In which I talk about 'Slumdog Millionaire'
When I see a headline which reads like this one from the Times of India, India among top 13 countries in scientific papers - surely I can't be the only one whose first reaction is 'so, you're at Number 13, then?' After all, who gets the number 10 slot and says 'we're in the top 13?'
If you've spotted other examples, please let me know.
Amitabh Bachchan un acteur indien a gagné la Legion d'honneur. Bachchan 'est une véritable légende vivante dans son pays avec quelque 140 films à son actif'. Aussi, Bachchan était le presenteur de कौन बनेगा करोड़पति - Kaun Banega Crorepati. C'est le versionne indien du 'Qui veut gagner des millions?' Amitabh Bachchan, an Indian actor has won the Legion of Honour. Bachchan is a veritable living legend in his country with some 140 films to his credit. Also, Bachchan was the presenter of कौन बनेगा करोड़पति - Kaun Banega Crorepati. This is the Indian version of 'Who wants to be a millionaire?'
(If there are errors in the French or Hindi, please let me know).
In Tamil Nadu, a 1000km race has begun using autos! An auto (auto-rickshaw) is a ubiquitous form of transport in India, it's basically a two stroke engined vehicle, with a roof, open to the elements for the most part, very loud, not tremendously comfortable.
From the race website:
The race will take you deep into the heart of Tamil Nadu. Once there you'll travel through an incredible course of misty jungles, balmy coastlines, flooded streets, monsoon rains and overpowering Indian crowds. By reaching a multitude of challenging waypoints and completing physical and intellectual exercises, you may be crowned Autorickshaw Rally World Champion.
Psst, guv'nor....give me your cash, and I'll come back with double your money! This would raise suspicions in the majority of people, yet in India a scheme has been operating in Tamil Nadu which worked on just this principle.
Except that you hand over real money and get back counterfeit.
Rule of Thumb: If it looks too good to be true, it usually is.
See Previous Date: 2nd January, 2006 Place: Kolkata
The 1st was a day for travel. We had breakfast and checked out, then took the taxi to kasba (the guy tried it on by overcharging, but was refreshingly upfront about it saying "I'm requesting a little more..." - he had been very helpful, and he hadn't tried to rip us off so he got the extra).
The farewell was quite tearful, and as we left I said 'abar daka hobay', meaning 'we'll meet again'. This caused everyone to smile and cheer, mostly at my Bengali!
Anupam came to the station with us, seeing us safely onto the Rajdhani express. Again, we travelled first class here (and it's well worth it on such a long journey).
The journey was overnight, and they looked after us on the train, with linen, meals and so forth.
We stayed at the same hotel in Delhi as before, the Hotel Ajanta, and knew exactly where we were headed, so on arrival we walked purposely, ignoring the calls of 'Auto, sir?' and 'Taxi, sir?'
We arrived in short order, it's very close to the station - that was one of the reasons we chose it!
At the hotel, we hired a car for the day to take us around Delhi. As we were going around New Delhi too, it cost a little more - the sum of 600Rs, about 7 quid. Bargain.
We started by going to the Red Fort. We weren't able to go in previously as it was late, this time it was Monday, it's closed on Monday. Still, we wanted a daylight visit. A good vantage point is at the end of Chadni Chowk and there is an interesting looking Jain Temple there too.
From there we went to Raj Ghat.
This was the place where Mahatma Ghandi was cremated. There are quotations all around the place in various languages, There are Ghandi quotes in Hindi, Urdu, Gujurati, Spanish, English, Zuli, Telugu and others, but no Bengali (that we could see). There were some works going on, so maybe the Bengali has yet to appear.
We then went to Humayan's tomb, probably one of Delhi's best kept secrets. This is a huge complex, and it had very few visitors on the day we went. The tomb pre-dates the Taj Mahal, and one can see the architectural connection. It's essentially a sandstone Taj. The place isn't just the main tomb, there are outbuildings, each one is a fine piece of architecture in it's own right.
It's a great place to visit, though at one point tour guides did try to thrust themselves upon us, which I didn't appreciate - though Monica did listen to what one bloke had to say.
Humayun's tomb is much more peaceful than the Taj due to there being fewer people, although it doesn't quite have the same magic the Taj has, probably due to the marble the Taj Mahal is made from.
From here, we went to India Gate, it may look just like the Arc de Triomphe or Marble Arch, but the thing is huge. As it's at the end of the Raj path, it needs to be big to be clearly visible from the President's estate and government buildings!
New Delhi (as opposed to Old Delhi) is a planned city, built symmetrically about the Raj Path.
At the suggestion of our driver, we went to the Shri Lakshna Narayan Temple, this was very beautiful, with Swastikas everywhere (the Swastika was appropriated by the Nazis, but is actually a much older symbol ). It's not possible to take photos inside the temple without causing offence and being ejected, so all I have to show you, dear reader, is a shot taken from the road outside.
The place is phenomenal, shrines to various Hindu Deities, enscriptions on the walls, and so forth.
As we left, a rather persistant chap tried to sell us all kinds of stuff. He simply wouldn't take 'no' for an answer, following us down the street and through the underpass (the car was waiting on the far side). He was really very annoying, and started to make me quite angry. His prices dropped phenomenally, he was soon asking for a third of his original price, effectively saying 'I just tried to rip you off massively'. I don't like that - if he had asked for the real price in the first place, he may have got a sale, but harrassing us like that made me want to hit him!
In the temple itself we bought a couple of items, I got a pencil tidy for my desk at work, and Monica got some earrings.
We finished the day by visiting the Cottage Industries Emporium. This was the usual sort of affair, textiles, jewellery and so forth.
I got a light scarf which should be good for the winter (50% silk, 50% pashmina) - though it was hard to find one that wasn't too over the top for my male European tastes. The colour isn't ideal, but it's not bad at all - it cost only 350Rs (about 4 quid). We looked at a few other bits and pieces, Monica spent some time looking at some handpainted pictures, but didn't buy any.
We went back to the hotel, eating at the Hotel Ajanta. To start, we each had Masala Papad (popadoms topped with spicy vegetables). Monica had a spicy soup and chow mein, I had seekh kebab with paneer parantha. We had a desert too. The whole lot, including a tip for the waiter and three bottles of water was 350Rs!
A note about water in India, be sure to check the seals of bottles when you buy - and don't buy bottles that look a bit battered. Also, when you're finished, crush the bottle. There is a mini-industry of people who collect old waterbottles and fill them from a tap of dubious quality.
The next day we would take a car to the airport and fly back to the UK. I took my chadoor on the flight, as it packed quite small, suitable for hand luggage, and would both be a nice blanket if I wanted to sleep, as well as being warm when I got off the plane in January in the UK.
Over the past weeks and months, Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola have been banned in various places in India. Firstly near educational institutions, then in whole states. Now there are calls for a ban in Rajasthan, the state that neighbours Delhi.
The has previously been debated in the Indian parliament after allegations of high pesticide content.
Trade bodies are crying 'foul', and obviously the Cola giants aren't pleased. They've said that the bans are arbitrary and that 'Government actions have to be driven by rule of law and in the overall public interest'.
Other articles point out that the campaign against the colas may be politically motivated.
So, the parliamentary committee would have been assiduous in trying to nail Coke and Pepsi on any violations. Their conclusions were that Diet Pepsi contained 0.36 amounts of pesticide per parts per billion (ppb), as tested by the Central Food Laboratory in Kolkata, that Pepsi contained 0.09 and that this was below the limit prescribed for packaged water by the Ministry of Health. Compare this with 28040 times the prescribed limit that we find in tea, 11560 times that we find in eggs, 34180 times that we find in rice, 30200 times that we find in Indian apples and 6560 times that we find in milk products and you can see for yourself that the pesticide content of Pepsi is miniscule.
The article goes on to point out that there may be more important issues at hand.
India is a country where even the rich do not have access to clean drinking water. The municipal water that is supplied to us in cities and small towns across is so dubious that few middle class Indians drink it without either zapping it with aquaguard or boiling it.
The American Council on Science and Health make a similar point
Pesticides are present in the groundwater throughout India due to overuse by farmers, and as a result, negligible levels end up in the Coke and Pepsi that is produced in India. It also ends up in everything else that the Indians drink, but that hasn't stopped the Center for Science and Environment from crying bloody murder.
...The reason for this controversy is not that Pepsi and Coke contain pesticides (which they do not at any level that affects human health) but that they are American companies dominating the Indian soft drink market. Indian nationalists are using phony health concerns as a shield to fight "Coca-Colonization," a popular term for the spread of Western corporate power into non-Western nations.
The CSE (Centre for Science and Environment) itself has a report saying that:
Q. Why the "milk has more pesticidesâ€ chant of the cola companies is dead wrong. Why must the standard for pesticide residue take into account the nutritive value of the final product?
Our reason is simple: if soft drinks contain a cocktail of pesticides above stipulated standard, they are unsafe. The companies say there are no stipulated standards. The reason is simple: they don't allow standards to be formulated. The companies say milk and vegetables have more pesticides than colas. But milk and vegetables also have nutrition. They give us something in this poison-nutrition trade-off. We get nothing with colas. Just pesticides. Harmful and deadly
Whilst it may well be the case that levels of pesticide in Indian cola is too high (I don't have first hand evidence one way or the other), this argument is fatuous. A cyanide pill might kill you and hence is bad, a cyanide pill in an apple isn't good for you!
That said, the argument that 'Milk has more pesticide' doesn't necessarily mean that 'we're okay', it could also be an argument for 'ban milk', too.
The Cola companies have responded in a more objective way, by saying that there are no detectable levels when measured against EU criteria. Update: The CSE (Centre for Science and Environment) are demanding that these tests are published.
The Supreme Court ordered the US soft drinks maker, along with its rival PepsiCo, to supply details of the chemical composition and ingredients of their products after a study released this week claimed that they contained unacceptable levels of insecticides.
Justice S. B. Sinha and Justice Dalveer Bhandari directed the companies to file their replies within four weeks, the Press Trust of India reported. "If they don't comply, then the court has the authority to suspend sales,â€ Shreyas Patel, a lawyer at Fox Mandal Little, India's oldest law firm, said. "But no one is going to give away a 120-year-old secret, especially in a country like India. Someone would go and make it themselves."
Coca-Cola's original recipe, according to company policy, is kept in a bank vault in Atlanta where only two executives â€” banned from travelling on the same aircraft â€” know it.
I've never really understood this, I mean, in the UK ingredients must be printed on the sides of products (okay, not the detailed preparation instructions, but still...!)
Bollywood gets a fair amount of work through sponsorship deals, so perhaps it's not surprising that various Bollywood types are coming out against the bans. Shahrukh Khan has said:
My intention is not to defend the brand I endorse. But I would like to ask the agency (which tested the soft drink for pesticides) whether they have analysed the how safe is the water we drink or if mother's milk also contains harmful chemicals?
Again, this is a straw man argument. It may well be that mothers' milk has more pesticide, but there is a well known phenomenon in biology whereby the concentration of toxins can increase as one moves up the food chain. If the pesticides can't be expelled from a mother's system, and water is, then the concentration of pesticides she passes on could be higher than the concentration she takes in. He also says that 'if Pepsi was banned in India, he would go to USA to drink it'. Yeah, right.
Though the argument itself is specious, the point that they could be unfairly targetted is valid. Lots of items in India have high quantities of pesticides due to their heavy use in the country. However, that doesn't mean that complacency can be allowed.
There's a lot of smoke and mirrors with this debate, and it's not a new issue, it's been fizzing along (ahem!) for some time. It has started to make some people wonder if there is the possibility that 'if the beverage makers are just short changing the Indians or if our US soda contain the same things?'
My instinct? Feels political to me, but I'd want to see an independent study.
Monica was a little unwell in the morning, which was a bit of an inconvenience. Anupam arrived at around noon with some medicine for her. The plan for the day was to go to 'Science City' , but instead we went straight to Monica's Mum's flat. On the way, we saw a poor chap with leprosy, a truly horrible disease. The skin on his hand had gone, leaving the flesh raw and exposed. At the hotel, there was a donation box for leprosy relief, and I made sure that we put a chunk of change in there. Apparently the disease is quite difficult to catch, it needs a depressed immune system.
Shejomashi was quite concerned that I was not to be bitten by mosquitos, and so fanned me for the whole time I was there!
Back at the hotel, we were not really up to partying the night away - we had a long day of travel ahead, and we were both a bit under the weather. A loud party at the back of the hotel did not keep us awake. Vey boring, but very necessary.
It was quite relaxed today, I took Monica out for a walk in the morning. We went down Camac Street and Shakespeare Sarani to a photo-processing shop, we wanted to get some prints for Monica's family. We then walked back down Shakespeare Sarani and turned onto Lord Sinha Street, going to the Gmami centre, specifically to the bookshop on the top floor.
We had a browse, Monica bought a couple of Rabindranath Tagore titles, and I bought a camera case as the zip had failed on my old one.
At the hotel, I had a fun time cashing a travellers cheque. They only had very low denominations available, and so I had to wait for the safe.
Monica took a bath, and I went hunting for postcards - not easy in Kolkata - it's not really geared up for tourists! I went down AJC Bose Rd, then turned right and walked past St. Paul's and the Birla Planetarium, where we'd been a few days before. No luck, I walked back on Shakespeare Sarani, and on a whim went into the Landmark bookstore in the shopping centre on Lord Sinha street and found some.
When I returned, Monica was ready to go, and so we headed to the flat for the afternoon.
In the evening, we decided to pack, so we wouldn't be rushing to do so on New Year's Eve, or New Year's day itself. Then we went down to 'The Polo Bar'. This was pretty much the same as the previous time, we wrote a few postcards, listened to the Phillipino band murder some quite good tunes and so forth. Tonight, there was a belly dancer, who came with her own security guard.
To me, he resembled a member of an Indian tribute band for The Village People.
Anupam and Barnali met us at the hotel at about half nine, and we took a cab to the Hooghly River (thankfully the medicines we had taken that morning saw us through the day). I think it was near Millennium park where we caught the boat.
We travelled across the Hooghly, travelling away from the Howrah Bridge. The previous day I had seen this boat heaving with people, and was concerned that it'd be like that - but it was out of rush hour, and so it was not a problem and we had a pleasant trip - though the pollution was quite something.
At the far bank, we walked up to the main road and caught another cab to the Botanical Gardens, it was quite some way. The Botanical Gardens are huge, we only saw a fraction of them, and like most things in India, tourists are charged a higher rate than nationals.
In the gardens there are lakes, birds and (to European eyes) some strange plants.
One of the highlights is the great Banyan tree. From a distance, the Banyan looks like a small forest, but it's actually one tree. It looks like many tree trunks whose branches have grown into each other, connecting the trunks. Everything you can see in these photos is one tree. The weird thing is that the entire tree has grown downwards to meet the ground from the sky - what looks like trunks are actually aerial roots.
This sounds impossible, what actually happens is that the tree starts to grow as usual, and then sends out horizontal branches. As these spread, they tend to collapse under their own weight, so they send down tendrils toward the ground, the aerial roots. When these touch the ground they begin to 'flesh out' and provide both nutrients and structural support. In the case of the great Banyan Tree, the original trunk that grew upwards was diseased and removed. All that's now left are the aerial roots.
The whole tree is some 430m in circumference, and still growing.
We walked in the Botanical gardens some more, stopping for some lunch (I didn't want any, but Anupam insisted I ate, so I had some crisps - I could face no more). By the time we took the boat back, the air had cleared somewhat, we could see people on the banks of the river washing clothes and themselves, and also we could see the bridges clearly, and the other river traffic.
The cab ride to Monica's Mum's was rather depressing. Unlike Agra, Delhi and Jaipur, Kolkata had been pretty hassle-free, but at one junction when the car stopped there was a small boy, followed by a disabled guy, then a blind guy, literally feeling his way from car to car asking for cash. All the advice tourists are given is not to hand out any money, for several reasons. This is all very well in principle, but rather different in practice when faced with such abject poverty. I found myself quietly shedding a tear.
At the flat I went to sleep rather rapidly, and I wasn't in the mood for food. One of the neighbours came in with some noodles which they had prepared for us - and it would have been rude not to accept. Then Kalpana produced a fish curry, I think they called it a Chilli-fish. It tasted like chicken.
It was the best fish curry to date. To my surprise the whole meal went down very well, I really didn't feel like eating beforehand, but am glad I did.
Back at the Hotel (Hotel Hindustan International), we decided to go for a drink and went down to the 'Polo Bar'. This is billed as an 'English Pub with a live Phillipino band'. They had a mix of songs, ranging from 'Every Breath you take' to Bollywood.
So, we were in an English Pub, with a Phillipino band, playing Hindi songs, in Kolkata, where the main language is Bengali.
Unfortunately the only beer they had was Heineken. So I did the only reasonable thing for an Englishman abroad in India - I had a Gin and Tonic (extra Quinine, dontchaknow, anti-malarial).
The waiter was particularly good, he was constantly scanning the room, and when he saw a customer running low on nibbles, they were topped up before the customer even noticed they were low, when a customer fumbled with a cigarette, he was there with a light. (A shame about the amount of smoke in the bar, but with all that pollution outside, what's a little more?)
The trick I couldn't work out was how to stop him before he replenished our snacks!
The 28th was a quiet day, both Monica and I were struck with diarrhea (not literally I hasten to add) and so we spent much of the morning at the hotel. By mid afternoon I was feeling better and went to stretch my legs.
I went along AJC Bose Rd for a bit, then turned into Lord Sinha road and into the Emami Shoppers City - a quieter and cleaner New Market.
On the top floor is a store called 'Landmark', which is primarily an English Language bookshop, with some Hindi and Bengali. It also sells stationary, DVDs, VCDs and CDs. I got four DVDs including three films by Satyajit Ray.
At about half past four, Anupam appeared at the hotel and we both felt confident enough to go out. We went to the Victoria Memorial and walked around the gardens there, again, we didn't go in. From there we went up to Millennium Park, a new section had just opened. Millennium Park is a long thin park on the banks of the Hooghly. At night, the Howrah bridge looked like a suspension bridge, the lights on it made it look delicate, and one could not see the iron girder structure. Millennium Park was full of life, people around, a band playing - generally a nice spot.
We ate at the flat (mostly through politeness, neither of us felt well) - and the meal included some boiled green banana to settle the stomach.
Back at the hotel we found that neither of us felt as settled as we'd have hoped. We took some medication and crossed our fingers for the next day...
On the 27th, Monica's cousin visited us. He wanted to take us out to buy something (this is the done thing in India, it's not polite to refuse). We took a cab to New Market again (actually, only partway, as he had an argument with the cabbie and we got out and walked). He was looking for a bronze statue for us, we went from place to place and were being asked for inflated prices. Things usually ended in an argument and we walked out. Eventually, I tried waiting outside the shop - as soon as we tried this, the prices roughly quartered. The message is, if shopping in India, take a local! He also got a leather wallet for me - it's Indian style, brown with nice patterns on it. It's a bit large for trouser pockets, but just right when I'm wearing a jacket.
We headed back on the metro (which was packed) and then to Monica's Mum's appartment.
In the evening, Anupam arrived with a chadoor for me, as I said, it's really hard to stop people buying gifts! The chadoor is great, essentially it's the West Bengal equivalent of the poncho. It's a short long blanketlike thing which you wrap around your torso, and it keeps you very warm. It came in handy when I had some time sailing on the English Channel earlier this year!
On the way back a taxi driver tried it on saying that I'd given him the wrong money, I know I hadn't. The difference was 50p or so equivalent, so not the end of the world, but it was the principle of the thing (I'd even included a tip!)
The thing I hate about India is that it can sometimes seem that everyone sees you as an easy mark. I understand it, relatively speaking we're well off, but it's very tiresome. There was one cab driver who was up front about it, he asked for a higher price, and when I pointed out that he was overcharging he said 'yes, but I've given very good service!' We agreed with him, and he got his cash. I didn't mind that, I did mind when people were sneaky about it, trying to play us for fools.
I don't want to overplay that, though - that's a small part of this great country.
For those people in countries which don't have boxing day, it's the 26th December.
After breakfast Monica went to the hotel gym, and I went out for a walk.
I left the hotel and went along Camac St, turning right into Shakespeare Sarani. I passed Kala Mandir and made my way to the South Park St. Cemetary, I wasn't sure if I got to exactly the right place, but in any event it was a nearby cemertary. The place was overgrown and full of character. Walking through the cemetary, left over from the days of the British Raj (which was centred in Kolkata) I saw lots of people going about their business. Carts of masonry were being pushed around, there were people filming, and a whole bunch of friendly kids (not asking for money!) who I exchanged some Bengali/Bangla বাংলা with. I think they were amazed to find a european who even had a few words (and that's all I've got!)
The language skills on display were at the level of - "আমার নাম মারক" (Amar Nam Mark - my name is Mark). I also asked their names, and smiled a lot.
As I carried on, I met a family coming the othr way. They warned me not to go any further into the cemetary as it backed onto a slum area, and there were cases of people being robbed at the rear of the cemetary. I was about to turn around anyway, so I walked with them to the exit.
We went to the flat in the afternoon, and had a fish curry for lunch. In the evening we went out with Anupam and Barnali and ended up at the Victoria memorial. It looked nice afer dark, but we could not go in. Opposite the memorial in the park area were some fountains running through a light display. Our evening tea was from a cart, we ate something called Bhel Puri, I don't know what it actually was - but it was very nice. It seemed to be puffed rice with some stringy bits and a sauce.
We made our way next to a place called New Market. it's a leftover from the days of the Raj, and is quite mazelike. There are official porters, you tell them what you're after and they guide you through the maze. Before heading there, Anupam said we were to buy something for me. I was against getting something purely for the sake of it, but they could not be dissuaded, but I did agree to getting something distinctly Indian, and something I would use. I wasn't going to get a shirt that I could just as easily get in the UK.
We got hold of some Darjeeling tea and a few other trinkets, and found a sweater for me, but could not get the size right. In one place an American gentleman had overheard us speaking and he came up to me to ask where I was from. When I said the UK his response was the 'he knew it was in that kind of area, but couldn't place if it was Sweden or Norway'. How sweet.
He announced that he was American. I replied that I knew - Americans were usually easy to spot. He found this amusing.
We spent Christmas day in Kolkata at a place called Nicco park, a little way out of town, past Science City. This is an amusement park, with lots of the usual sorts of rides, dodgems, a small roller coast, a water slide and so forth. It really is a place for the locals (not that Kolkata had masses of tourists to start with). I certainly was the only european I saw all day, and people kept waving at me. In Kolkata itself later in the week people kept coming up to me saying 'Nicco Park! Nicco Park!'
It didn't help that on the boating-dodgems (sort of rubber tyres with outboard motors), mine broke down, providing much amusement to the Bengali picnickers by the side of the lake - all I could do was smile and wave.
The fast food here was excellent, the guy made a curry straight on the hot plate, and it was delicious.
Anupam and I both went on the water slide, and arrived at the bottom dripping wet. No problem though, it was a warm day.
In the evening we gave out the gifts we had brought with us. We'd saved them as we were worried that they may be refused, and we wanted to be able to fall back on 'it's Christmas day' if we had to. In the evening we were to meet one of Monica's cousins at the hotel, so we rushed back. Whilst waiting (he never appeared) we had Terminator 3 on the TV, the Kumars at No. 42 and Desperate Housewives! An unexpected selection!
It's been quite surreal, on TV there have been Bengali santas selling carpets, and outside St. Paul's Cathedral in Kolkata there is a nativity scene, but apart from this we've essentially escaped the whole Christmas shenanigans.
One of the main things today was a trip to Rash Behari, a nearby street where jewellery is sold. Monica's mum was set on buying us a ring each. This was non negotiable. Now, the Indian sensibility is more gold -> better. Unfortunately this meant that most of the rings were way too much for me, I felt like 'Del Boy' and I wouldn't have worn the ring. In the end I got a nice simple gold band. Monica got a nice piece too. Gold jewellery is sold simply by weight in India, and in several shops they had an electronic display showing the up to the minute price from the financial markets. Monica's mum was a bit disappointed that they didn't have more 'bling' - but we had to explain that if she wanted us to wear the rings then they couldn't be quite the style she would have chosen.
In the evening we went into Kolkata with Anupam and Barnali and saw St. Paul's Cathedral, we then went to the Birla Planetarium. This was an English Commentary, and was quite funny when the woman broke into 'Indian Masi' mode and scolded the audience saying 'I thought I told you to keep the children quiet!'
There are also commentaries in Hindi and Bengali, I'm not sure how Anupam and Barnali coped with the English commentary.
After the planetarium we were taken over the Hooghly Bridge (Vidyasaga Setu) and back. Anupam seemed set on stopping the taxi in the middle of the bridge. We thought this was bloody dangerous, no hard shoulder - and it's not the best place to photograph the bridge!
Back at the hotel it was difficult to sleep, there was a wedding going on downstairs and music was thumping up through the floors.
On Wednesday 21st we moved on from Agra and it was time to brave the Indian Railways to Kolkata. The Rajdhani express doesn't stop in Agra, and so it was necessary to take the train to Kanpur. Late morning we travelled to Agra Cantt (Cantonment), and passed a school 'bus'. This was around 10-12 girls, all in school uniform crammed onto one cycle rickshaw - it was an impressive piece of packing!
We had a bit of a wait at Agra, lots of hassle from people wanting to clean my shoes (I was not wearing leather), and from street kids. I did weaken and gave some cash to some streetkids in exchange for a photo. This is against advice, but it's very difficult when they're right in front of you.
Then someone official looking offered to help us to our carriage. We declined, as we were quite capable of reading the ticket, but he insisted despite our protests. As we arrived he demanded 100Rs for his trouble! Okay, so it's not much, but as we didn't want his help....
Indian trains can be excellent, and at the same time quite stressful. As a white european I was being constantly hassled to buy something, and this gets tiresome. For the train to Kanpur we had a compartment in a second class carriage. These carriages are open to all, and at each stop people looked in, and then the hard sell began. This train would have ended up in Kolkata, but it would have taken 36 hours, and I would not have slept well - or at all.
We were due in Kanpur at around 6:30pm, but didn't get in until 8pm. In the next compartment there was an american couple, also going to Kolkata. The guy was called Caleb and I can't recall the woman's name. They planned on staying on the train, but changed their plans when we said we were transferring to the fast train. We had a wait of 1hr 50 minutes at Kanpur, unfortunately they didn't spend any of this time making sure their ticket was adequate, and so the last time we saw them they were arguing with the guard - I hope they weren't stranded!
Up until this point, the experience wasn't too good. We were being continually hassled, and didn't feel at all secure. The Rajdhani express was something else, and is to be recommended. First Class AC is expensive by Indian Standards, but works out to be equivalent to a modest railway journey in the UK. The carriages are secured, so one can relax. Linen and an evening meal is provided, as is morning breakfast and a newspaper.
At Kolkata we were met at Howrah station by some of Monica's family, Anupam and Barnali. They took us to our hotel (reasonably priced by UK standards, but we did get a good rate on it which brought the price down, it was incredibly extravagent by Indian standards, a bit posh by ours, we took the hotel on the advice of another of Monica's family). This hotel was the biggest expense in the whole trip. After refreshing ourselves, we got into a Taxi and went to see Monica's mother, she lives in an area called Kasba.
Driving in Delhi was scary, but driving in Kolkata left that in the shade. Kolkata driving is akin to stock car racing. In Delhi, there is a weight of traffic and slower moving vehicles which keeps the speed down - not so much in Kolkata. It's like Delhi driving but fast. Nobody indicates in India, the rule of the road seems to be that as you pass someone you sound your horn, therefore, if there is no horn being sounded it is safe to pull out. Several times in Kolkata we were on the edge of our seats with nervousness. Couples with this is the fact that in many taxis I simply was too tall, having to bend by neck just to fit. We were in Kolkata for 10 days and got used to the traffic, and by the time we returned to Delhi, the driving there seemed tame.
We spent the 22nd and 23rd december in the flat, we'd begin to venture out on Christmas Eve.
We had a bit of a late start, I was feeling better but Monica was not. We didn't set out until early afternoon, but we got to see the Taj Mahal, and it is truly one of the wonders of the world.
One parks some distance from the Taj Mahal and there is an electrical bus to take tourists the final stretch. This is an anti pollution measure, of course, there are lots of people offering to act as guides. Our guide was pretty good, but in hindsight we should have said goodbye at the Taj, as this would have freed us to explore alone, and still allowed him to look for the next punters - we didn't need him to take us back.
The Taj Mahal was built as a memorial for the favourite Maharani of the Maharaja of Agra, a monument to his love. The building is perfectly symmetrical, with a mosque on one side, and, to keep the balance, a whole seperate building on the other. This building can't be used as a mosque as it's facing the wrong way.
The Taj Mahal is finished in white marble, and at the top is a massive single stone lotus flower. To get it up there they made an earth ramp some 2km long, and hauled it up there with elephants. This represents a phenomenal amount of manpower.
On the far bank of the river we could see the foundations for what would have been the black Taj, this would have made a fourfold symmetry - the black Taj would have been the tomb for the Maharaja himself. It would have been black as he wanted to be in her shadow. Unfortunately, his son had seized power and the political situation was such that the Maharaja spent his dying days in Agra Fort, within site of his love at the Taj Mahal.
If you plan to visit the Taj Mahal, it should be noted that foreigners pay more than locals. Personally I have no problem with this given the differences in the average wage. Also, you will need to travel light. You are only allowed to take in a limited number of items. We took a camera and water.
From the Taj Mahal we went over to Agra Fort, this is a huge complex and only part of it is accessible to the public. There's a huge throne there, and one can see the rooms where the old Maharaja spent his last days.
At the fort there was a rope which went to street level, if any of the commoners wished they could seek an audience with the Maharaja by pulling on the rope which rang a bell to alert him. Somehow I can't imagine that working today!
Oddly, moving around the fort there were several people who asked if they could have their photos taken with Monica - this was just weird.
Monica was pretty beat by the time we got back to the hotel, we ended up watching Star TV, a submarine film called 'Below', and 'True Lies'. I made Monica eat something and she opted for the 'blandest thing on the menu', fish and chips.
It was a little worrying that she wasn't too well - we had a long train journey to face the next day. We would be off to Kolkata (Calcutta)
We had a good breakfast in Jaipur, and paid our bill of 600Rs (which covered two full meals and breakfast). This is about 8 quid.
We went to the City Palace Complex in Jaipur first, this is a huge palace complex where the Maharaja and his family still live. India used to be a large collection of individual kingdoms, and at Independence the way that they got the kingdoms to join India was to allow the Maharajas to keep some perks and privileges. These were removed by Indira Ghandi in the 70s, but some families were independently wealthy enough not to need Government support.
The Pink City of Jaipur was once a yellow city, but was painted pink as a welcome to the Prince of Wales in 1876.
As we entered the City Palace, we were greeted by the Mubarak Mahal, or Welcome Palace. This was built as a guest house for visiting dignitaries. Today it's a museum. The guards there will offer to pose for photographs, and then cheekily ask for a donation (but it's not much - and they were very nice, giving us Masala tea).
There are shops in the square surrounding the Mubarak Mahal, they do try it on a little bit, and overcharge mightily for westerners.
In an adjoining courtyard is a building which houses two large silver flasks. These were made for a visit to London by the Maharaja to carry holy water from the Ganges. They're guarded, of course.
A small and easily overlooked passageway leads to the Chadra Mahal courtyard, providing a good view of the main residence of the Maharaja's family.
The doorways are ornately decorated, with the surrounding arches handpainted with intricate designs.
We stopped in the palace café, which was reasonably priced, but expensive by local standards.
On the far side of the palace café was a snake charmer with a Cobra. He was encouraging people to stroke the hood of the Cobra - I wasn't happy about it, but Monica obliged.
When we got back to the car, our driver, Mr. Sharma had acquired a friend named Pradeep, who was in training to be a guide. Mr. Sharma was Pradeep's uncle. We were a little wary, but went along with it, and are glad to have done so. Pradeep took us to a memorial off the Amber Road. This memorial is a bit off the beaten track, but very impressive indeed. The city walls which snake up to the Amber Palace come down the hillside at this point . The memorial is apparently the cenotaphs to the Maharinis of Jaipur, and Pradeep said something about Madho Singh II.
From here we went up to Jaigarh, the Amber Fort. Here we found the Jaya Vana, which was the biggest cannon in the world when it was cast, with a range of some 22 miles. Below the cannon is a pond (and a long drop), so that after lighting the fuse the men can jump to safety.
Next was a visit to Amber, and a place called the Rajasthan Small Scale Cottage Industries. These are run by the Rajasthan state as an outlet for local products (no doubt giving a cut to guides who bring tourists). We were given the hard sell, which I find really annoying, and it makes me less likely to buy. Monica spent time looking at dresses and saris, and I got a headache. Essentially you sit on benches in front of a mattress, and there is a guy who lays everything out for you. Only once in India did I find a man who recognised this, he said to me 'you're British? I'll let you look yourself, the British like to browse, the Americans like to be sold to... I understand.'
Our next visit was very close to the city palace complex, the Janter Manter. For me this was the highlight of Jaipur. The Janter Manter is a collection of odd looking sculptures (to the untrained eye), in reality they're a wonderful collection of astronomical instruments, including a sundial with 20 second accuracy (note, this is local time, for Indian Standard a correction must be made).
There are all sorts of devices at the Janter Manter (which means calculating machine, and actually refers to a pair of discs which hang like gongs).
We had another visit to a textiles place which was close to the Janter Manter and then we were ready to go to the hotel. After a respite during the visit the the Janter Manter (it was great!) my headache had returned. For reasons to do with room availability we had to change hotels, we had dropped off our bags in the new hotel that morning, thus we were returning to the Shahpura hotel.
This hotel is in Devi Marg, and is full of marble and incense. The walls are handpainted, with a tiny brush, and we saw the decorator whilst we were there. This is detailed and time consuming work.
We were on the first floor, room 112, and the music from the dining room filtered upstairs to us. Including Frere Jacques on the sitar. This was all very nice, except that due to the limited repertoire we had Frere Jacques repeated several times.
We went down to the handpainted dining room for our evening meal. Monica had Yakhani Mutton, Palak paneer, and Veg Pulao. The mutton came with a lime/honey sauce and Palak paneer is paneer in a dark green sauce. I had Rajasthani Sula, which I really liked. I had this with butter naan and stuffed paratha. The sula was lamb which had been marinated in spices and cooked on charcoal.
For desert we had halwa, which is made with semolina and carrot. I don't normally like semolina, and so it was a lovely surprise that I really enjoyed this. It had a lovely colour to it, and the consistency of grated coconut.
It occurs to me that I never finished documenting the India trip, I must remember to do that at some point. In the meantime, for anyone who has never been in Indian traffic, this clip sums up what it can be like!