The Kays' Kolkata Kontinued

India 2013

Friday, March 8, 2013:

Been here a day and a half. Originally it was going to be Jonathan, Andrew & me, then their two girlfriends, Shayna and Delia and one of Shayna's friends, Tiffany, got added to the mix, and now Jon & Andrew are on their way to Hyderbad for a gig! They're out the door at 4:30 a.m. So, today it's just me and the ladies.

More About the Ring

Jonathan hadn't had the opportunity to tell Ma about the botched wedding ring. (If you're feeling totally lost right now, please see the previous chapter.) So, he set up a secret meeting between me and Ma at the home she shares with her son & family just down the street. I'm to be there at 9:00. Not wanting to let the girls know what I'm up to, I figure I'll just say I'm going out for a walk.

Ma phones at 9 wanting to know where's the Canadian man, and is he coming? Shayna says she doesn't know anything about it. She gets off the phone and tells me with a puzzled look that Ma is waiting for me. I make up some excuse about "just going over to say hi and get to know them a little," and bolt out the door, camera in hand.

I show Ma the photos of the ring, and she agrees that it's not at all what she was expecting. She offers me some tea (of course) and we sit in their living room and have a nice chat. Well, 'nice' may not be quite the right word. The strong moral fibre of which this woman is made is evident in her body language and emanates from every sentence she speaks. It's palpable. In fact, it fills a good portion of the room. The cultural differences between her world and mine fill the remainder. But neither of us was born yesterday, so we know the value of sitting calmly in such a full room, treating it with wonder, curiosity and respect, and so we warm the air with our conversation.

I return home to questions and sideways glances. "What did you two talk about?" Shayna asks. "Oh, we had a nice chat. I told her about Kalimpong and the Tibetan tragedy and she told me about "Sweet Mother" (Mira Alfassa, spiritual collaborator with Sri Aurobindo)." What I fail to mention is that Ma also explained how the geometry of the ring's setting has deep meaning in the iconography of Audobindo, and that she is going to call the jeweler A.S.A.P. to straighten out the mess.

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We Interrupt This Program...

If you've been a regular reader, you probably noticed how few pictures and movies have been in this chapter so far. I have a confession to make: I AM NOT IN INDIA.

That's right folks. I'm sitting in my studio in Toronto. Writing at my desk. Sorry to break the spell. Any writer, even a blogger, doesn't want to mess with his audience's 'willing suspension of disbelief.' But all this present tense business is a mere ruse. Today is September 29th, not March 8th. I got home 6 months ago.

Why the interruption? There's an accident of epic proportions that will occur... sorry... that occurred in Dharamsala on March 18th. I was sitting in an internet cafe, uploading a couple of pictures to send home to Sharon. I inserted my camera's new 16 GB SD card into into my new card reader (both of which I had bought in Kolkata) and then into the computer's USB slot. After a few clicks and whirrs, the old PC says "CARD NOT RECOGNIZED." I eject the card, look it over (What? for warts? like I'm going to SEE something.), blow on it, and try it again. Nada. Try another computer. Zip. Zero. I feel something like cold death sweeping over my body. This can't be happening.

Well, it is happening. It was happening and it did happen. Pick whatever tense you like. My pictures and movies of the last 12 days are kaput. Disappeared. Gone and irretrievable. All that care in framing, lighting, all that delight in getting just the right shot, in capturing such a beautiful exciting incredible one-of-a-kind momentous moment, is, was, and will be forever gone bye-bye.

I set about the task of persuading my brain to stop following useless pursuits like how it happened, why the universe let it happen and who or what's to blame, and instead put my attention into just feeling the shock, and trying to figure out if there is any hope. The answer surfaces eventually, and with the help of Andrew Kay's great big techno mind, about 50% of the pics, and maybe 25% of the movies, turn out to be retrievable. But that means half of the pics and 3/4 of the movies are not. Glass half full or half empty? Both, I guess. Or as George Carlin said, "The glass is just too damn big!"

Long story short, please pardon the lack of photos and movies for the next little while. This shall be referred to as my photographic Black Hole of Kolkata. Now, back to the present.


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More Mothers: Theresa & Kali

I decide to go out on my own for the remainder of the day. Tonight is another concert, so I will meet up with Shayna and Delia for that later. But right now I'm off with a bag full of medicine to donate to Mother Theresa. My travelling companions from Darrol's group couldn't see the sense in returning to Canada with a bunch of travel medicines that would jut sit in their bathroom drawer and expire. I get to be the lucky delivery guy.

Walking through the Kay's neighbourhood. It's a suburb on Kolkata's east side called Kalikapur. Many new apartment buildings are springing up. From our rooftop, you see city to the west, but to the east it's all farmland and small villages.

This somewhat picturesque river runs through the area.

Somewhat picturesque, but entirely putrid, and responsible for millions of bloodthirsty mosquitos.

When I tell Andrew and Jonathan I had walked through this neighbourhood slum by the river, they look pretty surprised.
Me: "Why? Is it dangerous?"
Kays: "We don't know. We've just never walked there."
Me: "Oh."

I really haven't done much actual sightseeing on this trip, not in the sense of the big attractions - the Taj Mahals, big monuments and famous tombs. But the Kalighat Temple is one such place and it's more or less on my way to the Mother House.

The goddess Kali played a big role in the life of Rama Krishna (see Chapter 12) and besides, The Lonely Planet makes it sound interesting: "The ancient temple is Kolkata's holiest spot for Hindus and possibly the source of the city's name." The blocks surrounding the temple are, as you might expect, jam-packed with stalls selling holy junk made of gold coloured plastic. And in line with this commercialism, the LP also reports that, at Kalighat, there's no need to wait in line with the throngs of "jostling pilgrims to fling hibiscus flowers at the three-eyed Kali image... Loitering priests [will] offer to whisk you to the front of the queue [but] will expect a hefty 'donation'." And that's exactly what happens as soon as I walk through the gate.

Fortunately, my priest/guide is full of interesting information as he shows me where the goats are sacrificed (over 2,000 of Kolkata's poor are fed here, DAILY), where to buy the hibiscus, and how to make sure Kali will look after whoever I keep "in my heart" today as I toss the flowers at her (the benefits of this intention will be reaped by my partner Sharon and children James, Hannah & Katrina.), and finally how to make a large donation at the end of the tour, to insure the blessings of my visit. Allstate should have such a salesman! He is openly displeased with my offering, but - thanks to the LP - I don't cave. I know I've been plenty generous and Kali is digging me to the max.

Next, it's my pleasure to return to the Mother House and drop off the medicine. It is received gratefully, but with no extra pomp and circumstance. Just one more drop in the very large bucketful of work to be done.

This is my old stompin' grounds from a week ago, so I flag a bicycle rickshaw through the streets to revisit my old buddy, Shorti, at the internet café at Kyd & Free School Streets. Come along with me for the squeaky, noisy ride:

Then, on up to a shawl shop I remember from my previous visit. (Has it only been ONE WEEK?!?! Seems like a month of living.)

I am smitten by this red beauty hanging in the doorway, but go into the shop anyway to have a look at the other hundreds of shawls stacked to the ceiling. I want this to be Sharon's most special present. The clerk sits me down in front of a wall o' shawls, pours me a tea, and holds his arms out like Vanna White. "Which would you be liking to see, sir?" He is happy to pull down and unfold anything I point to. After a couple dozen viewings and no cigar, I start to feel a little stupid. But Vanna is tireless. Another few, and I say, can I please see the red one hanging in the front? He brings it, and I hear music. The thing is practically glowing, and I could swear I see the folds forming a come-hither smile. It's one of the more expensive ones, but I know it's good quality and a third of what one would pay back home, if one could even find such a thing back home.

Next on the shopping list is an SD card for my camera and a card reader so I can maybe send some pictures home. (Ah, Giddy Fortune's furious, fickle wheel, That goddess blind...) On my way, I see a street full of tailors and fabric shops. Couldn't hurt to have a couple more shirts made. The first couple of places I stop say they can't get the job done in time. It's late Friday, and I leave early Monday morning. Stores still close on Sundays here. But I'm able to persuade the guys at Badasahab to finish by tomorrow night.

Four of the nicest tailors you'll ever meet. Anwar, Mannu, Mohammed (father) and Mohammed (son). I ask them to make me two kurtas just like the one I'm wearing. "Where did you get this one?" "Delhi." Hmmm. Slightly critical looks as they measure it up. "Maybe we make some small changes. But you will enjoy the results. For sure? For sure.

This is Mohammed Nadim. We have a nice little chat together and exchange emails. The bindi from the Kalighat Temple is still on my forehead. And left sleeve. But that doesn't seem to bother anyone but me. Obviously, I highly recommend this shop. It's called Badasahab, and it's just north of the Maidan, near the Esplanade Metro, in the area known as New Market.


Soon it will be time to meet Delia and Shayna for the concert. But first it's time to try on a special dinner I've heard about both form Emma Bryant AND The Lonely Planet. Kati Rolls! It's the latest craze in street food.


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The Concert

Tonight's concert is at the beautiful Birla Sabhagar Hall again. This time, it's all about drumming. Tablas, to be specific. You will see a large photo on the back wall of the stage. This is Jnan Prakash Gosh, the teacher, composer, player in whose name the entire evening is being held. Tonight would have been roughly his 100th birthday. Affectionately known as Jnan-Babu, he is revered by all as creator of a style of Raga music unique to Kolkata.

The evening starts with some wonderful young drummers...

...and proceeds to an amazing drum conversation between masters. I do not catch the names of these two. Perhaps someone who knows can leave a comment? The middle tabla player starts, then passes the ball to the drummer on his right, then back to the middle, and they finish with a flourish in unison. Beautiful!

I always thought tablas were bongos with an Indian accent, or bongos, tablas with a Spanish accent. Whatever the case, drums can talk. No doubt about it.

My favourite part of the evening is the following beautiful spirit, Sanjay Mukherjee.
Sanjay, a disciple of Jnan Prakash Ghosh, is playing one of Jnan-Babu's compositions.
I love the way his shoulders move and his head bobs with the drumming.
It feels like he is having a very animated conversation with the audience. I find myself laughing aloud, even though I have no idea what the syllables (or bols, in tabla speak) mean. Talk about music as the universal language!
Having said that, I'd also be eternally grateful to any Bengali-English translators who'd care to leave comments. Note the audience's reaction to this genuine communicator...

Sanjay can really play. Andrew & Jonathan tell me he's one of India's best.
Here's an extra treat for the Raga-muffins out there...

See you next Sunday for more Kolkata kraziness and then it's off to the final 2-week leg of the journey in Dharamsala, home of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.

Happy Reading!

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