Olaf and I visited the Indian Museum in Kolkata today. The collections and their presentations, taken together, are fascinating for what they say about the history of museums and museum culture and financing in this part of India. The exhibits look like they haven’t been touched in at least a century. Other than the one mummy in their tiny Egyptian room, nothing is protected by AC, and many of the paintings are clearly being destroyed with the passage of time in the hothouse that poses as their gallery.
On the other hand, it was like a time machine trip to how exhibits used to be put together in the late 19th century. There is a real air of retro scientific identification and classification in the display and labeling of items. The display cases look as if they are straight from the lab of Dr Jekyll or library of Sherlock Holmes. It is interesting to speculate on how classical science and museum presentation of it has separated in the years since.
It is hoooooottttt and swetttttty out today. Olaf is seeming slightly shell-shocked by the chaotic Indian street, but is adjusting slowly. I am very glad we are booked in to the Park Hotel, whose service btw is the best I have ever seen in India. (But then again, this is the most I have ever paid for a room in India, so there you are.)
We have semi-finalized our plans for where to go after Kolkata. We head to Varanasi on Saturday for a few days and then over to Khajuraho, Gwalior, possibly Agra (if the riots there abate), and on to a city or two in Rajasthan before heading back to Mumbai.
So my pal Olaf arrives from Germany tonight. We will spend the next few weeks traipsing across India on our way to Mumbai. I booked us a room for three nights at the Park Hotel in Kolkata. It is super ritzy (and pricey), but I got a very good internet deal and decided to go for it. The location can’t be beat. I wanted a little bit of luxury for a couple of days and was also somewhat worried about Olaf’s inevitable India culture shock and wanted to ease him in a bit. Our room is fabu and I am lovin’ the AC and other comforts (with total Buddhist non-attachment, of course).
We went to visit Bhaskar’s aunt yesterday evening. She is an astrologer and palmist, so we had our palms read for fun. Here are some of the predictions for me:
– I will have right leg pain in later life. (see previous post)
– I will benefit from a financial windfall “very soon”. This windfall will come to me in an unexpected way, without any work on my part. Cool! (Mo, did you buy our lotto ticket yet?)
– I will either be a famous actor, or deeply spiritual. Or both.
– I will live in the western part of some continent where it gets cold in the winter. (SF? London? I guess this leaves out Bombay…)
Perhaps India is trying to tell me something. After dealing with my itchy issues, I was walking to the internet cafe yesterday when BAM! I slid in something (there is always something to slip in on the street in India) and shaved a good amount of skin off of my big toe. ouch.
eeeew. My itching was becoming too much to bear, so as a precaution I went to the doctor this morning and although I am not showing any rashes yet, he thinks I have scabies. I probably picked it up in the guesthouse in Mcleodganj (don’t ever use a blanket provided I guess, no matter how cold you are.) When I think about it, it is rather amazing that nothing like this has happened to me in the past 11 months of travel, especially given some of the dodgy flophouses I have stayed in from time to time.
Fortunately, he gave me a treatment and all should be cleared up in a short while. I now have the unenviable task of returning to my wonderful hosts and telling them we need to boil all my clothes and sheets. Sigh.
So the last couple of days we have been hanging out, eating (of course) and reading. Yesterday was Bhaskar’s birthday, so we had a little party and a lot of food (of course). Bhaskar, Bishnu and I have been having many interesting conversations about Indian identity, politics, colonialism, art and queer theory.
An interesting side point about birthdays in this part of India. A day or date is not considered to start until sunrise, and continues until sunrise the next day. Therefore, anyone born here between midnight and sunrise (6:30 am or so) may be considered to be born the prior day. Some people go by western time, some by Bengali sunrise time and some switch back and forth for fun, becoming a day older or younger at a whim.
But the humidity is starting to get to me a bit. I have a terrible itching in many places (arms, lower back and legs), especially at night making sleep not very fruitful. My friends say it sounds like “prickly heat”. I think I am more genetically cut out for cooler, dryer climates and/or AC.
Apart from the intense heat and power cuts (8 of them in 2 days!) that left us drained, Shantiniketan was a pretty interesting if low key place. I got to learn a lot more about Tagore (who is the total Bengal hero of heroes), and visit the university he founded and generally take in the bucolic surroundings of the area, and sweat like a pig, and sweat like a pig. Returning to Kolkata the climate seems downright cool and pleasant.
We are on the road (well, train track) this morning for Shantiniketan, which means “abode of peace”. It was made famous by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who set up an ashram-university here in the early 20th century. It has become something of a weekend retreat for the well-heeled of Kolkata.
We will not be anywhere near internet access for the next two days, so see you on Friday or Saturday.
It was so sunny and beautiful in the morning, we decided to leave our umbrellas at home. We arrived just a few minutes walk from Bishnu’s mom’s place and no sooner than we stepped out of the cab, it began to pour. And I mean really pour. THIS was the monsoon rain as I imagined it. When we finally got to the house, we were soaked, and the rain continued unabated this way for the next 2 hours. It was beautiful to watch and cozy being inside having a fabu meal.
After the rain subsided, we decided to go to the New Market area of Kolkata. Reminding me a little of Crawford Market in Mumbai, this is an amazing place, with layers of history piled all over each other and a crazy mess of shops and smells and people all around. Bhaskar describes the place as exhausting and exhilarating at the same time, and I think that is an apt description.