I am under the temporary illusion that any location in India is virtually identical to any other. This not true, of course, but for the moment I am lost in a hologram. At least that’s the way it seemed as I rode in a taxi from one hotel to another in Kolkata. I was less than 12 hours from arrival, well after midnight the previous night, and no more than 5 hours of sleep later.
There’s no denying it. I was in shock. The air was thick, not terribly hot, but it was still early. My Uber taxi driver speaks a smattering of english, checks his phone frequently mounted on the dashboard of this small, loud, manual transmission, nondescript Indian model. He weaves in and out of traffic with a mix of daring, aggression, deference and caution down streets with no lane lines, more pothole than pavement, no more than inches separating us from other vehicles. The road is similarly occupied by swarms of small trucks, tiny open three-wheeled and four-wheeled taxis.
Pedestrians weave through the minefield of moving vehicles, exhibiting subtle hand gestures, showing equally impressive moments of bravado, deference, narrow escapes, nonchalance, disdain and pure faith that they will not be obliterated. No quarter asked and none given. An Indian definition of nano-second: the amount of time after the light turns green before the cab driver behind you leans on his horn.
We make our way herky-jerky across the city. It is dirty, loud, crowded, old and new, heavily weathered and in dis-repair. On the dashboard of every cab is a photo or some other representation of a holy baba, a teacher. In traffic, we need one. I pass one long continuous makeshift shelter along the metro tracks, full of micro-commerce and desperation with no visible evidence of sanitation or even water.
The change in hotels was planned. The new one is in a slightly more upscale commercial district two minutes walk from the India Museum, which alas, was a disappointment since so much of it was closed for repairs that–I’m guessing– may never be completed. I can find the essentials here…an ATM, a phone shop, decent food. Even though my stay in Kolkata is very short, I have little energy for anything more ambitious.
It’s impossible to tell if much of the construction in India was never finished or if, by some prescient design, merely appears to be crumbling with age. This seems to be true whether it is city or rural construction. Then again, decay is inherent in any act of creation. Perhaps India knows something about such things that we in the west do not. After all, they’ve had 5000 years to figure it out.
In the west, we strive to construct a facade of permanence. Here, impermanence is an accepted fact of life. Appearances here, so far, are that everyone lives in closer quarters with each other, the earth and mortality than I am used to. It’s easy to fall immediately into judging everything here by western standards of development. But considering what we in the west have overlooked in the course of our own development, and which is coming back to haunt us, who are we to judge?