As I left the airport and stepped out into the midnight Kolkata mist, the air caught in my throat like dry ice. Whether from the shock of the Indian air, humid and heavy with dust and fumes, or from some noxious airport air-freshener, I soon got my breath back and started to get my bearings.
The December night was London-summer warm, the streets wreathed in a thicker smog than Britain has seen in my lifetime, beautiful halos around the streetlights and roads disappearing into haze. We ignored the perennial throng of coolies and tiny, insistent beggar-kids, loaded up the two waiting cars and set off into town.
Several things struck me at once during that first journey. For one, the buildings are unlike anything I have seen in Europe or Canada (the only places I have travelled, to date); more ornate than most, and strikingly less flat - most have balconies; even those without seldom have flat facades, and right angles are not taken for granted the way they are in Europe. Scaffolding is made of stung-together bamboo which envelopes houses in crazy, curving grids. The buildings are also at bizarre angles to the airport road, which was built later and cut a swathe through many of the existing developments.
Another thing which is quite alien to a British visitor is the style of driving. Cars are forever honking, whenever they approach other vehicles and often when they approach corners. At first I took to be a symptom of aggression, but that's not it at all. More than the standard British usage of 'Get the hell out of my way!' a Kolkata horn usually just says 'Here I am!' - largely, I suspect, to make up for the lack of wing mirrors on the cars, kept folded away or removed altogether to save them getting pulled off in the narrow, too-crowded streets. Most of the large vehicles are painted in bright colours, often with slogans like 'My India is great!' and the prominent, curiously redundant request for the driver behind to 'blow horn'.
A few other things jumped out - quite literally in the case of several stray dogs. We slowed down only slightly for a lazy road-block, manned by police who sat warming themselves round a fire in an old oil-barrel. The cars of the city are largely unfamiliar, often because they are of makes discontinued in the West decades ago; most notably, the city's cabs are a fleet of old yellow Ambassadors, splendidly grand cars with no suspension to speak of and ricketty windows. Many, many walls are daubed with writing - almost all in Bengali, largely political slogans, often accompanied by a hammer and sickle; West Bengal has been officially communist for around two decades, although capitalism has crept in in a big way these last few years.
On arriving at the in-laws' house, we were greeted by the closest thing the family has to a matriarch giving three tremendous, resounding HWAAAWHs on a conch shell. This is a traditional way to begin a ceremony - in this case, boron-kora, but probably not usually at two in the morning; we worried a little about the neighbours. She continued by chanting, anointing my forehead with sandalwood and daubing P's red with sindoor, and waving an arati beneath each of our faces.
I felt very welcomed.
We then removed our shoes to be led into the main bedroom, where our mini-puja continued at her father's mini-shrine, with photographs and icons of some religious significance, with matriarch-auntie reciting lines of rapid Sanskrit as we stood with our palms pressed before us.
This was followed by a midnight feast - rice and dal and rotis and torkari: a Bengali banquet to fill the hole left by British Airways' failure to provide the vegan food I had carefully chosen from their impressively (but, it seems, misleadingly) extensive drop-down menus. At home I'm a vegan, but most of the things that bother me about Britain's heavily-industrialised dairy industry don't apply here; I would also prefer not to turn down as much good food as I would need to to stay vegan here, and I know my stomach can take it. I wouldn't eat eggs, but then Indian vegetarians generally don't, so that's not a problem.
In the morning we awoke more than once to the caws of Kolkata's ubiquitous crows, to wailing in the streets (distressed? religious? marketing?), perhaps to the sound of a neighbour's conch. When we finally got out of bed, we had a little while to eat breakfast and take in our surroundings now that the sun was blazing down on them - a beautiful second-floor flat, her parents' abode, adorned with many lovely ornaments fom around the world, and with a pretty large, plant-filled balcony looking out onto the street; a building opposite our bedroom window with a tree growing around its drainpipe; those unfamiliar grey-necked crows hopping everywhere.
Once we'd got our bearings we set out to shop for our wedding outfits. This is a relatively small Indian wedding, and there are only really three days of official celebrations: The first day, with mehendi and a sangeet, dancing girls, drinks and only around a hundred and twenty guests; the second day, with the ceremony itself, more singing and dancing, feasting and maybe three hundred people; and then the reception, the really big event, with about eight hundred to a thousand people turning up. On either side of this, there are parties of various sizes with friends and relatives and amazing Bengali food. The day after the reception there is a big, sort of semi-official wind-down party, before we escape for a three-day honeymoon in Darjeeling.
So what this means for shopping is that each of us needs three properly smart outfits, with varying degrees of grandness. P and I are wearing Indian dress throughout - three different sarees for her, two kurtas and a sherwani for me, with a dhoti for the ceremony. My brother is opting for two kurtas and a tailored suit, much cheaper to get made here rather than in Britain. We pick these out surprisingly quickly, all finding gorgeous things to wear, and even P's are all chosen by the next day.
P has been teasing me for weeks about the dhoti - sort of a giant nappy for men, as she puts it - but it's not nearly as bad as I feared, and everyone agrees that the remarkably silly-looking hat I was warned of is not really necessary.
The first party in our honour is a barbecue in a roof garden with beautiful views out over the city fog, where we meet many charming Bengalis, a close-knit group of friends of P's parents, and eat rather too much delicious food. Barbecued paneer turns out to be so tasty that I will try the same with tofu next time I get the chance.
Next night's party is thrown by the parents of a guest from the night before, a delightful and shockingly spry couple in their seventies or older, who I know only as auntie and uncle. She was a famous beauty in her day; a hit pop song was written for her a few decades back, but nobody was serenading her on the night. She cooks amazing food and performs another little welcome ceremony, largely consisting of me eating rice with uche and sag. He tells me about his adventures, visiting Antarctica last year, Africa. His face is lined with eight decades of laughter and storytelling. Eats a different breakfast every day, on principle.
The next night is relatively party-free, which is rather a relief.
One afternoon I head with my brother to the zoo, perhaps the only time we're going to see elephants while we're here. A man manages to sell us chickpeas at the gate - 'for the monkeys!' - but of course, all the animals have signs saying 'please do not tease or feed wild animals', and the monkeys are enclosed by three layers of cage, probably for our protection.
Some of the cages are empty and have big holes in - it looks like a few of the inmates have escaped. Others include incongruous cats, like the one in the emu's enclosure, clearly stalking it, waiting for its chance to bring down a bird ten times its size.
Overall though, the zoo is not too badly maintained, and apart from the skinniest bunch of bunnies I've ever seen, the animals don't seem especially unhappy.
Soon after we come in, I'm stopped by a woman holding the hand of a small girl with a big grin and a look of wonder on her face, who asks me about my hair, strictly on behalf of the little girl, she says. How long did it take to grow? Four years? Five? Longer, I say. A bit later we are chased by a young kid with a camera shouting 'Uncle! Hey, uncle! One picture!' so we stop for him and he takes a photograph delightedly, something to show his friends.
'We were the best exhibits there', my brother says later.
Another day, we head out for the Royal Botanical Gardens, thinking this will be a good chance to get away from people for a while. It is; the gardens are wonderful, lush and peaceful.
The trouble is that we end up taking a yellow cab there, and although we satisfy ourselves at the outset that he knows where he's going, it becomes clear when he drives under, rather than over Howrah bridge, that this is a mistake. We stop and ask for directions; the driver says 'ahhh, BOTaNIC-al Garden!', performs a swift u-turn, and spends forty-five minutes in dusty, near-static, ever-honking traffic, taking us back onto the right road.
We had already been quite stressed when we left, and when we step into the green silence of the Gardens it feels like a rattling fug has been lifted from us. We saunter past the lotus pond, gaze at the shafts of sunlight beaming through trees to illuminate the Kolkata dust-fog, make our way to the Great Banyan Tree.
This banyan is without a doubt truly great, although there may be some question as to whether it should really be considered 'a tree'. Banyans send down aerial roots - proproots - which given time and food become tree-trunks themselves, send down their own proproots. This one 'tree' is more than two and a half centuries old and has 2,800 or more proproots, enclosed in a perimeter almost half a kilometre around. The original main trunk was destroyed a century ago by storms and fungus, but the forest of offshoots is as healthy as ever. It looks like some kind of elven paradise.
We only spend about an hour there, and Leo has no time to draw, because we figure we'd better allow almost as much time for getting back as we did for getting there. The taxi back to the flat only takes half an hour though, and hardly gets lost at all. It still costs more than the other cab, somehow, and the driver short-changes me by a hundred rupees until I challenge him; all the same, it's such a relief to be back so quickly that I can't be bothered to argue.
After one night's respite, we get back to partying, with a dozen or so guests - family, friends, family friends - coming to the parents' flat for a sort of buffet-dinner-party.
The next night's party is where it really kicks off, though. Spectacularly posh, it is held at a mansion with a goldfish pond under the stairs, an ornamental waterfall in the garden, and semi-live music played throughout the night in the cavernous front room. The house is owned by one of the directors of the company in charge of Kolkata's electricity supply, the father of one of P's oldest friends, and I am relieved when he announces that our wedding is only one of four events being celebrated that night. One of his daughters has a newish baby son, his other (our friend) is in India for a rare visit, and his niece - almost as close as a daughter - is getting married next month. This takes the pressure off us somewhat, I feel.
I am introduced to what seems like a dozen or so middle-aged Indian couples in quick succession, while most of the white folk we brought with us huddle in a corner and make tentative steps towards mingling.
Servants efficiently distribute alcoholic drinks and tasty little spiced babycorncobs, chicken bits and fish on sticks. Soon everyone is loosening up, less in awe of their surroundings; my brother strikes up an enthusiastic conversation with a fellow animator, an white-haired Indian living in Amsterdam, while I debate astromony with Janet, Rebecca and an Indian whose name I didn't catch. Orion's sword, he says, points south, but nobody is quite sure whether he means the thing we thought was a bow, or the little dagger-type thing hanging from his belt. We collectively puzzle over whether it's really possible for part of a constellation to always point in the same direction, compass-wise, and what effect geographical location has on the orientation of things in the sky. To a European, the moon looks sideways here.
Later we settle down to a delicious meal in the fairy-light-strewn garden, next to Ganesh, who sits in the waterfall. Everyone seems to have a good time, and we are sorry to have to leave early to get some sleep in before tomorrow's morning celebrations.
After a too-short night we spend some time getting spruced up before setting off at around ten thirty. The day's events are taking place at the in-laws' spare flat, used at weekends and for parties, which has a roof terrace and an amazing view over a well-sculpted golf course. My brother and our friends are staying here on this visit, and are a little dismayed to be woken even earlier than us at the other flat.
All the girls get mehendi done apart from our actress friend, who's spent too much time getting married in two recent films to fancy going through it again. Intricate patterns are picked out in chocolatey henna, P's covering her whole hands and staying on for longer than most. Hers conceals my name transliterated as closely as possible into Bengali, which makes it something like 'P'hargaash'; I am tasked with picking it out among the flowers and curlicues. The henna stays on for a couple of hours, periodically refreshed with sugary lemon juice, after which it flakes off to leave the skin dyed a reddish-orange colour. The depth of colour in the bride's mehendi reflects the depth of her husband's love, apparently. It looks suitably deep and rich to me.
I eventually cave in and get a little mehendi myself - a small om on the palm of my hand.
Around this time my parents arrive at last, straight off the plane from Delhi, looking slightly dazed but happy.
After the mehendi is the dancing; a troupe of young women and men perform for us, with a star turn from a highly talented nine-year old who really gives it his all, with an intensity of expression in his face and his movements which is a joy to behold. The rest of the dancers are great too. My brother joins in with the last dance; P says she can see a great future for him in Hindi films.
I try to find out more about the ceremony in advance, but nobody handy knows very much about it; we are having a Vedic wedding, said to be less patriarchal and less over-the-top than the more usual brahmin-influenced ceremony. P's oldest jethima gives us a wedding script book from a previous ceremony, but we're not sure how much it has in common with ours. Almost all possible preparations in place at last, I get to spend most of the day relaxing, writing up my experiences and sorting through photos.
P, on the other hand, has to spend much of the afternoon getting made up and bejewelled by a beautician.
The rest of us eventually set out, dispersed between several cars which take close to an hour to crawl through the jam-packed traffic to the club. I only manage to greet a few people on my way to the front row, where I settle down with my parents to wait for the bride to arrive. She seems to have had much worse luck than the rest of us with the terrible traffic, and we start to get a little anxious sitting there with no news.
When she finally emerges, as expected, she looks absolutely stunning.
The ceremony begins on a round podium criss-crossed with marigolds. I mount from one side, where I am joined by the mother of the bride bearing the same ceremonial tray as we met on the first day; she waves the arati in a motion of blessing, and daubs my forehead with sindoor. I am then joined by my bride, and we both solemnly promise to adore each other. At this point, the script book includes this glorious direction:
(The bride and bridegroom adore each other.)
To my mind, this beats even the immortal
(Exit stage left, pursued by a bear.)
We then exchange garlands, repeatedly - I place mine over her, she places hers over me, then we each take them off and put them on the other, then we do the same thing again two more times. At the end of this I have no idea which of the matching garlands I have ended up with. I figure that this is symbolic of the give-and-take of marriage, and the difficulty of separating what was once whose in a long-term relationship. Something like that.
After this we move to the dais, where we are joined by both sets of parents. Hers give her to me, and in turn mine give me to her, by placing our hands into each other's.
The purohit sings a mantra, accompanied by a three-piece band next to the dais - tabla, sitar and flute; the entire ceremony has a beat to it, and an easy, meditative musicality. We then place our hands together and repeat another mantra after him; I realise only now that I should have been spending some time brushing up on my Sanskrit pronunciation. Thankfully I'm not miked up though, and everything is explained in English.
The next part involves 'drinking' holy - but dangerously contaminated - water from the Ganges; I am vehemently warned not actually drink it, and my mother-in-law gets nervous when I pretend too convincingly. Then comes the first conspicuously vegan-unfriendly part - really strict vegans just shouldn't have Hindu weddings, I figure - where I receive three trays, containing curds (for mildness), honey (for sweetness) and ghee (for prosperity) . I first taste each individually ('delicious!') then carefully mix them together, offer some to the rest of the world at large (flicking it messily in each of the four directions, and then thrice straight up in the air) and eat some of the concoction appreciatively.
We start a fire by placing sticks of sandalwood into a brazier at centre-stage, and punctuate the purohit's mantra by adding more to build it up. The fire - 'voice of all the gods' - is witness to the ceremony, along with the assembled hundreds; that makes a lot of sense to me. Next we bring the fire to a blaze by using special long-handled spoons to drip a bowlful of ghee into the fire each time the purohit sings Swaha, chanting that one word of the mantra with him.
Our parents join us for some of this part, throwing handfuls of dried flowers. Then P's 'brother' (in an Indian sense) joins us with a plate of tasty-looking puffed rice - for prosperity - which disappointingly goes in the fire as well.
Next is the Tying of the Sacred Knot; I am not wearing a scarf, so our oldest jetima takes my brother's, drapes it around me and ties it to P's sari. We remain physically attached for several hours, and symbolically attached for life. My brother isn't getting that scarf back.
We are really officially married now. To mark the fact, the priest cuts a line of sindoor for me on a specially-prepared mirror, and I pour it along the parting in P's hair. Later we hear a range of stories about the unsavoury origins of this marking: When a tribe was defeated in battle, the conquerors would mark their chosen women with blood to say 'this one's mine'; or maybe it was just the blood of a groom or a sacrificial animal marking the occasion of a wedding.
All that remains is the Seven Steps - seven lessons given by the groom to the bride, as instructed by the purohit: For nourishment, for success, for loyalty, for 'the source of Bliss', for the good of all creatures, for prosperity, and finally for her to be my guide on the path of illumination.
Ceremony over, we get off-stage at last for hugging, greeting, congratulations and blessings from each of the three-hundred-odd guests. By the time we get inside and sit down I am already feeling a little dazed, but we both manage to keep smiling as we shake hands with and/or say nomoshkar to a stream of friends and relatives bearing presents. This is like a rehearsal for the meet-and-greet marathon that is...
On the day of The Reception I wake up feeling rotten: My stomach is churning, my insides are looking for a way out. My first thought is that it must be the creamy food from after the wedding - after some loose movements a few days before, I'd figured my stomach was having trouble digesting the dairy, and cut it out; I had just about returned to normal by now, but there was no avoiding the milk at the club. It soon becomes clear that it isn't just me, though - my brother and father-in-law are both struck down by the same debilitating ejections from both ends of their digestive tracts, and for a while a question mark hangs over the whole event. Will almost a thousand guests be greeted only by apologetic womenfolk?
Dosed with electrolytes, anti-diarrhoea meds and antibiotics, at last I set off shakily with P, leaving the baba-in-law - even sicker than me - to rest at home.
We arrive in the enormous Tea Garden (or possibly the Tee Garden - this is a golf club after all, and I don't see any tea) where we are led through the packed crowd to a brightly-lit stage crowned by two outsized thrones with sofas on either side, like some kind of regal chat show set.
The Reception soon begins, crowds trooping on the stage in an orderly queue as we receive a dizzying quantity of blessings and presents in an impressively efficient fashion, with the help of two servants and a cousin. Everyone knows that I'm sick, so I am spared standing up for every party of people. Instead I explain to a hundred people - dozens of them doctors - that I'm feeling much better than I was, thank you, but that's not saying very much. To my surprise I once again manage to smile politely at almost everyone. My electrolyte-laden drink and periodic visits from bouncy friends keep me from passing out or going insane.
Baba turns up after a couple of hours, beaming convincingly at all and sundry, introducing me with enthusiasm to workmates and old friends, shaking hands vigourously and generally looking much further from death's door than anyone expected. It's really a very impressive performance.
At the end of the evening we manage to sit and chat with friends for a little while, at least. Everyone tells me the food is excellent, but I am prescribed a diet of rice and potatoes with lime, waiting for me at home. Waiters constantly make the rounds with mugs of hot coffee on little trays, but alcohol is only available at a bar hidden inside the club. This is a source of some confusion for the guests, and consternation when they are thrown out for violations of the surprisingly strict dress code. For decades, like many of Kolkata's clubs, the RCGC simply wouldn't allow in anyone wearing Indian traditional dress; this post-imperial hangup has now been legislated away, but evidently they still have some latitude in which traditional dress they allow in - my father, looking very dapper in a new blue kurta and churidar bought specially for the occasion, is ejected on the grounds that he is not wearing a dhoti.
We spend much of the next day working through the enormous metal trunk stuffed with wedding presents. It quickly becomes clear that we are going to have most of the stuff behind, at least for now, however reluctantly.
In the evening we attend a small party spread over two large roof terraces, one of which is carpeted with grass, the other of which features not one but two waterfalls, each around thirty feet high by forty feet long. Our hosts collect art, and it seems wrong to visit their flat - more gallery than living space - only to use the toilet.
We are served tasty snacks throughout the evening, but save some space for yet another delicious feast, this time of mostly south Indian food; thankfully I have recovered enough to eat my heart out.
The end of the evening arrives shockingly soon, and goodbyes are said with reluctance and great affection; tomorrow we will be off to Darjeeling alone, and our guests will start scattering to the rest of the globe.
We fly out at around mid-day. It's always interesting to see a city and its surroundings from above; I'm a little surprised by all the lakes, woods and green fields around the outside of Kolkata. The city itself is fairly green, but extremely dusty, so I expected more dusty plains and less plant life in its surrounds.
The flight holds other lessons in the physical geography of the region; we have wonderfully clear views of the meandering history of rivers below, attested by the shape and vegetation of the landscape. Finally the Himalayas hove into view, announced in English by a member of the cabin crew. Shortly afterwards we begin our descent towards Bagdogra, the closest airport to Darjeeling - which is not saying much.
We had wanted to take the Toy Train all the way up to Darjeeling, but it takes a good eight hours at the best of times, runs very infrequently, and tends to get delayed somewhere along the line, so my father-in-law insisted we get driven. To this end we are picked up at the airport by a Nepali-looking guy with no English to speak of and not much Bengali, so P talks to him in broken Hindi. This is a pattern repeated throughout our time in Darjeeling; although it's still technically in West Bengal, Bengali is not a dominant language up here, and most of the Bengalis we see are tourists. The English brought large numbers of Nepalis in to work in the tea gardens, and several generations down the line many still prefer to speak their own language, or else they resort to Hindi as a lingua franca.
The drive there is much more pleasant than we had imagined. Even on the main road the air is breathable, a tremendous relief after the stuffy fumes of Kolkata. The driving is more relaxed, the air less oppressively hot. We pass colourful temples and villages making their way towards being towns, as the distant mountains loom slowly larger. An hour or so into the drive, we pass into woodlands and I see my first wild monkeys, hanging around at the side of the road and trying to look nonchalant. Eventually the road starts to slope upwards, and we wend our way around a river and up into the foothills. All the way up the hill roads, helpful signs have been provided featuring snappy slogans to encourage people to slow down, honk their horn at every turn, and generally be nice responsible drivers. These are mostly in English, although sometimes with good grammar sacrificed for added pithiness.
Although we come in via the town of Darjeeling, passing the Toy Train on the way, we are actually staying in the Barnesbeg tea garden, halfway down the mountain on the other side - another reason why it made sense to get a jeep from the airport. So having climbed slowly all the way up to around 2,000 metres above sea level, we start descending rapidly down winding, ever-more-potholed roads as the sun sets, the Kanchenjanga massif ahead of us catching its last pink rays just before we arrive.
The manager's bungalow where we are staying is exactly like a fine old English country house, apart from all the pictures of Krishna, a couple of Ganesh sculptures, and the mountain range in the background. I love it.
We are welcomed in with a wood fire in the hearth, delicious tea from the plantation, alcoholic drinks and soon a very fine South Indian meal; our hosts are originally from Coorg, so I get to try out a wide range of very tasty food which I wouldn't have had in Kolkata, as well as South Indian coffee (powerful and aromatic, mixed with a little chicory and brewed in a distinctive style using special equipment).
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At night we go outside for some fresh air, and see the clearest night skies I have ever seen in my life. You just don't see that many stars in Britain; I've spent a lot of time in the British countryside, about as far away from light pollution and city fumes, but that just isn't very far. I come to a new appreciation of why the ancients named so many constellations; the starscape is vivid and magical.