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Two sides of Bengal

Kolkata.  After a rather grueling flight with two stops in China at provincial airports – Nanjing and Kunming – arrived exhausted at the grungy Kolkata airport to be greeted first by the dim layers of Indian bureaucracy – sullen passport control guys stumbling to the last hours of their mind-numbing soul-killing jobs, shuffling papers all, like themselves, soon to be recycled to the circular files of bureaucrats and gods.  Then the customs guys, same deal, same deadening paper shuffle and meaningless genuflecting to security – his state job and pension the real goal.   Outside we were met by Nilanjan, my friend from my last journey here in 2003, and taken to his newspaper job’s car and driver, and at 12:30 in the morning taken through Kolkata’s maze of roads, bouncing over humps and potholes, dodging the few rickshaws still moving on near-empty streets, soon to be flushed with humanity as the sun returned.

Bathing in the holy, if also filthy, Ganges

On landing I’d noticed, on the myriad islands littering the endless tributaries of the mouth of the Ganges, lights marking life, and some places buildings draped with strings of lights – on  enquiring if this was new, since I’d not noticed it when here 7 years ago, Nilanjan said he should have said to come a few days earlier as these were left-up from the Puja festival, just a few days earlier – the Festival of Light. Wished we’d been here.  Ride in was bumpy and Marcella said she wanted to throw up the whole time.  She thought it was the crazed driver but I let her know they’re all like that, plus the roads being what they are, being jangled in body and nerves is a given.

Checked into not the top-notch hotel the US Consulate had us listed for, but another one, The New Kenilworth, a bit cheaper at my request, if connecting ustill too posh for my tastes: internet connection a rip-off $7 an hour or 15 the day where as an internet cafe would be 15 rupees or about 30 cents an hour.  We passed connecting up and checked into a more reasonable setting later.

New construction in KolkataNew Market

Morning already dropped into the programmed rush: R&R except for the photog who arrived at 10:30 a.m. for a spread in local financial paper, interview in the evening; later another interview.   As planned we got a whirlwind tour with Nilanjan of a sliver of Kolkata – some shopping districts, New Market, Hogg’s market, the names and architecture a left-over of British Raj times; the old city around the University with streets lined with crumbling bookstalls and archaic academic bric-a-brac suggesting times a century ago; the famed College Street coffee house where intellectuals and artists gather, and Nilanjan had spent countless hours.  It was a large,  plain and grungy room, with a high ceiling and a second floor above overlooking it.  The service men were in elegant or silly attire, depending on your taste.  From the far wall a large portrait of Rabindranath Tagore, Bengal’s most famous poet and writer, overlooked the chatting intellectuals.   Then a stop at a kebab house for a weighty snack that deleted any interest in a dinner.   Plus at Marcella’s request a visit to a new electronics bazaar – she’s looking for an e-book with wi-fi capability in lieu of the i-pad she claims she doesn’t really want. Then interview with friend of Nilanjan’s, who, as the evening moved on, joined us in going to an apparently other famed cultural oasis, the former Olympia Pub, rechristened the Olypub.  Plain tables, a somewhat plain room, more or less like the coffee house earlier in the day.  I had decent local beer (Black Label) and Nilanjan and his friend had a local thing, Indian-made whiskey cut rather drastically with water, and in Nilanjan’s case, some kind of soda  –  tall glasses stretching out a shot and softening the harshness of the local swill.  One glass followed another and another until we called a stop to it, begging off owing to an early rise next day for our workshop.

College Street coffeehouse

The workshop­­­­­, under the wing of a reluctant US Consulate – which had, so I was informed, not wanted to host me, the Embassy in Delhi complaining why should they bring in a known lefty who had been in jail (!) – was a bit poorly organized, and the first day instead of there being enough cameras to send people out to shoot, as I’d normally do, I had to improvise and talk, along with show a few short films (butchered by the LCD projector they had).  But it went well, the 30 or so were lively enough, and the second day they did bring cameras, and I had them go out to shoot, the results of which more or less demonstrated the rigid nature of Indian education.  Very hard for them to let go and loosen up.  But some did, and 5 days later when it came time to show their finished work (6 little teams) those who could loosen up did the best.  Others made a dreary “educational” film, a long take pretentious film with far too much theory and too little artistic sensibility, several awkward attempts that failed to convey anything as the maker’s assumed their private language was understood by all – a frequent fault of those who deal in symbolism.  A few others edged on being of interest, but fell down, often owing to relying too heavily on music (loud and bombastic) and/or voice over explications of what the visuals did not do.  All in all, I felt I didn’t really have enough time at all to work with the participants, especially as they all came from film or media schools and had been duly indoctrinated.  Two days was far too short a time to break that down.

The festival incurred its own cultural mishaps, of a few kinds.  The first night the near thousand seat theater was packed for The Bed You Sleep In.  The Kolkata festival doesn’t really have an adventurous side-bar, but shows old classics (Kurasawa, Resnais this time around), and more or less commercial world and but mostly Indian cinema.  The audience duly began to stream out rather promptly (I didn’t stay to watch film, but was in lobby being interviewed for 20 minutes or so), and my guess, on popping back in near end, is that 70 or 80% of the audience left.  They wanted their mental popcorn and I wasn’t providing.  The balance of the screenings saw an ever diminishing audience size, but an accumulating cluster of “fans” who liked the films, though managing to sometimes ask awkward questions.  Again, Indian education leaves little latitude for ambiguity, so most questions were whether X meant this or that, and hence the film was about Y.  Such questions I cannot answer.  I was a bit surprised by the evidently general absence of any familiarity at all with even the most modest acquaintance with world cinema that is not commercial.  Hence the tastes were overwhelmingly biased to the simple story telling of plot points like most cinema, and my films definitely threw almost all the spectators for a loop.  Again, something for which my previous exposure to Indian educational processes had prepared me.

Shop window, Kolkata

Along the way a few other lessons on India were administered. Once again the Godot show, with the  Treasurer of the festival, awaiting our airfare ticket reimbursement.   Shunted, predictably from one person to another, finally I land in the Treasurer’s office, crammed with his “help” or supplicating others.  He was officious, the archetypal bureaucrat, abusing his little powers, snarling orders, and filled with his own self-importance.   As he complained that bank problems would not make it possible to pay until the day before our departure,  Marcella interjected that banks would not be closed, and her temper rose with each rejoinder of impossibility that came back, until she finally said, OK, we’ll go to the Festival Director, and we left, the Treasurer maintaining his obnoxious demeanor.  A minute later, in the Director’s office, the same character clutched at my arm, a full U-turn, he now the begging supplicator, as he was told to get the money.  The next day it was time to collect, and I was back at his door, waiting along with a lady from Toronto, a regular here, who abandoned ship to hit the internet.  Four or five “employees” hung around like flies, doing nothing.  Time glides by, the Treasurer who said “15 minutes” is absent, Nilanjan and Marcella have gone to do more interesting things and I wait for the $800 envelope.  The 15 stretches to 45, and finally our eminence shows up, bruskly walks by, tells a subordinate to issue the money, and we enter the vaunted office to fill out some documents, signatures here and there (on papers doubtless required by law to be filed forever though they likely would not last a year so cheap are they).  And after many more minutes of back and forth, new papers are pulled out, filled again, and finally the Treasurer reaches in a briefcase and counts the money, hands it to the subordinate who counts yet again, and finally I get my reimbursement.   India, sadly, is imbued with this, which explains how so little gets done as each active agent is surrounded with a little battalion of do-nothings, each of which sits in some hierarchical setting, lording it over those below and quivering before those above.  It is a formula for lousy personality development and is surely socially deeply destructive.  Being very deeply rooted, I doubt India as a culture can ever recover from it, and hence my belief that they’ll never do as China has been doing. Instead they’ll wallow along, Thomas Friedman singing their praises, impaled on their cultural background.  Though with a billion plus, if a minority of, say, 10% get rich in whatever pockets of hi-tech, labor exploiting “success,” that’s still two Italy’s or Spain’s of rich people.

Sticking to this comparison, I’ve often told my friends that India is Italy squared.  If you’ve been to Italy and had to deal with any business or bureaucratic stuff, you’ll understand what I mean.  Italy will be like India in a few more centuries.

Mrinal Sen on stage at Kolkata Film Festival

Outside the festival we renewed an acquaintance with a man, Subrata, who had published a little book on me – done by email interview, some other things.  He and a few friends, took us around a few times, once trying to go to a “country liquor” (home-brew stuff) place in what most would call a extremely poor slum area.  Apparently these were (less so now) a hangout for artists, intellectuals and the like.  One of India’s most famous directors, Ritwik Ghatak, evidently did so a bit too much, drinking himself to death at 43.  Apparently the newer generations aspire to other things than rubbing shoulders with the poverotie.  And they took us through some mazes of dingy back-alley places to a book seller who showed us a beautifully made sequence of 4 books on his Bangladesh family.  In Bengali, otherwise I might have bought.  Similarly we went several evenings to Santanu Ghosh’s house, a very large traditional house, 3 or 4 floors, sprawling over a quarter block it seemed.  He is an arts patron, and kindly invited us to come occupy an adjacent smaller house.  Which is tempting, though if the bronchial storm I’m presently weathering is, as I suspect, caused by Kolkata’s horrendous smog, I am afraid it would perhaps prove a fatal deal with the devil.  Maybe if I can find a working gas-mask wearable in public!

Organic garbage dump near our hotel

On the last day in Kolkata the final workshop presentation was done as I was feeling a bit gastro-queazy, and as the day went on, a little fever came along, and by evening, after introducing All the Vermeers to the dwindled audience, I hastened back to the hotel, asking Marcella to take care of grabbing the deck and tape at the end of the screening, and to get some medicines for fevers and gut problems.  At the hotel I fell full-tilt into whatever bug had bitten (food or water borne), and some hours later Marcella and Subrata and gang materialized as I sweated under the blankets.  Had some medicines and our friends departed, as I began a once every hour or so through the night trip to the toilet, though I managed to soil the sheets, several pairs of underwear, with dribbles here and there.  In the morning the sheets were soaked with sweat.  And as I went the last time to the room on checking out, the electronic key did not work, and in the interim I was a final time too late, shitting the pants and underwear I was going to wear on the plane.  Change to jeans.  I found all of this mainly funny, and as I told Marcella, I deserved it for the hubris of claiming I am (usually, evidently) exempt from gastric mayhem.  Not this time.  It persists more modestly now, and thereby I feel duly truly initiated to India.  Marcella got it a day later, blessedly minus the fever part.

Wall, Kolkata

[Posted from Mirik, India, in the Himalayan foothills.]

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