Calcutta doesn’t, to be honest, have much in the way of tourist attractions. However, there is a small group of Jain temples that’s well worth a look,

Jain temple in Calcutta

Another Jain temple

Jain temple corridor

The bridges across the Hooghly river are also impressive. The Howrah bridge is probably the most famous. This is the less well known Bally bridge, though now we’re supposed to call it Vivekananda Setu much in the same way as we’re supposed to call Calcutta “Kolkata” and Marathon bars “Snickers” nowadays.

Bally bridge


Puri is a seaside town very popular with Bengalis. It’s also a good jumping off point for a trip to Konark. The beach, however, is shared with dogs

Dogs on Puri beach


Cows on Puri beach

and camels.

Camel on Puri beach


And finally a couple of pictures of TLP (one with his cousin).

TLP, cousin and present


[i2011 8]

‘Tis the birthday of Jesu, a day celebrated by buying expensive gifts that are rarely what’s really wanted or muchly appreciated, a day marked by eating and drinking to satiety and beyond, and presided over by the patron saint of commercial excess, St. Santa of Claus, the sacred rites being performed before the high altar: a synthetic tree covered in gaudy baubles signifying … nothing. But this year is different.

I walk along a dusty street towards the celebration hall. Today we’ll gather, more than 400 of us, to celebrate the birth five years ago of The Little Prince, a charming young boy, so full of life and energy. TLP is dressed like a little maharajah from turban top to gold brocade shoes.

The Little Prince

He’s playfully chasing after his friend who clutches a bag of crisps. They seem oblivious to the assembling crowd.

In the kitchen the caterers have ready vast woks of boiling oil

Sizzling oil

and great bowls of food.

Vast bowls of food

The hall is decorated with balloons, and there’s a montage of photos from TLP’s life so far.

Party balloons

Tables are dressed ready for the first batch of diners. Before I can take it all in a small paper cup of sweet, milky coffee is thrust into my hand and the social round begins. I’m led to chat with various strangers with whm my generous hosts think I’ll have something in common. Remember who’s who and how they’re connected is beyond me, for every young woman is a “sister” and every older one and “aunty”.

The birthday cake, a rather lurid pink affair, is brought in,

Bringing in the cake

and we gather around waiting for TLP sporting his most serious expression to blow out the candles and cut the first slices.

TLP cuts the cake
Then it’s time to eat.

Party dining area

We eat in batches of 100. As we are seated large polystyrene plates are placed in front of each of us by one of the caterer’s team, swiftly to be topped with an enormous pile of rice. Then the dishes come in swift succession: dahl, a golden battered and fried slice of aubergine, and fried potatoes.

Rice, aubergine, dahl, fried potatoes

vegetable curry, potato curry, a battered fish steak, a spoonful of bone-in mutton curry.

Mutton curry

As each plate is cleared a blob of date & mango chutney is put on it – a digestif, I’m assured – accompanied by a chip of poppadum.

Poppadum and date/mango chutney

Being unaccustomed to eating without the leverage of cutlery I was a little slow, so only had time for rasgullah (sweet, doughy milk balls soaked in syrup)


and had to forgo the other desserts (a kind of fudge and a cake) to make way for the next sitting. Regrets, regrets.

Perhaps the most touching moment for me was when an autistic lad spontaneously grabbed me by the hand and then hugged me. Why me, I don’t know. He seemed so guileless. Soon he was pointing at the balloons on the ceiling. It was the work of moments to untwist a bouquet and give it to him.

Kid with balloon

Soon most of the children had their own balloons to toy with.

Five hours after the start most of the guests had gone. The caterers had packed away their mobile kitchen,

Caterers leaving
and I walked back home through the still bustling streets.


One of the benefits of having a birthday party with lots of guests is that you get lots of presents – in this case sack loads of them.

Sacks of presents

It’s fun unwrapping them.

Unwrapping presents

Of course, you might end up buried.

Buried by presents


TLP Portrait

Thank you, TLP.

[I2011 7]

Through a gap in the shutters I can see it’s still dark outside. The praeternatual silence in this, the noisiest of cities, is broken only by the far whistle blast of a passing train. No traffic noise, no blaring horns, no raucous shouting, no barking dog or crying kinder … nothing. I feel cocooned in a black, velvet stillness. But this, it doesn’t last.

The sun has yet to creep up towards the horizon; Suriya’s rays have yet to break night’s grip, but the crows, black as is the sky, caw, cutting – nay rending – night’s dark cloak.

As I toss fitfully, willing sweet nepenthe’s return, I hear the tinkling of a bell, frantically summoning the gods as if calling a butler at afternoon tea. Then comes the call of the conch. In my mind’s eye I envisage some householder muttering incantations and marking mystic symbols in front a small personal shrine. The bell’s tintinnabulation and shell’s bellow are soon echoed by a dozen of my neighbours. Then comes the sound as of a dinner gong. The gods placated, the day can now begin.

The house comes alive. The splash as people tip jugs of water over head and body; the slap of flip-flops on the tiled floor; the guttural throat clearing; the rattled drawing of the iron grill over the front door. Soon there’s a sizzle of vegetables frying; the smell of cooking onions escapes from the simple kitchen and makes its way under my bedroom door. So enticing. But still oblivion calls – just for a few more minutes.

[I2001 6]

First hail a pedal rickshaw to take you through the rutted streets to the local train station. Now dismount.

Next, cross the railway tracks via the pedestrian bridge. On the far side negotiate futilely with the autocab drivers, who will demand four times the normal fare. Then force your way onto a local bus, applying maximum pressure to squeeze your way between passengers who have already filled it way beyond any sort of reasonable capacity.

Get off at the ferry terminal.

Now board the wooden ferry boat across the Hooghly river, taking care not to fall over the sides, which have no safety rails.

After that, pick your way through the local market to the train station and take the first train to Howrah Junction.

At Howrah Junction, buy some food and drink to consume on the train, then board the overnight train to Puri.

Once on the train, locate your sleeping berths and remonstrate with your fellow passengers who have commandeered some of your spaces. This will have no effect whatsoever, but is part of local tradition. Then summon the conductor who, also in accordance with tradition, will side with the interlopers. Accept that your party will be split up.

It is now necessary to wait for the arrival of the train’s hijra (i.e. transsexual – often pre-op and always in a very cheap frock) whose role it is to create a lot of noise and maximum embarassment (for you) so that you pay “her” to go away.

Next, lower your bed into place, lie down and cover yourself with a blanket. Pretend to sleep for the next seven hours whilst enjoying your neighbours’ making and receiving ‘phone calls late into the night on their mobiles. Thrill to the stench of the latrines which fills the carriage each time the train slows down. Listen amazed to the call of the chai-wallah as he walks regularly up and down the train calling out his offerings of tea and coffee. And if you get bored, watch the cheery cockroaches frolicking around the carriage.

If your train appears to be on time, don’t despair – the driver will run into – or over – something at a level crossing to ensure that Indian Railway’s renowned record for punctuality isn’t affected.

On arriving at Puri choose an autorickshaw driver who can both be able to squeeze all nine members of your party plus luggage onto a vehicle that can reasonably hold five and can go to your requested destination*. It is recommended that you cling on for dear life on the way to your hotel, and pray to your favourite deity that the three-wheeler might not tip over on a sharp corner.

Once at your hotel, reflect upon the fact that in a few days you’ll have to make the return journey.

* Our trip organiser was concerned that if the group were split half might be taken to a different hotel (despite the fact that the rooms were pre-booked) in the hope of a little kick-back from the hotel. Not an unreasonable concern based upon previous experiences I’ve had in India with taxi drivers from both airports and train station.

[I2011 4]

Legend has it that the temple at Konark was built by Krishna’s eldest son, Samba. Samba was devilishly handsome, and rather full of himself, so when a wandering wise man visited he ignored him. The wise man decided to punish Samba for his arrogance and gave alcohol to the wives of both Samba and his father – all 16,100 of them. In a state of inebriation Krishna’s wives, shall we say, lost their inhibitions with respect to Samba. Unsurprisingly, Krishna was a little miffed with what happened, so cursed his son with leprosy. After 12 years of suffering, Samba was cured, and so in gratitude to Surya, the sun god, he built a magnificent temple.

Konark sun temple, Surya figure

Reality is a little more prosaic. The temple was, in fact, built at the behest of King Narasimhadeva I in the 13th century.

The entrance is guarded by two stone lions trampling on war elephants. Under each elephant body is a human crushed.

Konark sun temple, entrance lion crushes elephant and man

The temple is build in the form of a massive chariot (arka) with 12 pairs of wheels pulled by horses.

Konark sun temple horse

Konark sun temple wheel

Konark sun temple chakra

The walls are completely smothered in fine carvings showing animals

Konark sun temple, lion crushes elephant

some weird

Konark sun temple creature

Konark sun temple creatures

dancers and musicians

Konark sun temple dancers and musicians

I couldn’t quite work out what some of the people were up to, though.

Konark sun temple - what are they doing?

As Tagore wrote of this place:

“Here the language of stone surpasses the language of man.”

[I2011 4]

A short cycle rickshaw ride then a shorter walk, and I see a tower belching smoke. Immediatley my mind turns to Orthanc and Isengard, but rather than orcs being groined from the ground, here they make bricks.

Brick works, Calcutta

Men and women crouch, picking up lumps of clay and then throwing them into wooden moulds, pressing the clay down, and swiftly level the tops with a wire before turning the blocks out ready to dry. Then back for the next and the next. They work apace, for the pittance they’ll receive depends upon how many bricks they’ve made that day.

Bricks drying

I notice a stick-thin girl – perhaps, I think, a couple of years old. Then I notice her tinier sister next to her, also pathetically emaciated. And finally I notice a small baby clinging to the back of the first girl, looking like a tiny spider monkey shawn of its fur. It’s a pathetic tableau. None of the girls looks healthy. No-one her elooks healthy, child or adult. Faces are drawn and aunt, eyes dead and soulless. Some children are pot-bellied, whether from worms or kwashiorkor, I know not, and it doesn’t make any difference, for in this place there’s money enough neither to fill the belly, nor to heal the sick.

Many of these people aren’t from these parts. Their clothing belies their origins, as their faces proclaim their homelands. They’ve been drawn here in their millions in the hope of a better life. If this is the better life, then what hellish existence have they left behind?

Child workers at brick works, Calcutta

[I2011 3]

The driver forces his way through the traffic, the horn used liberally to warn, cajole or threaten those in the way. Never use a short “peep” when a long, loud blast can be employed. Motorcycles and cyclists squeeze through gaps betwixt car and smoke-belching truck. Buses bully their way through; and implacably picking their path are pedestrians, some in radiant saris, red and gold, turquoise and blue. Cows stand in the middle of the road, as immovable as they are revered. At the side of this well-rehearsed chaos lie dogs, mangy curs, sleepily taking it all in.

Here the senses are assailed as perhaps nowhere else on earth: the noise, the cacaphonic din of roaring engines and blaring horns; thje smells, some sickly sweet perfume, some spicy and aromatic, and others a stench speaking of death and decay; the sight of so many people and vehicles croweded into so small a space (and yet the city is vast) creatse an almost physical sense of oppression, of being crushed from all sides.

I’m back in India.

[I2011 2]

I’ve been to India before. It’s never been an easy experience. The noise, the masses, the chaos, the smells, the filth, the poverty, the discomfort, the bureaucracy, they all define this place. After my first visit it was 15 years before I ventured there again, and now, after a further 10 years, I’m going back. This time I’ll be visiting friends, more specifically, going for a friend’s nephew’s 5th birthday celebration. Let’s call him (the nephew) TLP – The Little Prince. How could I resist?

The plan is to see a few things around Calcutta, then to make a side trip to Puri which is a seaside resort and fairly close to the Sun Temple at Konark.

I’ll be staying with TLP’s family and joined by my friend K and two of his French friends, D and S.

It’s with a little trepidation that I’ll board my flight from Bangkok to Calcutta, not knowing what to expect.

[I2011 1]