A Calcutta Christmas

Early in November, I was invited to accompany friends from Pune to their hometown for Christmas. Which is how this year I celebrated a Calcutta Christmas.

Park Street at night

Park Street, Calcutta at night

To be fair, my holiday began in Pune. As I mentioned on the 23rd, I attended an Akanksha sports day at our Matoshri English Medium School (MEMS). The children normally have an outrageous amount of energy. Divided into teams and locked in fierce competition, the energy carried through for hours. It was fun to be reminded of my own elementary school days, when sports day included roaming around the schoolyard, playing tug of war, racing, and eating frozen treats at the end of the day. The MEMS sports day operated on a slightly smaller scale (due to lack of space and equipment), but the infectious energy and joy was the same.

Second time with this picture, but it's too cute!

Second time with this picture, but it’s too cute!

Although I came with the intention of helping out, I spent the morning and early afternoon watching the events and cuddling with children. Some of my favorite moments at the school will be sitting on the ground with a child pressed on both sides, two in my lap, and one hugging my neck from behind. Christmas cuddles!

Christmas Eve was a normal day filled with anticipation. I went to the office, as usual. I felt the travel/holiday excitement hit me, and I listened to Christmas music for the first time this December while counting down the minutes till 5pm.

Christmas morning began with a jarring awakening at 3:15am. Direct flights from Pune to Calcutta are not common, so my departure time was a brisk 5:55am. Having scheduled a cab for a 4:15am ride, I dragged my sleepy self out of my nice, warm bed and shivered my way through a barely warm shower.

(Please note that I use the traditional spelling for the city – Calcutta – as opposed to the current spelling, Kolkata. As far as I can deduce, the situation is much the same as the Mumbai/Bombay, Pune/Poona divide; people understand you either way, and it’s more of a personal preference. However, I am sticking with the traditional spelling because that is the version that my Bengali friends use. Andddddd not gonna lie – I love the alliteration of the phrase “Calcutta Christmas.”)

I was particularly curious to see what awaited me in Calcutta after spending my summer in Dhaka. The state of Bengal originally consisted of what are now Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Indian state of West Bengal. In 1947, the Bengal region was divided into the Indian West Bengal, East Pakistan, and West Pakistan. The separation was to create individual areas for the Muslim and Hindu populations in the region. Then, in 1971 East Pakistan separated from West Pakistan and became Bangladesh. (A great name – it literally means the country of Bengali. There is great pride in the Bangla language there.) There is a ton of history between 1947 and 1971 that I am not covering, but it is a fascinating and tragic period for the region and worth looking into if you’re a history buff. I had no prior knowledge of the regional turmoil in Bengal until my stay in Dhaka during the summer of 2014. The Liberation War Museum in Dhaka is an excellent stop for the Bangladeshi perspective on that time, and I began to explore the history after my visit there in June.

Calcutta taxi cabs

Calcutta taxi cabs

Calcutta is certainly more similar to the architecture and atmosphere of Bangladesh than Mumbai, Pune, or Delhi. Watching the city unfold before me during my cab ride from the airport to my friend’s house in the posh Park Street area, I was struck by the classic look of the city. This may sound stereotypical, but Calcutta looks the way I imagined an Indian city: the narrow streets, the old fashioned taxis, the flow of people. I fully admit that this bias might be based on my summer in Bangladesh, since I received my acceptance into the 2014-2105 AIF Fellowship during my stay in Bangladesh. There are definite difference between Calcutta and Dhaka; infrastructure in Calcutta is better maintained and the city is cleaner than my memories of Dhaka. I enjoyed the contrast, and I am fully happy with my decision to explore the Bengal region further.

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Christmas day was a time for reunions, chatting, and feasting. After arriving at my Fletcher friend’s house, we spent hours chatting. As with my Goa weekend, I found the Fletcher conversation to be thoroughly refreshing and informative. I then popped down to the metro and traveled to my AIF co-fellow’s apartment for a Christmas feast of bruschetta, pumpkin soup, chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes, and a delicious variety of cakes and cookies. I had several AIF reunions while also meeting new friends. Conversations meandered as we lazily ate our way through the early evening. Holidays away from home are never easy – somehow, it doesn’t quite feel the same without family and snow – but I am incredibly grateful for the network of friends I have in India.

After 20 straight hours of go-go-go, I crashed for the night. Around 2:30am, I had an unpleasant awakening of intense pain. My left ear was throbbing so hard that my teeth ached. The left side of my throat radiated pain, and my lymph node was the size of a tender golf ball. Somehow exhaustion won out over the pain, and the intensity had diminished somewhat by the time I awoke in the morning. However, I was feeling sick, sluggish, and overall not too happy. All I could think about was how painful an earache would make my return flight to Pune and how awful it would be to be sick during all of my upcoming travels. Fortunately, my friend’s father came to the rescue and recommended an over the counter antibiotic that I started right away.

I had made plans to meet a German friend for some morning sightseeing, so I dragged myself out around 11. We meandered our way to Victoria Memorial, chatting and taking in our surroundings as we walked. She is currently based in Darjeeling for research, so it was extremely interesting to hear about life in the mountains. Victoria Memorial is a stunning building, and I enjoyed the site even through my haze of illness. It is curious to see how many remnants of the British remain and characterize Calcutta.

Victoria Memorial

Victoria Memorial

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Afterwards, we headed to the India Museum, the oldest museum in the country (or so I was told). We had been warned that the museum was a bit strange and perhaps best experienced while under the influence of something strong, so our curiosity had been peaked. The museum is indeed very trippy. The exhibits remind me of the set up of New York’s Museum of Natural History, with large diorama-esque cases that depict animals in their natural habitat. These examples of taxidermy are not stellar, and the pulled facial features, with their glossy eyes peering in different directions, walk the line between hilarious and downright bizarre. The material itself was normal, but the execution was indeed rather creepy.

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My second lunch in Calcutta was a plate of vegetable momos (dumplings) and vegetable thukpa (a clear soup with thin noodles). The warm broth soothed my throat and aided conversation, but afterwards I returned to my friend’s house for a 5-hour nap. I awoke to meet my host, my friend from Pune, and some of their school friends and devour an egg-chicken kati roll. Kati rolls are sinfully delicious. Imagine an oily, thick pita bread (but better) with a layer of egg that wraps around veggies, chicken, and a tangy hot sauce. The paper it was wrapped in was completely soaked in oil, but the taste made it 100% worth the clogging of my arteries. The heavy meal sent me back to bed for another full night’s sleep.

Thankfully I woke up on Saturday feeling exponentially better. After another massive breakfast prepared by my friend’s mother – who is the kindest women and who managed to feed me a week’s worth of food in 3 days – I ventured out for a quick solo trip. I made my way up to New Market, a famous destination for shoppers. I wasn’t in the mood for shopping but I wanted to try to capture the bustle with my camera. After getting an annoying amount of attention from shopkeepers in a short period, I gave up and bee-lined my way to the exit. I did snag a couple of cheap scarves on the street to protect my throat from the cool breeze.

Fruit stand near New Market

Fruit stand near New Market

Lemonade stand

Lemonade stand

Entrance

Entrance

Roads near New Market

Roads near New Market

Breaking away from the crowds, I wandered along Park Street, marveling at the various Christmas decorations while keeping my eye out for the Park Street Cemetery. It was a bit further away than I had anticipated, but walking through the gate made all of my direction inquiries to bemused shopkeepers and policemen worth it. The cemetery is just breathtaking and a nice break from the crowds of Park Street. The tombstones are memorials that stand taller than my 5’6” build. Crows dart from tree to tree, cawing and snapping their beaks. Some of the tombstones date back to the 1700s, which delighted my American sensibilities. (Seriously, I always get excited to see history that predates the independence of my own country. It makes me giddy to imagine having such a long history.) It was, needless to say, very cool.

A sample of the Christmas decorations along Park Street

A sample of the Christmas decorations along Park Street

Side Park Street Cemetery

Side Park Street Cemetery

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I then went to lunch with my friend and his father. The hospitality of my friend and his family cannot be stressed enough. They were amazingly kind and welcoming during my stay. I am blessed to have so many incredible friends, here in India, at home, and abroad!

The lake near our lunch spot

The lake near our lunch spot

After lunch my friend joined me for another jaunt in Park Street Cemetery, followed by a visit to the Mother’s House, the home, workplace, and tomb of Mother Teresa. Reading about her life and connecting her work with the history of Bengal was a humbling moment. Regardless of all else, she truly worked for the poor of Calcutta during a tumultuous and difficult time. The pictures of that time period are sobering; I cannot imagine what it was like to live and work in Calcutta during those years. Although I am not follower of any particular religion, I said a prayer and sent appreciation for the path that led me to her tomb that day.

Mother Teresa's tomb

Mother Teresa’s tomb

A memorial post to Mother Teresa along Park Street (not near the Mother's House)

A memorial post to Mother Teresa along Park Street (not near the Mother’s House)

My last day in Calcutta was a quieter affair. There were many conversations, and I went to Howrah Bridge for a walk with my friend. We ate a late lunch with his family, and then it was more or less time for me to head to the airport.

Howrah Bridge

Howrah Bridge

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For all of my travels, I am a cautious traveler and always try to give myself extra time. While I was in a cab heading to the airport, I received a text from the airline: “Your flight is rescheduled to 20:10.” (The original departure time being 19:30.) Not too bad, I figured. I would still arrive in Pune before too late.

However, within 30 minutes another message came: “Your flight is rescheduled to 20:50.”

After checking in and going through security: “Your flight is rescheduled to 22:30.”

At that point, I started getting worried about a potential cancellation. I knew it wouldn’t be the worst experience – I could always get a taxi back to my friend’s house – but it wouldn’t be ideal. I was fortune to meet a couple on the same flight as me, and we went to find out more information. Winter travel in the north of India is fraught with delays and cancelations due to bad weather. Even though Calcutta is in the east side of the country, our flight was delayed in Ahmedabad or Delhi – it was hard to get a concrete answer. The desk at the gate quickly became a scene of frustration and much anger. I sat back and watched, somewhat amused, somewhat worried. After lots of yelling, we were given a free dinner, as per Indian flight rules. (If a flight is delayed more than 2 hours, the airline must provide a meal. Not too bad, if you ask me.) Concerns over taxi availability in Pune arose, which worried me the most. The couple that I had met was extremely gracious, and offered to help me get home.

After some tedious airport hours and a drowsy flight, we arrived in Pune after 1am. My new friends and I grabbed a taxi, and they dropped me at my place before heading to their home. I got home after 2am and was too wired to sleep right away. I finally faded off to sleep around 3:30 and managed to sleep through two alarms before rushing off to a normal day at work: chai, meetings scheduled and canceled on the same day, venting over still not having the right data from schools, and a simple lunch of idli sambar. And thus the week begins, with a Pondicherry adventure beckoning on the horizon.

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