Filed under: India

Kolkata – Dhaka

I don’t know why I’m doing that to myself again and again. Once more it takes my breath away, when I step from the aircraft into the glowing sauna called Kolkata. Someone just seems to have made a lunatic infusion, because it’s not the blistering heat that is most back-breaking, but the humidity, that wraps me in its wet coat and soaks me to the bones within seconds. Why do I always have to choose the hottest countries of this globe for my journeys? At the moment, it’s summer in India, and the monsoon that reduces temperatures down to a bearable degree, still some two months away. The question is, however, which is better: submerge in the floods of the monsoon, or drown in your own sweat?

View from our favourite restaurant. Kolkata, India. 7th of March 2006

Kolkata is a seething metropolis, and although you don’t get to see much of it during four days, the impressions are enough to make you definitely want to come back. We stay in a small hotel in the New Market area, a vibrant quarter where life never stands still. Tea stalls, street kitchens, shoeshine boys, fruit sellers, cigarette stalls and all other kind of street hawkers alternate with the fixed built stalls of shoemakers, purse dealers, cloth sellers and kiosks, which almost wholly occupy the rare side walks and choke the streets in a never ending swarming which angrily honking cars and motorcycles push their way through. All kinds of odours wave through this chaos, and while you stop every now and then to absorb the charming scent of spices or flowers, you wish that your sense of smell were dead when you break through a wall of faeces stench or when you are pushed past a pile of refuses.

When we reach Kolkata, our plan is actually to head for Bangladesh as soon as possible to surprise our friends, who are absolutely clueless that we are here. Then, after spending some seven days in Dhaka, we want to journey on to Delhi to start our project. At first, however, we have to apply for my Bangladeshi visa and since we tiredly sleep away the Friday of our arrival, we face closed counters at the embassy the next day. It is closed for the weekend, and we have to wait until Monday, so we dive into the vibrant crush of the New Market, buying some clothes and an umbrella which is taken apart by the first slight breeze, and book our bus tickets to Dhaka for Tuesday. Nine o’clock sharp on Monday morning, we are at the embassy again.

Although we reach there early, the cue is already long, winding along the edge of the shadow that the rooftops above our heads cast in the bright morning sun. Half an hour later, I’m in front of the counter, and an impolite officer hands me over the form for the visa application. The same officer also receives it again after I filled it in duly, and informs me casually that I can come back for the interview after four days. Just a short time ago, the visa was issued within 24 hours, but for some obscure reasons, the embassy made this procedure more complicated so that you have to wait for up to ten days now to get your papers. Of course we didn’t know that and – in good faith – booked our bus tickets for the next day. I try to talk to the officer, but in vain. He explains us that he just receives the forms and that the visa is issued by another officer, and that we need to make an appointment and explain our needs to him if we wish to get special treatment.

Resigned, we proceed to the reception and apply for an audience at the visa officer. Finally, after two hours, he receives us and we are allowed to bring forward our concern. When I explain, that we already booked our bus tickets for the next day and therefore need my visa immediately, he virtually explodes. Who did we think we were to assume that they didn’t have anything else to do here! After all, there was a procedure that had to be followed! Frankly speaking, he wasn’t precisely wrong with that. It was indeed abundantly arrant what we asked for. But that didn’t change the fact, that we needed the visa immediately, and after my friend – being a Bangladeshi and therefore his sister – won over his heart, and after I sang a nice Bengal children’s song to him, he turns a blind eye and stamps my passport. We even have to promise to come to his place for dinner whenever we return to Kolkata. And by the way: No other foreigner received his visa that day…

We celebrate our last evening in Kolkata with grilled Tandoori chicken and three bottles of ice cold Kingfisher beer. Our Greenline bus starts early the next morning, at six, and after we paid the hotel bill, we hit the road for the coach stand, which is right around the corner (A fact that was not at all unwelcome to us with our two big rucksacks and five backpacks). The bus is waiting already, and we store our luggage in the trunk and get aboard. I quickly fall asleep, and when I wake up about one and a half hours later, I realise how huge Kolkata is. We are still in the city. From the last urban outskirts to the border however it’s just a stone’s throw, and at nine o’clock we get off the bus and into the Greenline waiting lounge to wait for the customs clearance.

It’s a strange feeling for a European of my generation, who grew up in a country without frontiers, to cross such a strictly guarded border as is the one between India and Bangladesh. I vaguely remember my mother showing our passports at the Brenner, when we went to Italy in my childhood. But for that, we didn’t even have to fully stop the car, let alone cross the border by foot with all our luggage and continue the journey in another car. Today, the Brenner station is a deserted, grey monument of this forgotten era, the dusted visiting card of an un-united Europe, and its new inhabitants are no customs officers any more, but truck drivers who take a short nap after a long journey.

Not so in Jessore. After fifteen minutes, we are fetched from the lounge, and two coolies – paid by the travel company – take care of our luggage. We follow the Greenline employee to the Indian immigration office, which registers all border traffic, and sit down in the waiting area. With us in the room, there are two men from Yemen who speak neither Bangla nor English, and an immigration officer tries to explain to them that one of them has lost his departure card which is stapled to the passport on arrival in India. Now they have to pay a fee to receive a new one. When it is our turn, we have to answer some questions such as where we stayed in India and then quickly get our stamp in the passport. We proceed, following our coolies through no-man’s-land now, where there is no law and no government, and enter the Bangladeshi immigration office on the other side. After some more questions and a quick look into my rucksack by one of the customs officers, they stamp our passports, staple their own departure card into it and finally wave us through. We take a rickshaw to our new bus which is waiting a few hundred meters from the border, and continue our journey to Dhaka.

Not much has changed since I’ve been here last time. The constant traffic jam that chokes every street 24/7, got worse again (we need three hours for a distance you would normally make within twenty minutes), power failure now happens six to seven times a day, and some more ancient buildings fell victim to the greedy hands of the real estate Mafia and were replaced by soulless concrete cubes. Javed, a painter and friend of mine, later tells me that the Shilpangol gallery is to be torn down, too, which is peculiarly tragic since this gallery – with its beautiful garden and tea terrace in the atrium an oasis in Dhanmondi’s concrete desert – was the venue for many great shows and a jewel of Dhaka’s cultural life.

The joy of the reunion with my friends is huge, and I spend a wonderful time there. Rosie, my Bangladeshi mother, cares for me as lovingly as always. During the last year, she arranged a breathtakingly beautiful garden on her balcony, but unfortunately it is soon to have no more light since an arm length away, the walls of a new apartment building are brought up. The room in which I usually stay is taken by a man named Selim, a consultant. We don’t see each other much during the first time, since both of us are out the whole time, but one day, both of us return home at the same time and we start talking. It becomes a two-hour conversation about our views of the world, and both of us feel so close to each other afterwards as if we had known each other for years. Selim, one of the most eloquent men I have ever met, promised to write a text for my Blog about his philosophy of life and I will be proud to post it.

The seven days in Dhaka rush by like nothing, although they feel like weeks. I spend most of the time with my five closest friends there – Insan, Chandan, Kashef, Patash und Javed. Insan is currently learning German, and his progress is impressive (I expect a German comment from you!). On the last evening, we all meet at Rosie’s place to say good bye, light-heartedly though, since I’m going to return end of July. We sit in the living room, smoke, make stupid jokes and laugh. At ten o’clock, Kashef and Chandan give us a lift to the bus stand, since we are late as usual. Both of them wait on the road side, waving us good bye, until they’re out of sight. We’ll be on the road now for 36 hours until we reach Delhi. I lean back into my seat and close my eyes, and within short I fall asleep.

June 2, 2006

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