By Liz Larrabee
(Three weeks and hundreds of miles from Bombay to the Bengal Bay side of India.)
I had been dined in opulence at the home of a wealthy rug merchant in Delhi after I had deposited a month’s pay in the till at his shop. (The rugs, made in Pakistan as I recall, are still on my floors, good as new.) I had toured Udaipur, Jaipur, Agra, Benares and spent the coldest night of my life at an ashram in the mountains of God- knows-where. I think atop Mt. Katmandu—without blankets. A few more days and I’ll be hanging out on the deck overlooking Lake Champlain, my eyes glued on an armada of small sailboats racing across Malletts Bay.
I’ve stepped out the front door of my downtown hotel to explore what I couldn’t see upon my arrival late the night before. Within seconds I’m thinking I should have left Calcutta twenty minutes after I arrived and spared myself the indelible imprint of my first impression.
I say “No thanks” to the tour guide who shows me his credentials and set out alone, open to whatever is outside the hotel door because I can’t change it. Camouflaged by a collage of impoverished laborers, an ancient trolley strains its way beneath the mob that dangles from its door-less doors and windowless windows to a place they call home. I expect a more silent Calcutta in its wake but the street rumbles with vehicles that had been discarded and dismantled in the dark ages; horns screeching, mufflers dragging, engines popping mini explosions.
The anguished, unintelligible babble of the masses chugs on, day after hopeless day whether I step back into the lobby of the hotel or open myself up to its anguish. I stroll on until dusk, taking in what I don’t want to see.