My cooking teacher, Bandana, originally uploaded by linseyis.

My time in Kolkata can be divided into two equal parts—the time before and the time after I discovered the most salivating of sights and senses: saris. I had seen plenty of the traditional dress throughout the last three weeks in India, but when I set foot in my first shop, I realized my mother’s itch for fabrics had followed me to the subcontinent.

But, before I entered that shop, before I became a perpetual sari shopper, I:

Flew into Kolkata, where on the tram ride over to our plane, I gave up my seat for an older woman. “No, no, don’t bother,” she said. But I insisted. We began chatting and three, then five people forced their way over to her, holding out a pen and their boarding ticket. She smiled and gave her John Hancock. “Forgive me, I don’t know who you are,” I said. She smiled again, and I learned during the flight that she was a famous Bollywood actresses.

The cabbie who took me from the airport into the city, with no power steering and no windshield wipers, navigated the madness that is Kolkata traffic plus a monsoon downpour. Despite this, I was able to see an old man crouched on the side of the road, being stoned by two younger boys. I could not hear his cries though the rain.

I found my hostel, situated on a busy road and just past an open sidewalk urinal. There’s always a line of men waiting to use the facilities, and the smell wafts down the street and around the corner.

I visited Victoria Memorial, the grandiose marble and domed structure perched in the middle of vast green lawns and romped through the Maidan, the giant field where boys fly kites and small horses graze on grass. Past the silver-hammered carriages with horses in full feathered head gear and blinders, every rib and rump bone visible beneath their costume, their foundered feet clomping down the road.

I stopped a clay chai cup from being smashed in my face by an elderly homeless man wearing a lungi, the loose white fitting skirt tied up between the legs. Perhaps I had stared a bit too long at his pubic hair, which sprouted forest-like from his draping loincloth. That same day, street kids—seven of them—accosted me, pulling on my shirt, tugging on my pants, honking on my breasts; the eight of us moved like a swarm, them jumping and shouting at me, surrounding me, relentless in their pursuit of a rupee or a meal.

And then I entered that magical shop, where fabrics hung like the afternoon heat and sequins glittered under the soft white lights and where I ran my fingertips over a thousand ridges of embroidered stitches.

I spent an hour and twenty minutes inside that store, three men up on a plush raised platform, pulling cotton and crepe and gold-stitched silks from floor to ceiling stacks, their bare feet plodding along, then disappearing as they flung the fabric out in front of my eyes; “No, no, I don’t like the flowers,” I’d say, shift from my reclined position on the sofa and wait until another bejeweled piece was pulled from the stacks.

To shop for a sari would make any woman feel like a queen. The materials are strewn across low sofas and bent knees and glass countertops, flung out like Gatsby did with his shirts to flaunt his wealth to Daisy. You’re meant to touch them and hold them and hang them beneath your chin, toss them over your shoulder and contemplate your reflection in the mirror. Perhaps you’ll receive a glass of piping hot, sweet chai. Or two. Someone, or two, will wait on you, make no comment after pulling the 36th sari down from the top shelf, pulling it from its plastic which crinkles and tossing it in the discard pile as you say “No, no” yet again. And he begins to understand that you don’t like pink or too much beadwork or that you really adore blues. The two of you sit there, contemplating the library shelves of linens, each one, a story woven on a loom.

I didn’t buy any fabrics that first day, but walked out of the shop in imaginary glass slippers. And so began my quest for saris.

My Bengali cooking lessons straddled my first sari experience. Bandana, my cooking teacher let me into her tiny third floor flat each night and allowed me to cook on her double gas burners. One day it was mustard fish and paneer, tomato chutney, rice and dhal. Another day I rolled roti, fried chicken, blended mint curd and simmered fresh mango chutney. Bandana teaches at a local Catholic school and arranged for me to go with her school kids out to the village, where the students teach the country kids. We sipped chai and huddled under her fan as the heat of the afternoon wore off, her sari wrapped around her, pleated perfect as those school-girl skirts, her generous belly hanging out the middle. Her cooking would fatten even Lindsay Lohan.

During my first cooking class, I chatted with two Londoners who had come to Kolkata via China. “Oh, did you see the Olympics?” I asked. Turns out one of the brothers had been in the Olympics, and took fifth place in rowing.

And on the way home from Bandana’s, I walk a bit down a busy street, catch an auto-rickshaw (though Kolkata is one of the only places in India that still allows man-powered rickshaws) and hop on the metro, evade the piercing eyes of Indian men, hurry up then stop and try to loose the ones that are obviously following me back through the bustle to my hotel.

“Which country are you from?” they shout, or sometimes whisper, if they’re close enough; sometimes they try to, or do, cop a feel, and there’s the corner again, the man playing the lute, the shop with the beautiful saris; around the bend and the stink of the urinal, and I’m home.

In every way, Kolkata is both indecent and beautiful.

Bandana directed me toward two sari shops, and I had a mall in mind as well. I spent hours in these places, fabrics flying and my tastes, of everybody’s utmost concern. It took the better part of two hours and all my determination to find the concrete palace devoted to fabrics, most of which were sold in state-run shops. I spent so much time there, learning about the material and rubbing my fingers over hand-crafted creations that I was almost late for my last cooking class.

No worries. Bandana understood my obsession. The next day, I went on a bus laden with 50 high school girls into a village and came to a conclusion: put a number of young girls on a bus, any where in the world, and they will sing and screech their heart out. Four ninth-graders and I walked down a brick pathway as the skies poured water over us to a concrete block of rooms. No electricity, no running water. In the classroom, we pushed the doors open for light and many of the kids and I paid more attention to the persistent deluge outside than to the thirteen-year-olds teaching. The cooks of the school pulled me out of the classroom and we chatted in broken English about saris, nose rings and bindis. We swapped jewelry and I had to explain for the sixteenth time why I do not have babies at the ripe age of twenty-eight.

Just before I left Kolkata for the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve, home to the elusive man-eating Royal Bengal Tiger, I stepped back into the air conditioned world of the sari shop. I asked the men to display the fabrics I’d chosen again, and with a giant grin on my face, I purchased the material I’d been searching for.

Saris in hand, I skipped past the men at the urinal all the way home.


4 Responses to “Kolkata”

  1. 1 Nikolai
    September 23, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    Did you get me the Bollywood actresses autograph?????

  2. September 24, 2008 at 3:37 am

    She was old and dry. You wouldn’t’ve liked here. Oh, look at all those apostrophes! But she had a great personality, so maybe you would’ve liked that… 🙂 Like me. 🙂

  3. 3 Erin
    September 25, 2008 at 12:27 am

    I am so proud of you! An English teacher using a double contraction and a misspelling in the same writing. You always have to be the overachiever don’t you? 🙂

  4. September 25, 2008 at 7:41 am

    Want to be my editor? I SO need one!

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