I meet up with Steve in a coffee bar in Soho. He looks shifty, like he is selling something. God, I love him. I love the fact he is so uncomfortable in a job he has actively chosen and pursued. I recognize the feeling.
His cappuccino arrives. He views it with suspicion throughout the entirety of our meeting.
STEVE: Sue, we’re thinking India next.
This is fabulous news. I’ve never been to India before, but I’ve heard so much about it. This is a composite of what I’ve heard:
PEOPLE: Oh, my God, India! The colours, Sue! The colours! The colours are incredible. And the smells! The colour and the smells! And the food! Oh, my God! The colour and the smells and the food! The people, Sue! And the colours! The colours are incredible! The colours are incredible!
So, to sum up India: colour, food and people. Well, I bring news. Everywhere has colour, food and people. So, what else?
I wondered where I’d be sent. The tranquil waterways of Kerala? The sandy beaches of Goa? The ancient temples of Rajasthan? Nope. This was Steve and, as we know by now, it is Steve’s avowed mission in life to make me suffer. And so I was sent to a city deemed the very signifier of what it means to be poor and disenfranchised – Kolkata.
With time an issue (I had only twelve days to make the film) Steve thought the best thing to do would be to take me straight from the airport into the busiest part of town and simply start shooting.
STEVE: It’ll be great. We’ll get your initial reactions to all the hustle and bustle and go from there.
ME: Cool. That sounds pleasingly chaotic. What’s it like?
STEVE: It’s mental. I mean, it’s great. Honestly, you’ll love it.
I got off the plane after an eleven-hour flight, hurled myself headlong into a taxi, and forty minutes later I was slap-bang in the middle of a city of fourteen million people - most of whom seemed to be in the very street I was filming my opening piece to camera in.
It was the biggest culture shock of my life. There was barely room to breathe, let alone walk, in that thoroughfare. Tuk-tuks in the bright red, yellow and green of the nation’s flag beeped and swerved like luminous beetles. Traders, laden with bolts of fabric and panniers of garlic, elbowed me as they jostled past. Delivery boys ran at me with pushcarts full of papers and plastic, desperate to find a space in which to manoeuvre. And, in the midst of it all, cows - merrily sauntering in front of lorries, tiptoeing over tram lines, and nonchalantly chewing bin bags in the path of oncoming traffic. The cows don’t care: they know they are safe. They’re the only ones guaranteed to make it out of this goddamn street alive.
Within seconds, my entire body started flaring with allergies, my sinuses set like concrete and red pimples burst through my skin in violent protest at the heat.
Kolkata had been a sleepy village right up to the point us Brits showed up and decided it was the perfect place to start an empire. In its Victorian heyday, it was a thriving port, where fortunes could be made, and immigrants flocked from all over the world in search of work and a better life. To avoid any cultural ‘unpleasantness’, the British devised a system whereby they divided the city according to colour. There was the ‘White Town’, made up of European (mainly British) settlers, which looked a little like Kensington, with its stucco buildings and wide boulevards. There was the ‘Black Town’, where the Indians lived. And then there was the ‘Grey Area’ where everyone else got put. It’s now called Bowbazar, and remains a wonderful, jumbled mish-mash of nationalities and ethnicities.
Bowbazar is both chaotic and harmonious, fractious and tolerant. This tight-knit mix, where everyone eats, shops and works together, may well account for the fact that when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot by her bodyguards thirty years ago Kolkata was the only place in India that didn’t see reprisals against the Sikh community.
To walk around the district of Bowbazar is to tour the world: there are churches and synagogues, minarets and stupas. One moment you’re in a classic Indian street, commuters savouring their clay cups of sweet chai, then you’re in Parsee territory, walking past the Zoroastrian temple, where a sacred flame has burnt since 1912. There’s a wedding cake of an Armenian church, a baby-pink Jain temple and a red and cream coloured synagogue, built in Kolkata’s Raj heyday, when the city had a population of some ten thousand Jews. Today there are fewer than thirty, barely enough for a service. There is no rabbi to light the Shabbat lamps, so this sacred duty is carried out by a Muslim family.
We wander further. The imam calls the faithful to prayer. Ten thousand men fill the streets, get down on their knees and stop the traffic. Moments later, they get up, and the bustle begins again.
We enter the Nakhoda Masjid Mosque and the temperature drops. I welcome the sudden cool. I remove my boots and sit them next to the hundred or so dusty sandals that crown the entranceway. My hot feet spread on the chilled tiles. There are dozens of men lounging by the Ablution Pool, and others lie fast asleep on their backs, snoring, in the shade of the main courtyard.
A girl approaches, drawn to the spectacle of a television crew. She says in perfect English that she wants to be a journalist. I don’t want to tell her this, but with two fluent languages and a can-do attitude, she is already over-qualified.
ME: Well, this, I am ashamed to say, is my very first mosque experience. You’d do me a great honour if you showed me around.
She takes me round the ground floor, pointing out the finer architectural details of the building. Around her the men snarl and chomp in their sleep. We walk up the wide stone steps to the first floor, where my eye is caught by a narrow door in the far corner.
ME: What’s that?
GIRL: It’s the staircase up to the minaret. I’ve never been up there. I don’t know if we are allowed.
ME: Well, I think we are allowed. We can allow one another. Shall we?
She giggles, then puts her hand over her mouth, as if to stifle a full-blown laugh. I open the door, fine dust falling from the lintel onto our heads, and we make our way up the narrow stone spiral.
We come out onto a rooftop by the minaret. Below, the entire world is going about its business, unaware of this silent act of rebellion.
ME: Shall we?
I point up to the minaret once more. And we laugh all the way to the top.
Abhra started out as our fixer, then became an on-screen contributor and then a friend. We ended up working with him on every film we made in India - and I can’t think of a better, sweeter guy to hang out with.
We hit the clogged arteries of Bowbazar once more, with him as our guide. We turned a typical Indian street corner, and suddenly entered Chinatown. Hawkers were selling prawn crackers, noodles and fish-ball soup. The signs were in Mandarin, and red flags hung over the doorways. We could have been in Shanghai.
The Chinese community has been in Kolkata for over two hundred years. Their population originally numbered around twenty thousand; nowadays it’s about a tenth of that. But, despite the fall in numbers, this temple is still going strong.
Abhra ushered me inside. It was cool and serene. Red candles burned next to stagnant cups of jasmine and pu’er tea. On the opposing wall, there were gold drapes, vast floral arrangements in silk and an engraved altar, decked with gilded vases and candlesticks, at the centre of which sat an ebony-faced figure in the lotus pose.
I was met by a very friendly dude, whose name, rather unfortunately, appeared to be Attack.
ME: Sorry. Attack?
ATTACK: YES. ATTACK.
I have no idea whether this was indeed the case, but that’s what it sounded like, so for the rest of the afternoon that’s what I called him. It was a shame, as he really was a delightful gent - though not a patch on his older brother, Onslaught.
I had barely got through the door before Attack offered to tell my fortune. Why not? I thought. After all, I am at the beginning of another journey - there’s no harm in seeing what’s in store for me and my fellow adventurers.
An elderly lady with advanced politeness issues materialized from behind a curtain and handed me a large tub with some bamboo sticks poking out of it.
‘Oh, hello,’ I said, taking the tub. ‘What do I do with this?’
The question provoked a heated debate between Attack and the lady. As with all the holy places I have visited around the world, there seemed to be a fair amount of disagreement as to the procedural elements involved in the ceremony.
ATTACK: You have to pray three times and then ask once.
‘No!’ said the woman, who was so furious that everything she said sounded like it should have an exclamation mark at the end of it.
WOMAN: NO! You have to say your name! Say your name!
Attack was suitably admonished.
ATTACK: Yes, she is right. Say your name!
ME: OK. OK!
Now I was shouting. I was incredibly confused, but desperate, nonetheless, to get it right. I attempted to get myself into a respectful headspace for what was to come, but couldn’t tune out the intense Mandarin mutterings between the two – which, to be honest, were turning out to be a bit of a spiritual-buzz kill. The lady turned to me again.
WOMAN: You! Now! Say your age!
I wonder if she had requested this information more out of spite than tradition.
ME: I have to say my age?
ME: Really? (Suddenly panicking) What? Out loud?
This is not a number that should be uttered in public.
WOMAN: Yes! Say!
Attack stepped in to spare my modesty.
ATTACK: No. Not to us. To the gods.
That’s perfect, I thought, because only the gods know my real age.
Abhra was now getting involved - trying to interpret - but even he was struggling to make sense of the conflicting information I was receiving.
ABHRA: Say your name and shake it once.
WOMAN: No! Three times!
ATTACK: OK, shake it – think about your age and whatever, however you want.
‘Whatever, however you want’ sounded somewhat vague, even to a non-believer like me. The barracking continued:
WOMAN: Face the shrine! Say your name!
I took a deep breath and approached the deity.
ATTACK: Shake it.
WOMAN: Shake it!
ATTACK: Shake it three times. . .
WOMAN: SHAKE IT! More! More!
Another argument broke out behind me. I carried on regardless, shaking, then saying my name and my age.
ATTACK: Keep shaking.
WOMAN: More! More shaking! SHAKE!
This was certainly the most high-pressured spiritual event I’d ever attended. At one point I thought I might be having a panic attack. Finally, one of the sticks broke away from the others and hit the floor.
ME: Yes! YES!
I was just relieved the whole thing was over. The atmosphere cleared a little, everyone calmer now the process was finished. There was a moment of congratulatory silence, and then Attack spoke up.
ATTACK: What did you ask for?
ME: Oh, no. . .
ME: I didn’t ask for anything.
And with that, the whole thing kicked off again.
ABHRA: You were supposed to ask the gods. . .
ME: But you didn’t tell me I had to ask for anything. . .
WOMAN: She is an idiot!
ME: How am I supposed to know? I’ve never had my fortune read in a Chinese temple in Kolkata before!
WOMAN: She is an idiot!
ME: OK, OK. . .
ATTACK: Let’s do it again.
ABHRA: Remember, your name, your age and. . .
WOMAN: Go now!
ABHRA: . . . and what you are looking for in your fortune.
WOMAN: Shake! Go! Now!
I panicked, violently rattling the pot, and spilling the contents onto the floor. I was now surrounded by sticks.
WOMAN: NO! God! No!
ATTACK: Which stick came out?
WOMAN: All of them. You see? Idiot!
Attack came forward and picked up the first stick he came across. He no longer seemed to care about due process. Why worry about authenticity, eh? Just pick up any old stick and crack on. He examined the end of it.
ATTACK: Number sixty-two.
I was ushered to a stand on which were stacked various numbered sheets of paper. So this is how the goddess manifests her fortune-telling - through the power of the photocopier. I found the corresponding sheet for number sixty-two and read the prophecy aloud: ‘This will be a fruitful year for farming and marriage.’
I gulped. As an urbanite and commitment-phobe this was a double blow.
Underneath that, there followed the rather ominous divination: ‘Your family will be liquid.’
As predictions go, it was a hard one to forget. To this day, I have no idea whether or not it was a typo or a genuine warning - but on hot days I keep an eye on them, just in case.