Sudder Street

6 minute read

Reposting stuff I like from the archives. This is from 2007.

At the stroke of eight each morning, I awoke. All my days in India have always had purpose, and it was especially purposeful in Calcutta, my crazy, lovely, chaotic, I hate you I love you Calcutta. This was a luxurious hole in the wall, 400 rupee a night room — a fortune. One could live on 400 rupees (S$13, US$9) for two days, but we blew it on a room with two beds, 24 hour hot water and electricity, items of much greater fortune. My purpose that morning was to get my eyebrows threaded in the neighbourhood beauty salon (oddly enough run by fourth generation Chinese immigrants who look like they could be my aunts, but speak only Bengali and Hindi now), queue up at the Bangladeshi High Commission for my visa, and zip over to Apple and Canon’s little hole in the wall offices to have our equipment returned.

I opened my door and closed it immediately, an act which had come to become a signal to The Boy. All over the subcontinent, establishments of all shapes and sizes from the 400 rupee “luxury” of Sudder Street (like the one we were in), to 15000 rupees a night Park/ Taj/ Oberoi hotel rooms, The Boy, one of the several members of the entourage which you will deal with each day (The Boy, the bearer, the sweeper, the caretaker) is one of those inevitable legacies which outlasted the British Empire. The memsahib this time was not a colonial wife or daughter, but a scruffy yellow woman always dressed in tie-dye pants and a shirt which said “Om”. The moment the signal came, the boy would come to my door, and bring me a tray of coffee and tea, on the house. The boy in question here was about 25 (much younger than the Boy in Planter’s Club, Darjeeling, who was about 90).

As a veteran, one occupies your own space in the ecosystem of Sudder Street. Or perhaps an ecosystem forms around you. I had been to Sudder Street four times in two years, and was slowly settling. Before long I graduated from the fearful Oriental who scuttled away when approached by drug pushers, semi-giggling and blushing, to the old India hand who had the entourage of neighbours to meet and greet. There was the Spanish group, who huddled together eating omelettes. They all looked bronzed and supremely attractive. The French-speaking always occupied the same table at the Blue Sky. The Americans and the Britons were buried in their Lonely Planet India, a tome thicker than the Mormon Bible and in a sickening shade of blue, perhaps as homage to the pop-art kitsch Krishna on its cover. Everyone, regardless of where we came from originally, said “namaste” when greeting each other, “dhanyabad” in gratitude, subconsciously complementing these with that Indian head wiggle and punctuating our sentences with “accha” and “baba”. Everyone was either a volunteer at the Mother Teresa home, or was travelling for a year, or both.

A man walked up and down Sudder Street every afternoon and night, with a bag full of wooden flutes, looking so comical that you could make a Bengali arthouse movie (pop trivia: Bombay’s Hindi-language Bollywood is crass, commercial and popular; Calcutta’s Bengali movies are arthouse, obscure, and difficult but beautiful) starring him, the Piped Piper of Sudder Street. He would be leading a pack of backpackers and volunteers, playing his own wooden flute to classical Bengali songs. He was friends with the fruit seller, the man who stood outside the phone booth with a push cart hawking the best of Bengal. The fruit seller’s sister was a homeless 21 year old woman-child with a beautiful baby, and when we met we couldn’t stop talking. Each time I planned to meet friends at the Lindsay Hotel’s rooftop restaurant for dinner, I had to leave my room 2 hours earlier, because I inevitably ended up in her living room — on the sidewalk where she lived with her baby, just opposite the Blue Sky cafe. Tomorrow, she will sneak into a train on unreserved class with her baby, to go home to her parents for the festivities. If a train conductor catches her, she might give him half of her money — 10 rupees (S$0.35, US$0.22), but either way standing all the way to the station at her village.

After speaking to her, I might nip across into Blue Sky for a quick apple juice. The boys from Sikkim, Assam and Darjeeling who had to travel to Calcutta to sit for examinations or go through job interviews would hurry up to greet me in Sikkimese, Assamese, Nepali, Khasi, just because I was the only person in the room with the same skin colour. Embarrassed “Oh I thought you were from Sikkim/ Assam/ Darjeeling/ Meghalaya/ Mizoram/ Manipur” comments would be exchanged, then I might sit down with my apple juice to read all the Indian English newspapers available. The Occasional Orientals might drop by, sit at the next table, and gossip enthusiastically in that loud voice we love to speak in when we think nobody understands our language. I just keep very quiet, eavesdropping, wanting to hear what they might say of a place I hold dear to my heart, in a language only three people in the whole street understood. They’re usually terrified of Calcutta, terrified of India, and for a good reason — most people are. The world would be better off without hacks like us contributing further to its literature of chaos and its teeming humanity, so I won’t go into that; but if you love this place, you can be sure you’re very, very much in love.

I’m not sure why I keep returning to Calcutta — in writing, and in person. Is it because it’s my first Indian city, and that I had spent a month living there in Narendrapur, a little hamlet in its suburbs, showering with hot water the cook had heated over a cooking cauldron, eating rice cooked in mustard oil with my fingers and drinking tea in alleys with no street lights for miles? That wherever I may be, College Street still cheers me up, and the Indian Coffee House still amazes me every time? That their beautiful, poetic language is what I’d heard someone I loved once speak daily for two years, and its food was what I discovered and fell for, the same time I fell for and discovered a great love? That many nights were spent here in cheap hotel rooms, with Bob Dylan and the Arcade Fire for company, writing, and writing, writing some more and editing our photographs for print? I may never know.

I opened my door and closed it — but no Boy came to my room with a tray of coffee or tea. I walked a distance to get to my neighbourhood Bengali restaurant, but its cardamom tea, its katti kebab, its Kolkata briyani, was a sham. I’d come so far to see you, and you welcome me with acid rain, endless electricity shut downs, and drug pushers on my beloved Sudder Street. Like the great love I can’t explain — so I can’t explain you away. All I know is how here, more than any place else in the world, more than even my home in Singapore, is where I have loved, and loved, and fallen out of love, but like a reliable lover Calcutta never fails to cheer me up, even long after I’ve gone.