Bangalore and the sex workers or Devadasi are now behind me as I board another early morning flight. My destination is Ranchi but for whatever reason I will be stopping in Kolkata for a full 9-10 hours. At first this sounds great to me but I’m also aware that I’ve been running pretty lean for the last week and getting a bit tired. It’s become more and more difficult to find a place and enough time to catch up on my now seriously depleted sleep. I’m determined to check out Kolkata though and hope to get to the Ganga (Ganges) river. I’ve never been the type of person that likes to read too much about a place or to make too many plans before I arrive. I like to go where my nose takes me. I want to be off the beaten path so with that in mind I sometimes find myself unprepared for what is in front of me. Don’t get me wrong as I like this challenge but it often ends up to be a very big challenge. Note to potential traveling companions, you had better be okay with this or there could be some uncomfortable moments. Anyway I arrive early in the am and proceed to leave the airport and find a day taxi through a service in the arrivals terminal to give me a tour of the city. I meet a nice young man who in his best stuttering English between puffs of his every present smokes claims he understands what I want and will give me a great tour of this city. I tell him what I want is to see the underbelly of the city. I’m not interested in houses of worship or anything where there may be a tourist. No problem he tells me and starts to point out all the tourist spots he can find. Once again I tell him that’s not what I want. Finally after some time he gets it and says he is going to take me to Sonagachi this is essentially the red light district of Kulkuta.
Before all that sex worker stuff, we were going to need to get some food. He takes me to this little place in the center of the city where I’m sure he takes all his fares. He knows the guys by name in the place and quickly orders what surely is his regular meal. I order some vegetarian dish and when it comes I devour it like all the food I’ve had so far and barely take the time to savor the spices that I love so much since my interest is to see what’s going on outside. After I pay for both of us (is that the way it’s supposed to go?) I get up and wander out the door and behind some stalls to what appears to be a little town hidden behind a bigger city. Little sidewalks zig zagging back and forth like a decrepit Venice Italy. This is where poverty pervades, too poor to beg. Still smiles abound with the children. There were people playing some hand cross version of pool and checkers with an odd number of pieces and other people just making do with the day. There was a small family sitting around a chopping block with the remains of some animal. There was a jaw and a hoof and more fly’s then you would ever want to be around.
Once back on the road and on to Sonagachi I was given some strict orders from my driver not to talk to anyone and by NO means am I to have my camera with me. I say listen here bub, this is what I do for a livin and I’ll be fine. He is really adamant that it’s terribly dangerous for me to be walking around with a camera and as much as I’d like to be a tough guy he simply will not allow it. Normally since I pay for insurance I’m not too worried about losing my gear but in this case since I had a few more shoots to do I simply could not afford to lose any of it. I decided to take the gear with me vs. leaving it in the car as he suggested.
We begin to walk in the Sonagachi area and at first it seems ordinary enough but very soon it becomes clear that there are a disproportionate number of young girls here. They tend to hang out in little groups of 4-5 and they are very nice to me. Gosh I think isn’t that nice. Who doesn’t want a little attention? Of course it’s not like that at all. These are all prostitutes and they are so young! Seems like many of them are late teens or early twenties. No doubt there are some older ones but the older ones don’t seem to be as out there as the young ones. Granted this was still early morning so I suppose they could have been sleeping from the night before. There was more than one occasion when my driver took me by the hand to guide me. It’s very common for two men to walk hand in hand but it tends to make me a bit uncomfortable plus I feel i’m a big boy and don’t need my hand held but I certainly appreciate the concern he had for me.
Incredible poverty is what you see in this area but at the same time I don’t see sad faces. I’m not saying these people were happy with their lives only that where I was at that point in time the people I came across showed no obvious sign of stress. I have no doubt that looking a bit closer would reveal myriad of troubles. Like most places people leave their problems at home and then go to work even if their work is prostitution. There were kids playing in the street and both young and old men and women washing in the little corner water pipes. I do wish I had the camera but I think that without a pre arranged meeting with some people my shots would probably not have been too interesting. Anyway how many shots of sex workers do you really want to see on one trip.
Next it was off to the Ganga. I just assumed this was a place that anyone who you would ask in this country never mind the city would know about it. Funny thing was that it was not as easy to find. We actually had to ask about 5-7 different people on the street to get directions to this magical place. We navigated our way through the crowds of cars and people until we crossed some train tracks and arrived at the edge of this river. These places always seem more romantic in your mind then when you are actually faced with them. It was somewhat hidden behind a row of buildings that lined the edge. As I walked through a break in the buildings my driver decided to hang out with some guys. I do find it amazing that in a city of millions a person can sit down beside what I only can imagine are total strangers and start talking as if family. Meanwhile I walked down some stairs that led right to the waters edge. There were young people washing and children playing. There was a man missing a leg from what I imagine to be polio. He with his crutch and a what I suppose was his girlfriend. They laughed and splashed each other with water. Children running naked as they always seem to do smiling and posing for the camera. I have often photographed two children together with the youngest one happy and giddy to be in the photo while the older one even though also happy to pose there was a small indication that the innocence was beginning to fade, almost ready to say no photos but not quite independent enough to do so.
As I started to leave I went past one of the areas where they cremate bodies. There are many little concrete divots to build a fire in and then place the body on. There are what amounts to bleachers for people to sit and watch as the body burns. I saw a flame but it had been burning for some time and there was no obvious sign that a life had ever been.
Once we left the river it was basically a bee line back to the airport. Rush hour if that’s even possible since it seems to always be rush hour would begin soon and my flight was at 7pm. We made it back much faster than it seemed it took to get from the airport to the city and I will say it’s not that close. My driver asked that I tell the service who I reserved him with to say he did a great job and that I would be back later in the week. I guess this helps him, I’m a little embarrassed to say I did not actually do this as I was not heading in the direction of the arrivals terminal where I had originally reserved the car in the first place. Oh well I’m sure he will do fine.
Now onward to Ranchi and meeting the group that works with the Adivasi or indigenous peoples of India.