decades yet.

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Now where can I buy rocket launchers.

 

 

When I think of Bangladesh I generally think of some natural or human disaster. Because of its geography it is prone to cyclones, widespread flooding and political turmoil. So I guess it is apt. that I arrived in dense fog – this combined with a puncture, the bus getting lost in the fog and the carnage that was out on the roads meant that the journey from Calcutta to Dhaka took a laborious 20 hours of no sleep, no food and not a thing to be seen. Furthermore I arrived on Victory day, so everything was shut. Exhausted I decided to check into a posh hotel, well posh by my standards, at 9 quid a night it was not my usual flea pit.

 

Dhakahas an official figure of 88,700 rickshaws, well that is the number that government says. Another figure estimates it closer at 600,000. From the 8thfloor of the Manhattan hotel, my toilet has a great view of an intersection and the chaos that it embraces. I would also like to note that the cistern of the toilet was connected to the hot water supply, so every time I flushed it emptied several gallons of boiling water down the drain – is this something posh hotels do or is it another example of the insane plumbing that you find on the sub continent. I also noted that the shower ran out of hot water quite quickly…..I pondered if there was a way to get the toilet connected to the shower. Anyway, so back to the rickshaws, however many there may be, they make a lovely tinkling noise, this combined with the constant use of horn and the call to prayer gives Dhaka wonderful, chaotic, sound. If I were to get a stomach bug, this would be the place I would wish it to be, a toilet with a view and the harmonious symphony of a working city.

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And then there are the buses. If you have ever been banger racing and seen the aftermath of the twisted and torn, once family, motors. Then this will give you an indication of what the buses look like, this then too will give you an idea of how they drive. If you are going to die on a bus, then this is the place it will likely be. I started planning routes to the many places I wanted to visit….unfortunately there is no way of avoiding buses…….I started planning the newspaper article “Bus crash carnage in Bangladesh, 40 dead only 1 survivor, a westerner” there is then a photo of me in full crash helmet and encased in 30 layers of bubble wrap, with the quote “I thought I had had it when the local kids started popping my bubbles.”

 

 

More to follow in Bangladesh – power to the people (Part 2)

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