Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Color of Dawn

I stayed at a friend's house this past weekend and woke up to the sound of birds. They owned birds, kept in cages on the veranda. Brilliantly colored lovebirds, parakeets, cockatiels and finches were all making noise waking me up early. The house was locked up with metal grates on all the doors and windows. I was, in effect, caged as well. It was very quiet except for the birds, but as the sun rose and warmed the air, the wild birds came to visit. The two-story house in the next compound was painted a warm butterscotch yellow with melon orange trim, mint green shutters and window grates and lilac pipes. The shaded space of the balconies and porches were painted turquoise. The doors were painted orange. The bright colours of the house were muted in comparison to the riot of color from the birds, and flowers everywhere.

First to come were tiny little grey birds with long thin beaks and flippy tails that were long in proportion to their bodies. They are about the size of hummingbirds, but do not fly like them. Next to arrive were larger bright yellow birds, orioles, with black caps. Other even larger generic looking black and grey birds vied for footing on the tree branches and shrubs outside the windows.

The lush garden of hibiscus, cannas, palms, weeping trees, flowering maples and other tropical plants and vines attracted dragonflies and butterflies, flitting along on the breeze. Chickadees dared to enter the veranda to search for fallen seeds on the floor. A spotted brown dove arrived, but was deterred by the window grate. It flapped its wings hysterically, before finding a roost on a nearby tree.

Around nine AM, wallas starting shout-singing their wares down the quiet lanes. The parakeets emerged from their little ceramic pot house to preen their feathers. Music from a distant radio started playing Bollywood show tunes. At one point, there were 12 chickadees, wrens and sparrows between me and the caged birds, looking at me, looking for seeds, looking at me, looking for seeds, then jumping to the window grates to watch the birds in their cages. The wild birds dispersed as the caged ones grew more animated and loud.

The parakeets started getting jiggy with each other, rubbing their faces against each other. The finches stared to sing a rather tinny, robotic song. The lovebird chreeched regularly at this point. He was a riot of color, like a melted box of crayons. He kept trying to tip his water bowl over, which was bigger than he was. The cockatiel, who, when I first stepped out on the veranda, became quite upset, flexing her crest, jumping from roost to roost, dancing on the floor of her cage with her feathers splayed - she'd calmed down and sat still with her beady eyes watching me write. The lovebird did a few more spins before settling down. That's when the parakeets started getting a bit noisy.

At my place, I get more than my share of crows, which are larger than U.S. crows. They have interesting plumage, black with charcoal grey heads - quite striking. Plus I have at least two mating pairs of kites that spend a lot of time using my terrace as a lookout point. I've also had visits from smaller, jay sized black and white birds. They remind me of water birds, with extremely long legs in proportion to the body. They have crisp white bellies...

Suddenly, the wild birds flew away with a great flapping of wings and cacophony of whistles and the caged birds went stark still and silent. I took it as a reaction to my flipping the page in my book. Then I looked to my right to find that a beautiful feral cat had silently padded its way close to me and crouched two feet away. Her tawny coat had flecks of black. Her lime green eyes were slits ringed in black. Her tail, with rings of black, flitted back and forth and her butt twitched ready to pounce.

A head popped through the curtains at the door.

"Tea?" she asked.

I looked down. The cat had disappeared.

"Sure," I said. "Can I help?" I asked, as I rose from the chair. It was going to be a beautiful Sunday.

Guest Post: William Goes to School

Well, I guess I should being by telling the story of The Others:

About the time we moved here, my mom was contacted over myspace by an Indian skater by the name of Zubin. (Editor's Note: Zubin is a kid who knows my friend Nick, who owns sk8 Goa, just south of Mumbai. It is the only professional skatepark in India. Nick had mentioned to Zubin that we were moving here and that I was interested in building a skatepark in Calcutta. Ever since, he's been stalking me about it.) I was overjoyed by this unexpected and seemingly fantastic notion of a group of Indian skaters. They call themselves, the skate group, The Others. The Others include Zubin, Ben and Tim (Canadians), Akshay, and Varun, and yours truly.

All of them except Akshay attend Bridge International. Akshay studies at Cambridge
and I myself am receiving my education at Calcutta International (C.I.S). Apparently, The Others are famous throughout all three of the schools, as the schools are all tightly connected with one another.

The first day of school:

Upon entering the gate, I was struck by the amount of eyes zeroing in on the funny dressed American. Well, after receiving my instructions for the day, I was put in with my class group walking up the steps to class 8-B. The classroom itself was smaller than I expected, but in my opinion more comfortable.

A few people began to talk to me, asking where I was from and so forth. Then a few more people walked in, and immediately came walking up to me.

"Are you Will?"

"Um, yeah."

"Don't you know Akshay and The Others?"

"Um, yeah?"

"Oh cool, bye."

"Um, okay???"

That whole theme continued throughout the busy day. I am currently learning French on Mondays and Korean on Tuesdays. We have gym every Tuesday as well. Other than classes we have quite a few breaks, allowing us to visit the school and perhaps hang out in the basketball court and shoot some hoops. (Yeah, I'm not as good as I was in the States.)

My other classes are Algebra, English Language, English Literature, Physics, Geometry, Art, World History, Geography, Chemistry, Biology, Drama, Computers and something called Science Club. Whatever...

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

More Durga Puja!

Shubo Durga Puja! This came to me in the comments section of my last post, but I felt it deserved a post of its own. My experience of Durga Puja was mine alone and I seriously didn't explore the depth that can be found if you endeavor to spend 4 solid days venturing out to pandals. I wanted rest and relaxation more than anything else. A reader posted a comment on this blog that links to amazing pictures that show the depth and breadth of the beauty and intricacy of the pandals.

The thing that is so amazing is that most of this work occurs within one month prior to the celebrations, and are taken down and submerged in the Hoogly River or other water source at the end of the four days.

Check these photos out. They are just incredible:
(Step 1: Click on "Options" at the right hand bottom of the screen
Step 2: Tick on the tab "Always show title and description"
Step 3: "Save" this setting
Step 4: Enjoy... )


(Step 1: Click on "View as slideshow"
Step 2: Click on "Options" at the right hand bottom of the screen
Step 3: Tick on the tab "Always show title and description"
Step 4: "Save" this setting
Step 5: Enjoy... )

These are the kind of pandals I would gladly support - there is one with hundreds of little cubbies, another with columns lit some inside... breathtaking stuff... Please take a look.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Durga Puja in Kolkata

On Monday, I answered the doorbell to find three men at my door. Once again I was being asked for Durga Puja money. This time it was for meals. I asked what the last 400 Rupees was for and they replied that that was for building the pandal only. Now they wanted money to pay for our meals. I told them we hadn't made plans yet and asked if we could purchase them if we decide to go. They replied no. I said we weren't going and closed the door.

On Tuesday another group of three women showed up at my door. This time they wanted Durga Puja money to pay the security guards tips. They wanted another 400 rupees so that everyone got their share... At this point I was pissed off. I told them I would tip the guards myself. They insisted that that was frowned upon, that everyone should get an equal share. There are some workers here at the building that have been very nice and have helped me since I moved in. I insisted that the men who worked harder should be compensated accordingly, and that they didn't seem to have a way to accurately account for how the rupees were distributed. At this point, the discussion became more of a debate between political theories, so I just said no and closed the door.

Wednesday evening couldn't get here fast enough. My whole team had finished all of their projects earlier so they were basically watching the clock as well. Many were loitering outside smoking cigarettes or talking on their cellphones. I had wanted to let everyone go early but HR wouldn't allow it because they said it wouldn't have been fair to other groups. I won't comment on that, but as soon as their time came to leave, I pushed them out the door.

I took the car to Santoshpur to pick up DVDs and supplies for the long weekend. The traffic was absolutely crazy. There was a sea of women dressed in their finest sarees and salwar khameez. Men were dressed in their finery as well. I saw many of them in traditional kurtas and pants. A lot of people were wearing western clothing as well. There was loud drumming and music coming from every pandal.

Durga Puja is the celebration of the Goddess Durga, who comes to earth to save us from evil. That, unfortunately is all I have learned so far. Thursday evening our cooked arrived at 6:00 to take us pandal hopping, a traditional activity here. Will wore his black kurta that we'd bought at City Centre in Salt Lake - a good friend had suggested we get one and helped us select it. Wise decision. The cook was very pleased to see him in traditional dress.

Pandals are temporary structures with displays of the goddess within. There are typically a few other goddesses and gods, like Ganesha, and sometimes an evil dude or two along with animals and other decorative elements. They are not small, typically four or five feet tall, sometimes much larger in size. We tried to get a cab outside, but ended up getting into an autorickshaw for the first mile or so, then we switched over to bike rickshaws for the rest of the trip. We traversed down tiny little backstreets and between buildings, finally getting to our first pandal.

The pandal was three stories tall. There was a lot of gold and yellow. There were intricate carvings of gods all over the exterior of the building. There were people everywhere, and the crowd was controlled through the use of thread. Two guys held the ends together, letting people through at regular intervals. The crowd would surge toward the line, the guys with the thread would move back to the safety of the sidewalk, then fight their way back to the center with their thread to keep the crowd at bay. When it was our turn, we just let the wave of people push us through rather than fight the storm surge. We entered the structure; it was brightly lit. Inside, it looked like a small theatre. There was a group of musicians playing music in front of the stage. Above them was the Goddess in all her glory with animals and attendants. The crowd them pushed us out the side door. In all, we waited about 30 minutes to spend about 20 seconds looking at the Goddess. We then walked to the second pandal.

It was a magnificent structure, looking like a woven basket with rich details added to the intricate weave pattern of the exterior. There was a carefully landscaped walkway guiding you to the entrance. Two bright yellow barriers restricted movement down to a six foot span in the roadway. Two guards blocked any forward progress. The crowd here was much bigger and the crowd tighter. I used my elbows to keep people from stepping on me or pushing me off balance. Will was a few people back and I focused on not losing the cook in the crowd - she was a few people in front of me. Once the guards moved, the crowd streamed in. We walked past beautiful water features with lily pads and lotus flowers, then entered the pandal itself. This one was different. Inside the lit interior was a 20 foot tall column in the center of the room slowly spinning with images of the goddess on all its sides. We walked around the walls of the pandal and ended up outside again. We then headed to my cook's house for dinner, after which we spent over an hour trying to get a cab, then another or so taking the cab home. I gave extra money with a cheery "Shubo Durga Puja!" He smiled and said something back at me in Bengali. When we got into the house, both of collapsed onto our beds and were asleep in mere seconds.

Friday began early with a few hours of more pandal hopping, but by now I'd done all I could do with them. I loved looking at the mendi-wallas' stamps and there were plenty of items to purchase to perform the puja, like flowers and offerings, but at this point I just wanted a cup of coffee in an air conditioned room.

We hit the CCD (Cafe Coffee Day) in GolPark. They had a special menu just for Durga Puja and all I wanted was a cup of coffee. Apparently I wasn't going to get one unless I wanted chocolate ice cream and flavoured syrup. I spent maybe ten minutes convincing the waiter that I just wanted a simple cup of coffee, no ice cream, no syrup, no sugar. Eventually, he complied. While waiting for the coffee to brew, we watched Hindi music videos.

The woman dancing in front of the pack was wearing this shiny pleather jumpsuit all sliced open horizontally across the front of her legs. "Shania Twain called, she wants her pants back." This cracked Will up. Finally coffee arrived. Three cups of coffee and three snacks cost us just under 600 rupees. "Must be the Durga Puja rate," Will offered, when he saw my look of surprise.

We decided to just go home after that to watch DVDs. Maybe we'll venture out again tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Buying Beef in Kolkata

There is a place in Kolkata called Beck Began, where you can purchase meat and fresh produce near Park Circus. Beck Began is located in a mostly Muslim area and it was rumored to sell beef there. I visited this place last weekend after work Saturday. We grabbed a cab as it was getting dark and headed over there. The traffic was crazy. Everything was stopped and every space between cars was filled with pedestrians, rickshaws, carts, and dogs. Each time a light would change, no one seemed to move and there was very little movement. Some of the lights would take ten minutes to change, so cars are turned off, and people open doors, and walk around trying to see up ahead. When the light finally turns green, all the drivers scramble back to their vehicles and turn them on. If the car doesn't immediately start, the horns start up and don't stop until you move.

We finally made the left turn toward the market. The smell of meat was quite strong, mixed in with assorted other odors, including some you didn't want to acknowledge. We entered the maze of stalls making a left here and a right there, passing large piles of artfully arranged vegetables, some I've never seen before. Gorgeous, plump pomegranates, citrus fruits, tiny little green grapes, and bananas the size of your fingers were everywhere. Lights were bare bulbs strung along live wires strung along the tops of the wood posts from stall to stall. The floor was sometimes dirt, stone, cobbles or bricks. Newspapers and trash floated by like tumbleweeds. You had to watch for holes and high spots that could trip you.

"Yes, Madam"?"

"Madam, look at my freshest vegetables."

"What can you be wanting, Madam?" There was a barrage of people asking for my attention. I just followed my friend forward.

We walked through until we reached a smaller enclosure where a group of men were seated on a bench. There was a small portion of beef hanging from a hook on the ceiling. My friend asked in Hindi for a half kilo. One gentleman looked as us, then stood up pulling a sharp knife off the stone counter. There was dirt and other detritus covering the blade and the counter itself. He cut large chunks off the slab and threw them toward another man behind the counter, coating the meat in the dirt. It was wrapped in newspaper, we paid him then moved to the chickens. (Later, we scrubbed and washed the meat carefully as part of our cooking prep.)

"Yes, madam?" The chickens were small and were kept in a basket, still alive. My friends asked me how much chicken I wanted. I looked at the chickens clucking away and said just one, and I told her I couldn't watch this. It was one thing to select a block of meat off a hook, but seeing live chickens, made me so sad. I walked toward the fish market where there were many small cats roaming. Dogs were sleeping on some of the stone slabs where the fishmongers weren't set up. I approached one vendor with large shallow pans of fish and prawns. They were very fresh. I hadn't seen fish this fresh since purchasing them off the docks in Gloucester MA at 4:30 in the morning. I selected a kilo of tiger prawns for 250 rupees. They used a large sickle type blade to strip the shells and a second person removed the head. One of the men threw fish entrails to the cats.

It's quite a symbiotic relationship between the strays and the fishwallas. It's not like you see them petting the animals or treating them like pets, it's more like they serve a purpose of taking care of the parts of the fish that could not be sold.

My friends came back with a very warm package wrapped in newspaper. I was a bit nauseated about the chicken because it was the only creature that I had seen alive. Americans are so used to seeing their meat in a plastic wrapped foam package, carefully trimmed and appointed that it doesn't seem like an animal. Here, that mental divide isn't available. I think if I'd lived on a farm and had to prepare my own animals growing up, it would have been different.

After that, we went back to the produce area where we selected all sorts of fruit and vegetables. My friend showed me how to clean the veggies with salt and water to get them cleaned up. This market had very fresh produce. Comparing it to the U.S., I much preferred the quality here. The grapes I purchased in the U.S. came from Chile had no flavor compared to the ones from Beck Bagan. The tiny limes gave out much more juice. The herbs were spotless and lasted much longer than the "fresh" ones I'd purchase from the supermarket back home. The basics, onions, potatoes, garlic and ginger, were plentiful and in great condition. That day, we discovered beautiful oyster mushrooms, milky mushrooms and button mushrooms that were practically perfect. I hadn't seen this level of freshness anywhere in the U.S. except for when Chanterelle season hit in Washington State. We picked our own mushrooms off the forest floor and these seemed just as firm and fresh.

All in all, the entire trip to Beck Began cost around 20 U.S. dollars, including around a pound each of prawns, chicken and beef, plus a weeks worth of fruits and veggies. I was really pleasantly surprised because everyone kept sending me to food malls, where you find the prepackaged stuff and Pringles, Tang and Ragu. The food at Beck Began was far better quality at a tenth of the price.

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