Lassi love

Kolkata’s cultural and religious diversity is striking to an outsider.  While navigating its bustling streets and tiny lanes, I passed by Armenian Churches, mosques with an art-deco edge, Jain temples, Hindus, sadhus and dozens of roadside shrines, Catholic nuns, Jewish schools, Sikhs, polka-dotted saris, burqas with gauze veils, business suits, and casual Western dress.  This list is by no means exhaustive, and sadly, there were also many too poor to wear anything but rags.  I was pleasantly puzzled by the white burqas embroidered with colourful floral motifs and lace.  After making some inquiries at our favourite tea, toast and dhal stall, I learnt about the Sunni Muslim Borhra community.  The distinctive burqa is known as a “rida.”

Minutes later, a hip young dude strode past in a t-shirt that said, “Support national integrity: forget religions and marry me.”

While munching on McDonalds in Kolkata’s trendiest locale, Park Street, prominent signs assure customers that no pork or beef products are on the Macca’s menu.

Even the tourists looked eclectic, with some women opting for flowing skirts or hippy trousers, while others strutted their stuff in near transparent singlets and tight leggings.  Ditto for the male tourists: some will return home more tanned than others.

Before my Bangladeshi husband and I were married, we dreamed of honeymooning in Bhutan.  Sherpa and I will go there one day — as soon as we can afford Tk 40,000 flights plus the $200 daily tourist fee, but decided on Kolkata for our first honeymoon.  As we didn’t have a wedding party, we’re planning another 99 romantic getaways.

I arrived two days before Sherpa, because the prospect of a one-hour flight versus a 10-hour train journey was too enticing to resist; however Sherpa’s visa limited his entry to India by train only (he’s really tough anyway though, and is laughing all the way to the bank…)

A “Cinderella” carriage ride through Kolkata

However when I arrived at my second favourite city in India, I felt glum. To borrow a lyric from the Australian folk group, The Waifs, I missed Sherpa: “like a left arm that had been lost in a war.”  To counter that, I gave myself a project: to find us a comfortable, good value guesthouse.

This may sound easier than it was.  Touts at the airport had driven me to Capital Guesthouse the night before in a black Ambassador – I didn’t have a guidebook on arrival so I was happy to be taken anywhere.  I was shown a few squalid, small and over-priced rooms by a podgy staff, who sold me beer, toilet paper and water with impressive insistence and rip-off rates.

I raced past the receptionist while murmuring “I’ll have a think.  Thanks.” I was briskly trotting away from reception when the manager hurtled after me and knocked off two hundred rupees.  It was getting late, so I caved in. But I knew it wouldn’t do.  I laughed when I read Lonely Planet’s review of Capital Guesthouse: “About as charming as a prison.”

While Sherpa was working on articles and translation assignments for the last 24 hours straight before leaving Dhaka at 6am, I wandered around and around the Sudder Street “tourist ghetto” area (again quoting Lonely Planet) to find a more cheerful environment.

Five years ago, I spent six months in India and my average travel speed was about 3.6 days in any given place; so that’s a total of about 50 different guesthouses.  Based on this experience, I’d say that prices in Kolkata are in line with others around the country, but for some reason, you get far less for your money.

I traipsed up and down narrow staircases with abnormally large steps, and was shown rooms that made me want to cry.  The vast majority had no windows, no privacy (thanks to gaps in the walls close to the ceiling) and no space whatsoever, though dirt abundant.  One guesthouse manager asked me to enter the room in order to see its toilet (and a bucket for cold “showers”), but he had to exit first so that I could get past the bed.  Even the hotel rooms over our budget were small and not particularly appealing.

I collided on a set of stairs with an Israeli couple who were on the same mission as I.  The pretty girl in army boots and aforementioned leggings said to me, “Look, it’s going to be bad wherever you stay in this city, so you may as well go for super bad and super cheap.”

They took me to Parragon Hotel. Though it’s rooftop is a great place to meet fellow travelers, most of its rooms look like a prison cell fused with a lion cage.  Windows overlooking the “lobby” area are made of strong latticed wire.

“What will we do?”

Feeling truly despondent, I drank my twelfth tea while continuing to sweat (I was in the process of developing a highly unattractive heat rash).  As well as it being our honeymoon, this was Sherpa’s first trip to India and I wanted him to have the best experience possible.  I’d seen at least 30 hotels and had a “shortlist” of about eight business cards, but none made me smile.  So when I checked out of Capital Guesthouse the next day and happened to find another guesthouse nearby with an unusually long driveway, I was delighted to be shown a room full of character, with adequate space, a 15 metre high ceiling (no joke) and it was also definitely the cleanest (though one night we had a brief visit from a mouse, who scampered back under the door before I got properly stupid).  And one night cost only 500 rupees; or 750 if we wanted air-con.

I told the manager my husband would be arriving that evening by train, but when I entered his name in the typically lengthy logbook for details pertaining to India’s international visitors, I looked up to face frowns.  Nothing was said, but the tension was palpable as I continued to enter my details.

“Look,” I said after a few of minutes of stony silence, “If you have a problem with us, I do not want to stay here.”

A Sikh man sitting next to the manager, who had been silent up until this point, blurted out, “We’ve never had a mixed couple stay here.  There’s a law against Indians staying with foreigners in hotels.”

“A law?” I asked incredulously.

“Erm, no, not a law,” replied the manager next to him a bit nervously, “It’s sort of a convention.”

“Of course it’s not a law,” I snapped back, “Because it’s racial discrimination and would be challenged at the UN.”

The Sikh man piped in again.  He said, “The authorities have told us not to allow mixed couples, because foreign women have been drugged by Indians after drinking alcohol in their room.  It’s for your own protection.”

“You want to protect me from my husband?” I asked.

“Do you have a marriage certificate?” he shot back.

“He’s bringing a copy,” I replied curtly.

“Are you just married?” he asked.  This was a clear and offensive insinuation.  I didn’t dare tell him he was ruining was our delayed honeymoon.

I hadn’t expected this, though I had felt mildly alarmed the night before when I read Lonely Planet’s advice for women travelers – “… mixed couples of Indian and non-Indian descent may get disapproving stares, even if neither individual actually lives in India.”

I tried to control the emotion in my voice when I said I found it sad that Indian men were held in such low regard by their own authorities, but pointed out that my husband was in fact Bangladeshi; thus a foreigner just like me.

“It’s the same thing,” he snapped.

I admit I wanted to punch him.

Young love in the gardens around Victoria Memorial

Nevertheless, they proceeded with the check-in and I went to the room to unpack.  I was shaking a little and wasn’t sure whether I had angered them so much that they would ask me to leave when I went back to reception.  Not that I wanted to stay in such a place – for all its faults, Capital Guesthouse didn’t bat an eyelid when I told them about Sherpa (I was offered a double-priced taxi service to the station to collect him).  But what if other hotels had the same hostile attitude towards us?  And how could I find another suitable place, after seeing so many that weren’t?

When I returned to reception, the angry man had gone.  I never saw him there again, though I did occasionally see him on the streets.   I never acknowledged his presence and he was probably doing the same.

The manager smiled as I came down the vast steps – it was a warm, genuine smile, and he offered me a chair.  Imran apologised at great length and emphasised their concerns were based on protecting women like me, and that “modern people” work at the guesthouse.  He told me about a foreign girl who was drugged and robbed while in another hotel with six Indian men.  Such incidents may be a real problem in India – and indeed, the world – but I said that any sort of “protection” based on skin colour was unpalatable.  I wondered about the wives and husbands of Indian people or those from the rest of the sub-continent (who I was told also fell under the mixed couple ban).  Surely they would want to show their life partner their roots, and the amazing land of India – but were they too being treated like this?  It felt such a contrast to my life as a wife in Dhaka, where I’m asked on a daily basis if I’m married.  When I tell (mostly curious CNG drivers or shopkeepers) that my husband is Bangladeshi, the reaction is often jubilant, and it’s never, ever, been negative.  At a pet shop in Nodda Bazar, the owner there still calls me “Bhabi” [“brother’s wife”] and he sold me an aquarium pump even though I was Tk 250 short.

However I really did appreciate Imran’s efforts to calm me, and hoped that would be the end of it.  But when I was reunited with my beautiful man, I felt I had to give him prior warning, though I worried it would distress him.  It did, and when we arrived, a different staff member was seated behind the desk.

Sherpa and I at the Victoria Memorial

When I introduced Sherpa as my husband, the man didn’t respond and refused to make eye contact, though he was glowering somewhere below the desk.  Without saying another word, he called Imran to ask whether our presence had been authorised.  I asked to speak to Imran, who again reassured me that everything was fine, but I told him we were being treated badly again.  He apologized again.

We had a wonderful week in Kolkata and no one threw nasty looks or eggs at us.  The hotel peons were lovely towards us and we became quite friendly with Imran, which is why I decided against naming the guesthouse we stayed in.  After Sherpa had left for the return train home, I chatted to Imran while waiting for my taxi to the airport to arrive.  Imran told me how busy he was preparing for his wedding, to be held this November.  He and his fiancé celebrated their engagement on 18 March – the day before Sherpa and I were married.  We laughed and then Imran invited Sherpa and I to his wedding, and gave me his email address.  Although it may not have been a fairy-tale honeymoon, there was definitely a silver lining.