The flight to Kolkata from Delhi on July 3 was eventless. The weather in Kolkata was hot and the highest we saw during the trip was 104 F. It rained quite a bit in Kolkata during the stay, but not as much as I had expected. The humidity hovered close to 95% so there was a constant sticky feeling. The rains helped to bring the temperature down and sometimes there would be a breeze that was pleasing. It was a pretty typical early-monsoon kind of weather, but the last time we saw this kind of weather was 15 years ago and Bebo had never experienced a true monsoon. It did not rain too hard that the streets would be flooded but the entire city was green and the sky was pollution-free and totally blue when the clouds occasionally cleared. The sun was hot, really hot and it would just burn you if you were out in that sun. We sweated constantly and the room air conditioner in my mother’s house went out of order after a couple of nights which made matters quite interesting. Generally, we stayed within the Salt lake neighborhood. However, one day, Srijoy and I went into one of the really old markets in Kolkata. This is a place where one can get anything they say. It is impossible to describe this place and the place is basically run by a set of underworld goons and many small time crooks. We were looking for a DVD of a recently released movie about imaginary wars in other galaxies. While we did not get the movie we were looking for we did find a lot of other recent releases quite readily available as well numerous stores selling anything from computer hard drives to fresh fruit! This place is called Chadni Chawk market and lies in the labyrinth of streets off Dharmotala Street and near what used to be New Cinema. It is best not to go there with a female companion and it is necessary to be very very very street savvy when moving through the narrow corridors of the inner market where they say you can get “tiger’s milk” if you pay the right price and know the right people. It was a hot, muggy day when Srijoy and I spent nearly 4 hours looking for the DVD. I was really proud of Srijoy in the way he handled himself in that market. No one could have said that he was not just another Kolkata kid walking around with his father! Dodged traffic, walked for ever through the mud and slime of the side lanes, and eventually rode on a rickshaw (the old fashioned human-pulled ones, I usually do not use this since it seems rather inhumane and Srijoy never wants to get on them but since we could not get the DVD we wanted we decided to go to another similar market to look for the same stuff and decided it was too long a walk in the rain and thus succumbed to the rickshaw who however left us in the street sitting on the rickshaw for about 15 minutes when he went off to answer nature’s call). Did not get the DVD we were looking for. Eventually took a taxi back home. Also had a chance encounter with one of my old school mates while hanging around this area. It was good to see Sammy so accidentally.
We celebrated my mother’s birthday while we were in Kolkata, this involved going out to eat at Abco’s food plaza in Salt Lake (we ate at Kipling’s) and were accompanied by Mikku’s parents and sister, my cousin, his wife, her mother and our niece. This was a nice outing for the family.
On July 5th I left for Delhi on the 5 pm Indian Airlines flight. The flight was delayed but had sufficient time in the evening to have the meeting. Stayed at the Radisson and took the morning flight on July 6th on Air Sahara to Jaipur. The flight was on time. The weather in Jaipur was surprisingly nice and it was probably somewhat cooler than Kolkata even though it is in Rajasthan, one of the hottest parts of India. Anyway, reached in time, and was picked up by the car from the Indian Institute of Health Management Research (IIHMR). Freshened up at their guest house and then met with Dr. Sharma the founder of the Institute. It was good to catch up with him after about 2 years. The presentation and discussion went extremely well and was able to meet with many local leaders including a local Member of the Parliament. Set up the staging for the next phase of the study with specific data collection plans and efforts. The reception after the lecture was nice too. Eventually everything wound up around 2 in the afternoon. I decided not to wait till 8 pm for the return flight but quickly booked a taxi and decided to drive back to Delhi (about Rs. 3,000 [about $65 but includes all the toll as well as the Rs. 875 tax to enter the state of Haryana] in an air conditioned chauffer driven car for a distance of nearly 170 miles). Drove through the old pink walled city of Jaipur. The road then climbs into the hills and goes right past Amber fort and then it traverses through a rather rocky and hilly terrain until it finally comes out of the drier part of Rajasthan and into the more undulating part of the state and eventually into the much greener state of Haryana. Although the road (National Highway 8) is comparable to many international inter-state highways, it was in ill-repair and there was a lot of construction thus the journey took nearly 5.5 hours, although the last part of the journey was negotiation the rush hour traffic around Delhi which is growing so fast that the traffic snarls are legendary and will remain so until much of the constructions are over. But driving through Gurgaon one can sense the outcome in terms of affluence that the outsourcing businesses and the general liberalization of the Indian economy has produced. Even Kolkata is growing rapidly and thus the new roads in Kolkata that connect the airport to downtown and the major business areas show how much the cities are growing and modernizing. Took the morning Jet flight back to Kolkata on the 7th of July and then had a lunch meeting with Joy and Moushumi. That went well. Spent a quite evening at home.
As always Kolkata was made up of numerous meetings which included a get together of old friends from my school – Calcutta Boys’ School – which was well attended and the food was superb thanks to the organizing prowess of Kunal and others. Was asked to give a speech at this gathering which was quite odd!! Also spent a fair amount of time with my cousins including Biltu who lives in Bangalore but was visiting. Munmun, our niece, was of course in Kolkata when we arrived and we were able to spend some time with her too. Did not get to see my cousin from Raigarh this time and that was a pity. We also had a nice evening at the Calcutta Lake Club where we went for a dinner with my cousins. Spent a fair amount of time at the City Center Mall which is literally within walking distance of my mother’s place and the mall has nice stores and is air conditioned! Met a lot of old friends too – Rana Mukherjee, Rana Kundu, Arindam, Sammy to name a few. Ate out some, but given the short stay did not get as much of a chance. However, ate at Oh! Calcutta (on top of the Forum Mall on Elgin Road), Peshwari (at the ITC Sonarbangla on the Eastern Bypass), Hyatt (on the Eastern Bypass), and Abcos. Met up with Abhijit Basu and his wife for a drink too. Samrat, my cousin from my mother’s side, came and visited with his wife too one of the evenings. We also got a chance to have lunch with Avijit Moitra and family who were visiting from San Francisco and it was good to see them after so many years.
Had a car rented with a chauffer for the 7 days from a neighborhood supplier of rented vehicles. The car was a Maruti Esteem (somewhat similar to the Ford Neon in size) and my driver was named Joy. Rented it from Sonata in BB block of Salt Lake (see last year’s post about India trip for phone number information). The cost was Rs. 120.00 per hour with a minimum rental of 10 hours (about $25 for the day). What was interesting was the fact that they do not accept credit cards for payment, but with true ingenuity the guy said that I could use the credit card to pay for the gas I use (gas in India costs about $4.2 per US gallon). But there was no way I was going to need 6 gallons a day, so we struck a deal where I would fill all his cars with gas every evening to make up a total of Rs. 1200. It was thus interesting that I would take a convoy of cars to the local gas station and fill them up. This system really helped me and it worked well. I would recommend this system if others run into similar problems.
Another interesting thing that I did was to obtain an Airtel SIM card for a validity of one year using a method called Express Refill (for those who do not know, the SIM card is the technology used by the GSM system of mobile phones, a search on the word SIM and GSM would provide a lot of information about this, unfortunately while the World has mostly standardized the GSM technology, much of the US is still dependant on CDMA and even the GSM providers in the USA purposefully lock their handsets and SIM cards can not be switched between phones, most places in the World use unlocked tri-band phones that make it easy for travelers). Thus in India as long as one has an unlocked tri-band phone one can go to a local Airtel dealer and they would refill the SIM card with Rs. 3,300 with talk time worth Rs. 2,800 and the phone number would be valid for about 12 to 15 months. This avoids the need for topping up frequently and for those who travel to India at least once a year, this offers a permanent mobile phone number in India. The danger of course is that this is all pre-paid, so if one were to loose the SIM card or the phone containing the SIM card, then the balance left on the SIM card could be misused. I managed to do that. I accidentally left my very favorite and old phone I had bought in Dubai several years ago in a taxi. I realized my mistake about 20 minutes after I had gotten off the taxi and I called my number, the taxi driver answered the phone (I recognized the music that was playing in the taxi) but did not say a word. Never answered any more and thus was apprehensive that the phone as well as the money were gone. If this were to happen here is what you need to do (at least for Airtel): Call the Airtel toll free number (9831098310) and tell them what has happened. They will advise you to go to the police station of the area where the loss happened and file a First Information Record (often called “diary” in India), then you have to take proof of the FIR to a local registered Airtel dealer who will then give a new replacement SIM card that you will be able to put into a new phone. That is what I had to do. Had to go to the North Salt lake PS where the Inspector in Charge reprimanded me for not knowing either English grammar or spelling (years of living in USA has led to this predicament) also reprimanded me for being careless, and then wrote the FIR for me, which I took to the City Center Airtel office (the ladies who work there are really very helpful) and had the whole problem resolved in about 2 hours which is a record. Of course, had to buy a new handset (got the Nokia 6600) and was back in action, without loss of any pre-paid credit only because of the rapidity with which I could respond to the loss. But this was an interesting experience.
Visited Dum Dum Park, Lake Town, AA block family and did the general rounds. Also completed the Fixed Deposit for my mother at Punjab National Bank and that was quite an experience too having to make nearly 5 trips to pull off the transaction (this is now required for anyone with a safe deposit box or vault in any nationalized bank, so that the rental for the box can be drawn from the interest of the fixed deposit). Also watched a great movie called “Dus” at the Inox Theater at the City Center. Mikku also watched “Paheli” and “Parineeta” and we hung around City Center quite a bit. Bebo got a nice gold ring from some money his great grandmother had given him and he went to the jewelers to choose the ring which he immensely enjoyed.
The last two days in Kolkata was really rainy but that helped to cool things down some. The humidity was a factor because both the video camera and the still camera gave up working and so had to purchase a new still camera.
It was a good trip, somewhat short, but I think I got to do mostly everything I was interested in doing and that was nice. I am writing this on the plane flying over Afghanistan as we now embark on our 12 day trip to UK accompanied by my mother and Mikku’s parents and sister.