Kolkata: Anger management in the urban jungle

Blurred street scene showing yellow Kolkata taxi and people walking on the street

He bit me.

The fucker bit me! My lower arm is itchy, red and seriously swollen. Surely this can’t be normal?

I knew there was going to be a disaster in this godforsaken jungle. Why did I agree to come? This is not how I expected it to end. What an utterly unglamorous way to go. Crap!

A waiter appears.

“Can I get you a drink, sir?”

Stop being so servile! And don’t bloody call me sir! 

“Err – yes please. I’ll have a Kingfisher.”

“Anything to eat, sir?”

“No thanks.”

“Certainly sir, I will be bringing it right over to you sir. Are you positively not wanting to be having anything to eat right now, sir?”

I said no! I’m not going to get pissed and puke all over your pristine marble table top. I can handle my liquor ok? BUGGER OFF!!

“No, thanks – I’ll just have the drink if that’s ok.”

“Most certainly sir. I will be bringing it right over sir.”

He wanders off. I reach for the pack of malaria tablets. Did I start taking them in time? Yes, it says to take your first dose the day before you travel. I did that. Right, so stop being such a pussy. It’s fine.

But it doesn’t feel fine, and it’s hard to put the images from the airport taxi ride out of my head.

Kolkata appears to be nothing more than a giant, heaving slum. I mean, I grew up in South Africa. I’ve seen poverty, been to the townships and gotten drunk in shebeens. But there’s something particularly brutal about the poverty you see here. It feels vast — an endless sea of hopeless suffering, potholes and filth-infested rivers.

And it feels dark, in all senses of the word.

Shadowy figures huddle in forlorn groups down crap-laced alleyways amongst stray cats and oil cans that smoke and simmer under makeshift shelters, where people seem to live and eat and wash and shit simultaneously in cramped, disease-ridden spaces.

My jet-lagged eyes widened as we drove through street after dilapidated street, dodging rickshaws and rabid dogs and toothless cigarette vendors amidst a cacophony of beeping horns and yakking pedestrians. And everywhere there was the stench of filthy rivers festering in the tropical humidity.

No wonder they have malaria here!

So then, of course, the very first thing to happen is that I get bitten by a mosquito.

And it’s no little bite either. The bastard feasted on my entire forearm, and the resulting swelling and redness is unlike any mosquito bite I’ve experienced before.

The virus has entered my body.

“Your Kingfisher, sir, and here are some nuts by compliments of the manager of the hotel sir.”

You really do think I’m going to get uncontrollably pissed, don’t you?!

“Thanks – that’s very kind.”

I sip my beer as I analyse why I’m feeling so upset. Jet-lag? Probably. Nicotine withdrawal because I gave up smoking a week ago? Perhaps.

Normally I would love this kind of adventure: excited by the prospect of a place so far removed from home that it rekindles your enthusiasm for travel. But the problem is that I won’t get to see much of it, because I’m here on a bland corporate mission which will see me locked in a training room for most of my stay. This is what happens when you sell your soul for money.

So really, it’s not that I’m scared of India, or poverty, or getting stung by scorpions, or being mugged in an alleyway or indeed contracting malaria. It’s that this compromise – this act of economic expediency – is obviously bugging me at a deep subconscious level.

And my reward? Well, I’ve been bitten by a fucking mosquito. In Kolkata. And I’m going to die of malaria and the last thing I will have done is sit here and whine.

I need to calm down, so I almost send the poor waiter into anaphylactic shock by ordering another food-less beer. This I down in time-honoured fashion before I go to bed.

**********

Morning.

I check my arm.

Reassured by the receded swelling and the fact that I’m not pissing blood – yet – I head out to the crisp blue pool nestled amongst the tall palm trees.

Wow – it’s humid. I feel like I’m in Durban. I mean, seriously — it’s uncanny. I’m on the other side of the world and everything feels really foreign but suddenly incredibly familiar. And it’s about more than just the fact that it’s hot and full of Indians. That contributes to the sensation, of course, but there’s something else. Problem is that I can’t quite put my finger on it.

I meet my co-worker for breakfast. He’s pretty pleased with himself, because he got the manager to pack him some extra fruit for lunch. It’s free!

“See, Stefan, you just stick with me – I’ll show you how things work in India.”

It doesn’t take me long to be impressed. He was born in Kenya but he’s of Indian descent, and although he’s only been to Kolkata once before he already knows half of her inhabitants by name. This includes every one of the hotel managers, a good number of staff and – more importantly – someone at the taxi company with whom we now have a special arrangement to be shuttled to work at some bargain basement price.

He greets everyone by hand, ready to share a joke or two before some common interest is established, always with a pat on the back and sometimes followed by a lot of arm waving and heated discussion. Mostly I have no idea what’s going on, but again this feels strangely familiar — the man reminds me of my grandfather.

We get into said taxi and we hit the streets. Or well, what we encounter kind of resembles streets in the Western sense, except that their state would cause an English health-and-safety officer to have a stroke. There are potholes everywhere, and people; people randomly wandering into the traffic with no regard for the speeding cars; and cows and street vendors and chickens and godknowswhatelse.

In most foreign places I’ve visited so far, language was the biggest challenge. So I’ve always learnt a few neat phrases, ready to help me order my oh-so-exotic meals and never-tasted-so-good local wine. I’ve revelled in the “differences” not realising that – language aside – these differences have been mostly artificial: unthreatening regurgitations of my existing comfort zones, done in fuller flavours, sweeter sounds and perhaps in brighter colours.

India is a mind fuck.

It feels like you need a completely new mental processing engine to understand how to navigate the place. The Indians certainly do. Westerners respond to chaotic and overcrowded spaces with impatience, frowns and repressed anger. Indians may honk their horns, but they simply don’t respond to the chaos. They don’t seem angry, hurried or stressed. There’s a complete and beautiful disconnection between the external chaos and their internal wellbeing.

We arrive at the office, having driven through New Town, creatively named thus because it is, quite literally, a new town in the making. A town hungry for the plastic riches of globalisation, adorned with office parks wearing gleaming corporate logos boasting that the likes of IBM and Vodafone now call it home. Powerful edifices interspersed with open fields, served by wide, smooth roads cutting through more generous spaces where mushrooming apartment blocks provide upmarket lodgings for the nouveau Indian riche.

Waves of 20-something graduates pile into our building’s lifts. They do so in shifts – 24 hours a day — security passes draped around young necks like badges of honour.

They are animated, relaxed, educated and ready to work with concentration and minimal breaks. Armies of eager young minds, dialling into conference calls with stressed middle managers in London and Paris and Dubai and New York, listening to overworked professionals who love to skulk and berate and shout and set their own proverbial hair on fire.

But they don’t respond to anger. They work, smile, and go home seemingly unstressed.

All for something like £400 a month.

Still, no society is perfect. Here I notice a lack of structure in tackling problems, with a tendency to settle for inefficient short-term solutions which then become permanent features. It seems all too easy to chuck loads of bodies at a problem rather than addressing the root cause, and the place is full of people who trade in confusion because that very confusion is what justifies their job.

The place brims with cordiality, but it’s also obsessed with status and position and class, whilst pervasively shady business practices often lead to corrupt and inefficient outcomes.

And the results are everywhere to see. Kolkata is full of unfinished buildings and creaking infrastructure. The shiny new metro lies half constructed; there isn’t a crane or piece of scaffolding or builder in sight. What caused this? A dispute about land ownership? An argument between different local authorities? Funding shortfalls? Corruption? Who knows?

I would love to know. I’m itching to learn more. But we work until 11pm every night; I have no time to explore and my 4 days here are soon over.

**********

Ahmed drives me back to the airport. He’s one of my co-worker’s contacts, but now that I’m on my own the price has mysteriously gone up by 250 Rupees. I don’t mind too much — it’s only £4 and he tells me how hard he works to put his kids through school. That makes me think about the man who drove us home the other night — his family lives somewhere far away in the mountains, and he only gets to see his children two or three times a year.

We arrive at the crusty, peeling shack that is Kolkata International Airport. A smooth new terminal’s being built next door, but for now I’ll have to contend with the old one’s ancient analogue departure boards, security scanners that seem to be oozing dangerous radiation and rusty ceiling fans circulating a mixture of stench and flies and dust through the faded-green neon ambience of the creaking concrete interior.

It turns out that Ahmed doesn’t have the proper change. The price has effectively gone up by another 250 Rupees. Ok, the cheeky bastard’s actually ripping me off now!

But this time I don’t get angry. This is India. It feels like Durban, and you just can’t get excited when it’s this humid at 7.30 in the morning.

And hey — I survived malaria after all.

From the archives: November 2011

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