Travel

Learning the Language of Honk – Four Weeks in Calcutta

The first thing is the noise. Stepping through the gate at international arrivals, my very tired, very jetlagged ears are plunged into a symphony of traffic. Taxi drivers shout and gesture to potential customers, and each other. Vehicles swerve between lanes, doors are slammed shut. And honking car horns are speaking their own language, a language we’ve never heard in the place I call home. There are short, tooting little bursts of noise saying here here here, and then there are long drawn out honks that sound almost sentient, like the cars are marking their territory.

mdeThroughout my four weeks in Calcutta, and from the passenger seat of many Uber cabs, I gradually began to understand the language of Honk. It is a language of many verbs – move, stop, look, wait. But it can also express emotion: several cab drivers, I noticed, would honk the horn when they were forced to stop at a red light as an expression of frustration, not aimed at anything or anyone in particular. And one especially mad taxi driver, who took me home from work on a Friday evening, didn’t miss a single opportunity to overtake the cars in front of him – even if it meant driving into oncoming traffic. He would honk at each one he passed, partly as a warning saying “get out of my way”, but also as a kind of boast: “Ha! I’m faster than you!”

In those first moments, though, fresh off the plane, the language of Honk meant nothing to me. I was more than a little bit overwhelmed by the sheer chaos of the roads, and the blast of heat that struck me as the doors opened. It had been a stressful flight, with several issues connecting from Mumbai to Calcutta. First I had gone through the wrong gate at immigration and then later, when going through baggage check, my boarding pass was not stamped properly. This meant that when I tried to board my connecting flight, I was told I hadn’t gone through security and almost wasn’t able to board the plane.

 

A New Day, A New Horizon

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All of this occurred at four in the morning, and my inability to sleep on planes meant I’d been awake for close to thirty hours. I finally did manage to board the connecting flight, feeling thoroughly grumpy and very, very stressed. But once we began take off, I was treated to a spectacular sight that put it all into perspective. Out the right side plane window was the most incredible sunrise I had ever seen over Mumbai – a long band of deep orange at the very lip of the horizon, slowly fading into yellow, pale green, silver and then the black of the night sky. I decided to take it as a sign: the start of a new day, and the start of a new chapter for me personally; one which I hoped would be full of new sights, sounds and experiences.

In my first week, the sight that shocked me the most (and one that was sadly prominent throughout the entire city) was the slums. I’d never before seen poverty on the scale it exists in Calcutta, and it made me appreciate how many simple things I take for granted every day. The divide between rich and poor is more prominent here than anywhere else I’ve been in the world – brand new shopping malls and hotels are next door to crumbling buildings that look hundreds of years old. The wild animals also required some getting used to. Of course there are wild dogs and cats in the streets, but the sight of wild horses, cows and a monkey caused me to do a double take. There was even a pack of wild goats that ran across the road in Central Avenue, headbutting a surprised woman who was looking the other way.

The other thing I could never quite get used to was the staring. Calcutta is not a city home to many foreigners, and my white skin (and probably also my shaved head) constantly marked me out as different. While I know there was nothing more to it than quiet curiosity, I am generally quite a private person and often found it difficult to be stared at in this way. Calcutta was the first time I had ever lived anywhere in which I was an ethnic minority: on bad days, I would describe the experience as feeling simultaneously invisible and as if everyone was looking at me.

A large part of this was just travel nerves, which passed after the first week. It isn’t easy to pack up your whole life and move to an entirely different continent halfway across the planet, one in which you know nobody and don’t speak the language. But I told myself that if I could do this then I could do anything, and that I had to conquer my fear of the unknown. Change is scary, yes, but lack of change is scarier. You just need perspective to see it.

 

The Work Begins

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Once I got my head down into some writing, I found I was more in my element. In the second week of my internship at The Telegraph, I was sent on a few food assignments to various places around Calcutta. I was lucky enough to visit Dum Pukht, one of the best restaurants in the city, to try some traditional Indian cuisine. Having not had a chance to experience proper Indian food up until this point, I went straight to the top for my first taste of the country’s flavours, and they didn’t disappoint. I quickly realized how important food is in Indian culture, as I explored the streets full of spice stalls and carts selling phuchkas and kachori. The syrupy sweets of KC Das, especially the famous rosogolla, were a favourite of mine.

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In my third week, I did some modelling. T2 were having a photoshoot for Holi all about how people were adding colour to their wardrobes, and asked me to come along. As someone who is generally terrible at having his picture taken, I wasn’t hugely excited about the idea. But the shoot ended up being silly fun – I’d never realized before just how unnatural some of the poses in professional photoshoots are, and my awkward laughter as I tried to hold them was just about enough to pass for smiling. I certainly didn’t expect my face to end up on the front cover of Tuesday’s T2, but my copy of the day’s paper is a souvenir that I’ll take home with me, and it makes me laugh every time I see it.

It was only in my final week in Calcutta that I was able to find the time to visit the city’s main tourist attractions. The gardens of the Victoria Memorial were a nice escape from the chaos and noise of the streets, and the building itself was a grand tribute to the fallen power of the Victorian British Empire. St Paul’s Cathedral, meanwhile, was the first cathedral I’d ever seen to feature ceiling fans. Both buildings felt emblematic to me of Calcutta’s peculiar mix of old and new: these imposing historical relics tower over a city which is still full of the influence of its colonial history, even 80 years on. But at the same time, India’s rapidly rising economy is giving birth to new developments, five star hotels and shiny shopping malls all across the city, while huge billboards spread the influence of Western capitalism.

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Somewhere in all these contradictions, I gradually began to understand the mad, chaotic energy of Calcutta. It truly is a different world to any other city I’ve visited, or any place I’ve called home. I won’t soon forget the noise, the sights, the smells, the people and those streets, which are more intensely alive than any I’ve seen. I just hope, when I get back to the UK to take my upcoming driving test, I don’t start speaking the language of Honk.

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