I visited three cab drivers before I found one who understood where I wanted to go and knew how to get there. After a short drive, we stopped in front of what appeared to be a slum with people selling random goods in front of it. “This can’t be the right place,” I thought. The driver read my apprehension and enthusiastically insisted that we had arrived.
There were a lot of plant bits strewn along the walkways, so I decided to follow the path they created. As I walked across a foot bridge, below it, I saw the market. It was not at all what I was expecting. It was an open space, almost completely uncovered. There were no discernible market stalls, just vendors sitting on the ground with piles of flowers, leaves, and grasses.
People stared at me out of curiosity, but quickly returned to whatever they were doing. It was certainly not a tourist destination. My morning excursion rapidly morphed from a flower market picture-taking trip to an observation of everyday life trip.
In that area, it was clear that everyone had an awareness that a non-local had wandered into the neighborhood, but I was not perceived as a tourist in the same overbearing way that I was in the Sudder Street area. I felt freer. Looking back at my two weeks in India, that morning was the one time when I was on my own where I truly allowed myself to get swept up in India’s chaos rather than resisting it.
I asked a couple vendors if I could take pictures of their flower piles and they nodded. Marigolds were the most abundant flowers at the market.
The market is almost directly underneath the Howrah Bridge. It was interesting to see how much was happening right at the base of a bridge.
I reached the end of the market and then took a series of pictures from the hip as I walked back.
After visiting the market, I decided to explore the area. I passed by this old man sitting on a table, reading a newspaper. He looked so peaceful and content that I felt compelled to capture the moment.
I continued walking and reached a point where hundreds of men were walking around the corner. In India, it’s not an exaggeration to say that hundreds of people are coming towards you all at once. I ventured upstream to investigate and saw that they were coming from the Howrah Bridge. Even in high tourist season, I’ve never seen that many people walking along the Golden Gate. In the United States, I’ve only ever seen people walking across bridges as tourists, not to work or go to work as most of these men appeared to be doing.
My head reminded me that I needed to go back to my guesthouse and get ready for the wedding ceremony. But my feet were fueled by my anthropological desire to see the minutiae of new places. I hadn’t gone far when I realized that I didn’t have enough time to continue walking into the unknown. I went back to the market area and tried to find a way to the other side of the road. Getting into a cab going the wrong direction in Kolkata can add a large chunk of time to your drive because of the way the roads are set up. But I was truly terrified about crossing the street. No one else was attempting to navigate through the traffic on foot, so I couldn’t do the walk-beside-a-local-when-crossing-a-busy-street traveler’s trick. I settled on a cab going the wrong direction.
The driver made a big circle with his finger to let me know he’d have to go around something, and I underestimated the significance of that. There was turning around, so we drove onto the bridge and got stuck in vehicular madness. When we’d made it off the bridge, more traffic awaited. We drove beyond the bridge in a huge circle to get back on it. The marginal community we drove through on the other side of the Hoogly River made the deteriorating Sudder Street seem fancy. As we crossed back over, in the distance, I saw people bathing in the murky river water. The Hoogly River branches off from the Ganges and is therefore considered to be sacred.
A couple days later, a fellow Californian approached me to find out what there was to do in Kolkata. When the flower market came up, I told her that the flowers were photogenic, but market was not what you might imagine. But the everyday-ness of it all, the heady mixture of scenes that composed just another day for the people I encountered—that was what made the trip worth taking.