Happy new year everyone! I have finally got around to writing down some of the things I have been up to over the last few weeks. Looking back they've been fairly hectic! After a month of project work in Jharkhand and Bihar I was really looking forward to meeting my Dad in Kolkata and having two weeks of just being a plain old tourist! (The prospect of a stay in a luxury hotel was also quite appealing!) My Dad and I were booked to stay in the Oberoi Grand one of Kolkata's oldest and finest hotels but whereas my Dad arrived fresh from the UK on a BA flight, I arrived not-so-fresh from a very delayed train journey. When my scruffy taxi drove into the hotel courtyard and I stumbled out with my dusty backpack I think the hotel staff hoped I'd got the wrong hotel so they could get me out of sight as soon as possible! I stood out like a sore thumb amongst the marble, plush sofas and immaculately turned out Indian clientele. Thankfully after the longest shower ever I was a bit more presentable. Arriving at the hotel made me realise all the things I had been missing, hot water, fresh towels, soft beds, english tea, fresh fruit and cereal for breakfast.....small comforts that can bring a lot of pleasure! Then there were the little luxuries like G&Ts before dinner, finger biscuits with coffee, a swimming pool and the scent of fresh flowers in the air where-ever you went. I was in hotel heaven!Kolkata is seen by many as the intellectual and cultural capital of India. Many of the country's most famous artists and thinkers hailed from the city, as did many of its political heroes. Whilst I have been in India there has been a lot of press coverage of a female author called Taslima Nasreen (who calls Kolkata home). One of her 'feminist' books seems to have caused outrage in some quarters and in November there were protests on the streets of Kolkata about the book and also Nasreen's pending visa renewal. The other side of the coin is that Nasreen has also just recently been nominated for the Beauvoir feminist award.It is so rare now in the west and the UK especially for any literature to get such extreme responses. Since reading about Nasreen I have been so intrigued to read what all the fuss is about! I have always found it strange that unrest and suffering can promote the greatest creativity and imagination in human being and that certainly seems to have been the case in Kolkata. The city's political history is coloured by a lot of struggle; the independence movement and the effects of the partition especially left great scars. In the wake of its suffering and the poverty and labour unrest that followed the communist party came to dominate Kolkata. The city's political sphere still seems to be brimming with socialist energy, red flags line a lot of the streets and there are frequent protests and strikes in response to any new policies announced by the central government. It must be the people of Kolkata that give it its unrelenting vibrancy because on the surface the city itself is heavily polluted, dirty and run down.Stunning colonial architecture characterises the cityscape but most of it is now crumbling and blackened. It is quite sad to see the unkept and rotting remains of once glorious buildings but these remnants also lend a faded beauty to the city.My Dad and I spent a few days exploring Kolkata's plethora of museums, galleries, temples, gardens and shops (another small pleasure!) with the luxury of going back to our tranquil hotel at the end of everyday. It was a strange sensation. The Oberoi's entrance is on one of the busiest roads in Kolkata, Jawarharlal Nehru Rd (formerly Chowringhee rd, a lot of street names were changed after independence) where street hawkers and hundreds of people bustle for space and traffic horns blare morning till night but when you step into the forecourt of the hotel it is complete peace, like another world. Sometimes it disturbed me a little how easy it was to detach myself from the reality outside the hotel; the beggers and dirt and poverty that lay just the other side of a wall. I had always expected India to be a country of extremes but the divide between the rich and the poor is so immense at times that it is really hard to comprehend.
Agra and Jaipur - mention the american tourists and how most people see India
During our stay my Dad and I decided to be true 'tourists' and make the trip across to see the Taj Mahal and Jaipur. I was thrilled as I wasn't sure I'd get time to go to Agra and it seemed wrong to come to India and not see its most famous landmark! Agra's sole purpose is the Taj Mahal. That may be an unfair statement but everything you see relates to that one landmark; restaurant names, roadside souvenirs, adverts....the whole place is geared towards the tourists, Indian and foreign, that come to see the Taj. On the subject of 'tourists' I found it really interesting to observe all the foreigners in the hotels at Agra and Jaipur - loved up newly weds, retired americans with fat wallets, adventurous european families - obviously you see these 'types' in every holiday destination but what I found interesting was how they experienced India. The hotels could have been anywhere, standard AC doubles, pleasantly furnished, tea and coffee making facilities with a continental buffet breakfast included. As I watched a group of over-preened americans tuck into their eggs and bacon 'sunny-side up' I wondered if they'd experienced anything indian at all over their time here - had they eaten roti for breakfast, tried a cup of chai, hailed a rickshaw, learnt some basic hindi words? I doubt it. I know not many people get the chance to see India like I am but it really struck me what a sheltered experience of the country most visitors have. They are missing out on so much.Anyway, back to the Taj Mahal. It is actually a mausoleum built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial for his second wife Mumtaz Mahal who died giving birth to their 14th child.I'll spare you the lengthy historical details, Wikipedia relays those better than me. Whilst reading reams of tourist literature on the Taj I uncovered many flowery descriptions - 'the most extravagant monument ever built for love' 'a tear drop on the face of eternity' 'the embodiment of all things pure'....there are more but none of them really rang true for me. Maybe I'm a spoilt cynic but I wasn't at all awestruck by the Taj Mahal. It was beautiful, impressive, iconic but it wasn't a surprise. Years of seeing the image of the Taj Mahal desensitised the experience of finally seeing the building for real; I knew exactly what it looked like and what to expect so I had no real emotive response.In Agra I actually preferred the Baby Taj or Itimad-ud-Daulah a smaller mausoleum on the other side of the river. The Baby Taj was built for the Chief Minister of Emperor Jehangir (the emperor before Shah Jahan) by his daughter (Jehangir's wife) and precedes the Taj Mahal by around 25 years. Many of the design elements inspired that of the Taj Mahal and it was the first structure to make extensive use of pietra dura the art of inlaying precious stones into white marble that is used extensively across the Taj Mahal. For me wandering around the Baby Taj was a more peaceful experience and the building itself was smaller, more elegant, graceful and somehow more beautiful.Next on our whistlestop tour of India's landmark sights was Fatehpur Sikri the short lived capital of the Mughal empire (1571-85) that lies 40km west of Agra en route to Jaipur. Fatehpur Sikri was constructed by Emperor Akbar during his reign to be the Mughal capital but the area and city always suffered from water shortages so was abandoned after Akbar died. The capital then moved to Agra and Fatehpur Sikri was left to become a magnificent abandoned ghost city, as it still remains today. The collection of deserted red stone buildings really captured my imagination. Akbar was regarded as one of the greatest Mughals, thrust into power at the age of just 13 he expanded the Mughal Empire to cover most of northern India. He must have had a ruthless side (I read somewhere about a tower of hindu heads he constructed after one battle victory) but he is also famed as being a very just and wise ruler that followed a policy of 'peace for all' or Sulh-i-kul. Tolerant of all religions Akbar developed a philosophy called 'faith of God' or Din-i-Ilahi that assertd a common truth to all religions. This is leading somewhere I promise...Fatehpur Sikri was built to honour the Sufi Mystic who Akbar credited as bringing him his male heir, it was constructed as the 'perfect city' designed as a physical expression of Din-i-Ilahi'. Wandering round the deserted palace buildings and courtyards you could just imagine the thriving city Fatehpur Sikri once was; the intellectual and political hub of the Mughal Empire in the middle of the desert.Next stop, Jaipur. Jaipur is one of those cities that you need to wander around for hours to fully appreciate. We had just one day which wasn't really long enough to soak in the charm of the mystical old city. One of the main sites to see is the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) an intricately designed palace on one of Jaipur's main bazaars that was originally built so the ladies of the Royal household could watch the life and processions of the city. The front is a five story lattice of tiny alcoves and windows but from the inside the building is now only really the shell of the splendour it once must have housed. The other main tourist attraction is the city palace, part of which the modern day Maharaja still lives in. Sources and paintings in the museum are proud to point out that the maharaja is a polo chum of prince Charles. Staff proudly told me this as if I was also a polo pal of Charlie's, didn't want to disappoint them so just smiled and nodded.After a few days of intensive sightseeing 'sights' start to blur into one, for me the best and most memorable part of Jaipur was the shopping.....silver, leather sandals, colourful fabrics....I got a good chance to try out some of my newly acquired bargaining skills!
My dad and I returned to Kolkata for New year. Anke, another volunteer I met in Jharkhand, was also in town with her parents so we all got together for the hotel's new years eve party. We ate lots and danced in 2008 to cheesy Hindi music! The start of the new year felt a lot less significant for me this year because the next big 'end of a phase' is not going to come until May when I leave India and return to the UK....which still feels quite a way away....When my alarm sounded at 4.30 in the morning on the 2nd of January I wasn't quite ready to leave the sheltered cocoon of the Oberoi and step back out on my own into real India. But I did, and by the evening I was sitting on a white sandy beach with the sea lapping at my feet.....