Can I ever drive on the streets of Kolkata??

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Yes, I think my dream would certainly be possible, but first I’d have to overcome two Major hurdles :

1. Learn how to drive a manual geared car

2. Have the courage to drive on the mean streets of Kolkata! And I think the former point isn’t as intimidating as this one!

Yes, I admit I don’t know how to drive a manual geared car!! When I see elderly women zipping by in manual gear cars, I feel a twinge of envy, and so I decided that during my stay in Kolkata, I am going to get myself driving lessons. If I succeed in driving on the crazy streets of Kolkata, I’m pretty sure I could be some sort of driving champion by the end of it!

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I am lucky to have a driving instructor who is patient, and explains over and over again (nicely) the mistakes I make and how I should correct them, while I am almost tearing out my hair over the infuriating angle when I should be lifting my big left foot off the clutch and pressing down simultaneously the right foot over the accelerator.

I noticed that the car I’m learning to drive in doesn’t have a side mirror on the passenger seat. My instructor told me that’s normal. Given the proximity and speed by which the other cars drive next to you (you can even stretch out your hand and control their steering wheels, they are that close to you!), the side mirror is a hindrance to the other cars, and cause of stress for you when they do get broken ultimately.

On any normal day when I learn to drive, I have to watch out for the following: Irrational driving of the taxi drivers, their ancient Ambassador cars are already so battered, they wouldn’t mind if their car got further scratched up against your sleek new car; a big majority of drivers who have probably never been to driving schools and perhaps don’t own licenses, or maybe they do, but they know this is Kolkata and one can drive any which way, there are no rules, and such drivers are usually maniac drivers; no lanes on the roads, rather no road rules at all; assorted animals that walk and cross the roads at their own pace, namely cows, dogs and the occasional goat; motor cyclists who ride at crazy speeds and have the annoying habit of appearing out of the blue in front of your car just when you’ve changed your gear to the fourth, and abruptly decide to slow down; pedestrians who look at you unsure whether you will slow down or not, and decide to take the chance and make a dash to cross the street. Also, I discovered that in Kolkata, one says the word ‘island’ for ’roundabout’. Everytime I crossed a roundabout, my instructor would refer it as island, and through initial confusion I finally got it!

I asked my instructor to give me a sheet of the traffic signs. Here’s a pic of it. When I saw the sign for the left turn, my tired brain accepted the fact that it was probably the driver using a gun to shoot another driver. When I inquired the next time to my instructor, he told me it wasn’t a gun but the hand of the driver that he uses to make a round sign. Ooohh!

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What can I do with my almost-drying-up paints in Kolkata?

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I decided to finally use my almost-dried paints to spruce up my balcony wall. Having moved into my new appartment in Kolkata, and having not really the time to concentrate on prettying up the place, the blank white washed walls were almost seeming a bit monotonous and depressing. So I decided to give the last lease of life to my acrylic paints!

First, I had to get the walls cleaned up. There is a lot of dust in Kolkata and each day the floors of the appartment have to be cleaned twice, once morning and then in the evening. The balcony walls were coated with white paint and a thick coating of dust on it along with cobwebs when we’d first moved in. I decided to scrub and clean every inch of the wall, and I was quite pleased with my efforts when the wall was gleaming white and shiny! 🙂

I created the templates first, by sketching butterfly figures on paper and tracing their outlines on the walls.

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The two helps I have, Shumi and Wangden, were looking at me curiously while I painted my butterflies. I wasn’t sure if they had ever vented their arty sides before, so I gladly gave them my brush and they got so involved in painting the butterflies that now this project is officially a joint venture between the three of us. In fact Shumi told me that she found painting the butterflies addictive. She couldn’t stop at just one but had to keep going. Wangden finished where Shumi left off to go finish her cooking.

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The plant standing tall in between the butterflies is a lovely flowering plant, the flowers are a deep shade of pink, and emit a strong wonderful scent. Unfortunately, the flowers are still tiny buds (I bought them 2 days ago!) so i have no photos, and as much as I tried to find their name in English, I couldn’t! So I have just to share with you the name I know in Bengali : Kobiraaj. I bought some more heavenly perfumed flowers, but they will have to be a story for another post! 🙂

Here’s a random mango tree I found on the road (and there are plenty of such trees in the city!). Check out the amazing number of mangoes growing on them!

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Where can I learn French in Kolkata?

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I joined the Alliance Francaise in Kolkata, out of fear that I would soon lose my dwindling bits of French. It’s been 2 months I am out of France, and neither have I had the occasion to speak to anyone in French (except for secretive chats with husband over phone) and I haven’t been doing any reading either.

I am quite impressed with the AF in Kolkata. My previous experiences with AF in other places have really been so-so. I had attended the basic level for a month in Pondichery, india many moons ago, and when I moved into France, I joined again at the same level. It’s weird but my experience at AF in Paris was quite dissatisfying. I would have thought that living in Paris, the students would have got the opportunity to be bombarded with the French language everyday, and thus improve on their French. That wasn’t the case. In the levels that I moved across, the progress of the class would continually be retarded by those students who turned up to class simply as some form of obligation.

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So, when I turned up at AF, I had no idea of what to expect. The look of the old colonial building was very nice.

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One would have to go up these charming narrow wooden stairs to get to the reception at the third floor which also has the library.

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I did not join a strictly-speaking learning class, but a conversation class. After my past AF experiences I kept my fingers crossed that I would come across others whose level would match mine or superior to mine. The conversation class on my first day had about 18 people, mostly Bengalis of varying ages, and my jaw literally dropped at how good almost everyone was at speaking French. This has to be by far my best AF experience! 🙂

I had almost forgotten that this is Kolkata, a place where people have strong opinions on almost everything, where views are vehemently imparted, and most times no talking space is allowed once an opinion is being aired. Our French instructor had no problem at all during our 2 hour class to think of topics to keep us animated. Every slight shadow of a potential argument, debate, discussion would be spoken out, sometimes even shouted out with many animated hand and face gestures. I found this all so amazing! 🙂 Their fluency with the language definitely helped them go into the intricacies of the subject, and quite often we would find ourselves having deviated quite far from the original topic, to which Stephane, our instructor, would keep reminding us to speak about.

I enjoy going to these classes, because this is the only way I can be in touch with real real Bengalis. There are 5 women in our group who seem 50 plus, and I love to see the beautiful light-coloured cotton saris they wear. There is a man who also seems 50 plus and he is by far the most animated and lively person in the class, and I learn a lot of vocabulary from him. There’s a girl who professes herself to be ‘from the ancient age of the Kama Sutra’, someone I found hilarious. A woman who seems 45 plus, but wears clothes of a teenager (bodycon, 3 inches above knees) going to a late night party with heavy make up. I wondered if this get up wasn’t a bit much for a place like Kolkata!

So, if there’s anyone interested to learn French, do give AF in Kolkata a try. Especially, i found the fees almost cheap, compared to what I know in Dubai and let’s not even speak of Paris! My conversation classes are 750 rupees (14 USD) for a total of 8 classes, each 2 hours long.

Where can I find the Goddess of Destruction?

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I found the Goddess of Destruction in Kolkata. Her name is Kali, and she has this fearful title because of her annihilating powers against the evil forces of the universe. Her appearance is scary with big red eyes, and a long tongue that hangs out in lust for blood. She has many devotees amongst the people of Kolkata, and if you reach the address above, you will have reached ‘Kali ghat temple’, which is a very important temple dedicated to her, and where hundreds of people come daily to give their prayers.

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I had come to see this Goddess with an urgent request. In all my life I have never been to her temple or prayed to her. However, my prayer to her was not for me, but someone else who believes in her, who could not come to see her because the person is very sick. This person is close to me whom I’ll just call X. Since I had to pray to Kali for X to get well soon, it was important that I believe in her so that my prayers would have a chance of being answered. So, with Shumi, my help who also acted as my guide through the whole Kali temple procedure, I went and gave my prayers.

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On arriving at Kalighat, it felt like I’d stepped into another time. The ambience seemed a bit unreal, several dark alleys, with dark shops or rooms on either side with strangely dressed men and women. At first my heart was beating a bit fast, because I was alone, Shumi is half of my height, and I worried a bit about my security in this strange place. But you know what, very soon, I felt really quite fine, I saw nobody cared about my presence, everybody was busy in their own thoughts or doings, and slowly I started delighting in being curious and observing all the activities around me. I told Shumi I wanted to continue staying here for a longer time than what was planned for.

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The picture above is not of Kali, but of a mythological figure whose sculpture is along the banks of the river Ganges, not far from the temple of Kali. Shumi told me her story. She is praying for her husband, who is lying on her lap dead, bitten by a snake. I think all the red is vermillion that has been applied on the sculpture as a sign of offering from her devotees.

To enter the temple of Kali, and to gain ‘easy access’, we had to do so via hiring the services of a priest (21 rupees, or less than 1 USD). There was a serpentine queue and a ‘quick route’ to the temple, and we’d taken this quick route by hiring the priest. I was already fascinated by the crowds of people who were waiting for that auspicious moment at 4pm, when the inner temple doors of Kali would be opened, and the devotees would get the chance to finally see her idol. There was a narrow hall which was already crowded to the max with people. We were the last 3 who could squeeze in. The priest, so familiar with the temple, immediately closed the big wooden doors so that no one else would get in. And then we waited… and waited… in sweltering heat, sweaty bodies pushing against each other for more space. The priest kept shouting out instructions to the people to take care of their children so not to lose them. For many moments i contemplated if a stampede might be possible. I worried for Shumi, she was easily engulfed by the taller people around her. Everyone was murmuring when would the doors open. I was lost a bit in my prayers for X.

Finally the doors opened!!! And what a mad clamouring rush!! Our priest, by this time, had grabbed mine and Shumi’s arms and was dragging us upfront to catch a glimpse of Kali. Everybody around us were doing the same, racing to see Her. The closer we seemed to be inching towards her, the more violent the crowd got. Again, I wondered Stampede. Most of the devotees were elderly folk, and I felt a bit sad for them to have endured so much physical pain already just to be able to see the goddess in order to feel fulfilled. I saw bodies heaving in a giant mass against each other, thrown away and being thrown in together. I was pushed with much force by the priest in front of the idol, I also think he would have gladly liked to grab my hair and make sure my face was seeing her. There were about 50 faces as keen as mine to have a glimpse. I had a quick flash of a glimpse of Kali, and I felt better. She was indeed striking to the eye. Immediately I started looking around for Shumi, while the priest kept hollering ‘Did you see Her? Did you see Her?’.

By the time we managed to exit, I asked the priest if there was anything special today that there was so many people, or if this craziness took place everyday. He said this was a very quiet day in fact, he’d seen days where things got actually dangerous.

Goddess Kali lives in the heart of the people of Kolkata. She is also seen frequently decorating the front part of the Ambassadors, old relics that still ply on the roads of Kolkata, mostly as taxis.

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What stuff can I get at the groceries in India?

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Since I am easily fascinated by all the wonderful things I am discovering at the groceries, or any food market places here in Kolkata, I thought I’d put up a photo to all those curious and wondering of how shopping for groceries in India could look like. The groceries are from a popular supermarket called Spencer’s, a chain that’s present in all the Indian cities. Shumi, my help, who came out shopping with me, found the prices quite high at Spencer’s, so now i have a good idea of what’s high-end where food’s concerned!

On the very top left are 2 loaves of bread. I was curious to try them because the label on it said ‘masala bread’. I wondered if it would have any spicy stuffing in them. Sadly, it was just a smear of spices coating the bread surface, so not happy after a few bites, I sacrificed it to the sparrows and mynahs outside on my balcony, who attacked them soon enough!

Below the bread is a cellophaned case of mung bean sprouts. I had them with some chopped cucumber and tomatoes and a dash of lime, and it was so yummy!

Below the sprouts is raw green bananas. And the bulging cylindrical green vegetables in the cellophaned case, next to the bananas is a kind of gourd (I’m not sure exactly what kind!). Shumi will be using the bananas and this gourd to make a super exotic dish called ‘Shooktoh’. I will be making a post on it’s recipe soon enough! Above the gourd are 2 pieces of cucumber wrapped in cellophane. I have noticed that cucumber sizes are small in india, and the colour of the peel is yellowish-light green. Above the cucumber is a bag of potatoes.

To the right of the potatoes, is a green packet containing frozen cubes of an Indian cheese called ‘paneer’. The taste and texture is similar to mozzarella. Paneer has to be cooked before eaten, it is either lightly fried, or added to the curry sauces straight-away. To the right of the paneer in that rectangular yellow box, is a salty butter, and the brand name ‘Amul’ is very popular here in india. In fact, I personally am crazy about it’s taste! 🙂 A little bit of it smeared on indian bread or chapattis is so good!!

Below Amul is Cadbury’s dairy milk chocolate. Cadbury chocolates are hugely popular in India. In France, you normally don’t find them anywhere (because the French are partial towards their own chocolates! 🙂

Below Cadbury’s, that almost-obscure looking shiny rust coloured item is a heavenly dessert, made of dried and sweetened mango flesh. Speaking of which, it was indeed so obscure, I had completely forgotten that we’d bought it, until i see it now in the pic! So i will take a tiny break and fish it out of the fridge and eat it!

Nom nom! Gulp! Colgate and Listerine need no intro, but below them in that plastic wrapping, the tiny yellow shreds are actually julienned and fried potato sticks. I pointed out to Shumi how fattening they must be for someone to eat it just like that, out of the packet. She replied that no, people usually added it to their meals of rice mixed with lentils. I was curious, and I must say, I am hooked now to have those fried potatoes with my meals. And I do need to return to Spencer’s again, I urgently need to buy myself a weighing scale! With all the lovely food I’ve been having lately, I will need to keep myself in check!!