by Jeff Gillette
In a tiny whiskey bar, with its name in Hindi dangling from a frayed electrical cord, I force down a shot of "Kolkata's Finest" and beat it further down from its retching retreat, with a warm, sudsy, Thumbs Up! Cola. It's only me, a couple of turbaned, Sikh rickshaw drivers huddling in the corner, mumbling and a stray centipede scampering across the wall. Through the smoke-filled atmosphere of piped-in truck exhaust, I gaze out through the open doorway at a couple of shit-eating cows, standing and staring like fucking morons at the river of foot and wheeled traffic flowing around them. The traffic is spilling from the train station and funneling onto the Howrah Bridge that crosses over to Calcutta, The City of Joy. After a momentary stumble, I join them on a banal pilgrimage, an achieved enlightenment of absolute spiritual disillusionment, a deliberate re-firing of the angst and existential dread that fuels my art, and enter the city of Calcutta for perhaps the twentieth time...
When one becomes part of the pedestrian traffic in Calcutta, you immerse yourself with tens of thousands of other people, some in black sandals, some barefoot, some with feet encrusted with so much pavement soot that you cannot tell the difference. You accompany them in several kinds of dances that you must perform adeptly and simultaneously, otherwise you are in peril. The first dance is the "Oh Calcutta! Sidestep:" While walking on the uneven pavement, trying not to step in sewer-sludge mud puddles, you have to dodge all manner of debris, most in the form of feces. Everywhere, like landmines, there are big and small, fresh and old piles of cow shit, human shit (sometimes the culprit is still squatting above it), rat shit, bat shit, cat shit, monkey shit, mongoose shit, buffalo shit and the unmistakable wads of snot. There‚s dead rats, dying cats, rotting fish, mashed mice, squashed squirrels and decomposing dogs all surrounded by a peppering of little puddles of red blood-colored, chewed Betel nut spit. If this isn't hazard enough, you also have to gracefully accompany the crowds in the "West Bengali Two-Step." Your dance partners are the vehicles: cars, trucks, rickshaws, bicycles, taxis, buffaloes, ox-drawn carts and some of the ugliest, most crowded buses in the world, some with so many people hanging out the doorways that they look like they‚ll keel over. All these wheeled embodiments of Shiva the Destroyer himself don't give a fuck about ramming you or running your ass right over into the sewer-carpeted pavement. So you bow, you curtsey and get the hell out of their way! Brahma help you if is raining, and that happens all the time during monsoon. The torrents of rain create a solid curtain of water that you practically climb through. All that water dissolves the dried piss and shit clods in the street and forms rivers of blackish- gray slime, topped with floating garbage that sometimes gets knee deep. If one falls on his face slipping on the greasy sidewalks or loses his footing on a submerged rock or broken chunk of pavement, he does what they call the "Swami Swim." You then hurry back home to decontaminate yourself, that is if you don't get bit by a goddamn rabid dog on the way, and that has happened to me!
Luckily it hasn't rained yet, but within a half-hour of walking my whole body is sopping wet from sweat in this sweltering monsoon heat and humidity. My feet burn. My stomach is wrenched into some painful yoga contortion. My throat feels like a Kashmiri rug from dehydration and inhaling clouds of blue/black bile exhaust. Below, a dam is ready to burst in my lower colon, as my itchy stinging hole holds back a Ghiardia-yellow ochre-colored Jackson Pollock painting on the grey canvas of the inside of my underwear.
I make it onto the Maniktala Bridge; I've found my way to the edge of Calcutta's "bastis" or slums, and not quite by accident...
Back when I was 38, my girlfriend took me kicking and screaming to Disneyland for the first time. I cried on all the rides and upon seeing Mainstreet USA, with all the tidiness, the cleanliness, and the controlled order, I vomited into a Donald Duck trash receptacle.
With my blonde hair and white skin, standing at least eighteen inches taller than everyone around me, I could have been Mickey Mouse and not felt more like an alien, here in the "Heaviest Place on Earth." In front of me, off the side of the bridge, it looked as if the Great Lord Vishnu himself had come and wiped his ass here, on this patch of man-made hell. I could see on either side of a dirty black stagnant water canal, hundreds of heaped and decrepit human settlements: shanties huddled together, stacked-up stretching out towards the distant horizon.
Leaning on the greasy railing, glaring at the poverty, I was feeling the same as if I was home, gawking at a gruesome, multi-fatality crash on the freeway: not only have I slowed-down, but I've backed-up and gotten out and am hovering over the blood-spattered injured to get a better look.
I was really out of my element now and began to feel it. Inevitably, being off the beaten track in the third world, you become a magnet for the curious a sometimes outright dumbfounded. A crowd quickly gathers around me like flies hovering over a turd. I stared at them, the people stared back, wondering, "what the hell is he doing here?" Soon I start to get a little self-conscious, tense and goddamned paranoid! I feel afraid, vulnerable and extraordinarily outnumbered. To these desperately poor souls I'm a walking gold-mine, a winning lottery ticket out for a stroll, an over-ripe money tree just there for the picking, in the wrong place at the ever-present wrong time.
As terrified as I am repulsed, the adrenaline hits: a rush, an out-of-control, bungey-cordless, without-parachute free-fall high that grasps me by the throat and shoves me face-first into this sorry existence. Then it rubs my nose in the filth and pathos while slapping my mutt ass with a rolled up newspaper full of pictures and articles of atrocities juxtaposed with lingerie ads. This is seething humanity at its basest and ugliest. The dirt, the stench and the foolishly grinning crowd plummets me down into the despairing horror that this is the worst of all possible worlds. To too many millions of people this is their only reality.
I wiggle through a small gap in the still swelling mass of onlookers. My camera rubs up against the skinny frame of some old man in rags as I slip by him and out from between a whole litter of naked kids. I may have even stepped on someone‚s toes with my Nike Air, $96 (on sale, plus tax) tennis shoes.
Thank Ganesh that there is an empty taxi sitting nearby. I jump into the back seat. The startled driver expects this lost Westerner to tell him to go back to the tourist ghetto. There the gringo would sit around in restaurants full of other Westerners and exchange travelogues about other exotic cities where they have all sat in restaurants full of Westerners... Instead I tell him to go up the canal road and right into the slums. He looks at me in disbelief.
"Goomnay!" I tell him, meaning, "wander about". He drives forward.
We descend onto the unbelievably bad road and are immediately smothered by the walls and rooftops of the dilapidated shanties formed from a dense cacophony of debris, arranged into patterns of chaos and melancholy. An ever-present smoky haze envelops the entire scene into an air of tired static: a low quality, grainy, poorly acted and badly lit porno movie. The obscenity here is not only that this place exists, but that it is also self-perpetuating. In this baby-making machine, this fuck-storm hell, people grow up, breed and work themselves to death without any degree of quality-of-life. Here's the fount of Schopenhauer's pessimistic vision of a world driven by blind flailing Will: a pathetically miserable universe fucking and devouring itself automatically and simultaneously.
Every wretched soul has a part to play, acting in a personal sitcom featured in the giant, growing amoebae of the slum. There's hundreds and thousands of actors acting like people. People. People everywhere. They‚re here. There. Standing next to the shacks. Standing next to the taxi, peering in, confused. They're walking. This way, That way. Stopping. Lifting. Carrying. Scraping the shit out of between their toes. Talking. Sleeping. Eating. Pissing. Farting. Coughing sick and dying. And all of this happens right out in the open.
Inside the shanties, they cook strange-colored slop on open fires of burning embers of dried buffalo shit. They slurp up the grub, scooping it up with their whole hand while simultaneously wiping their ass with their left hand. They sit and sleep and burp. They steal away into the dark shadows and copulate within sight of screaming babies. Nearby there are scurvy dogs and huge dark rats enveloped in a permeating cloud of flies by the trillions, buzzing and hovering, adding to the haze and putrid aroma. Inside there is a surprising splash of color from an impromptu home altar, or more unexpectedly, the glow of a small black and white television.
We drive by slowly. The tires of the taxi splash someone squatting over a mud-puddle taking a shit. In the same puddle, someone is washing dishes. Next to the puddle is a dead man wrapped up in filthy rags waiting to be thrown in the river. Hungry dogs are kept at bay by the bamboo stick held by a small boy wearing nothing other than a ripped and rotted Minnie Mouse T-shirt.
There's no Disney here. No redemption. No savior. No rebirth into Nirvana. Just countless little blips of life embedded in the endless landscape of the horrifying slums. This horizontal monument is the metaphor for a species that is so successful at recreating itself, it has become a failure.
I bring all this existential angst and the full terror of the extent of human degradation home with me (as well as parasites in my gastric-intestinal tract). Eventually, the excruciating emotion and the mind-fuck of that inevitable dystopia materializes itself onto my painting canvases. Each little shanty is rendered meticulously with an accumulation of debris encompassing the stage set for the human tragedy that cries out the drama of this as our future. Each little piece of debris is painted as a methodical assemblage telling the stories of the infinitesimally inconsequential and personal histories that unfold as testimonies to the human condition. Life is a struggle: one of utmost futility, pointlessness, pain and despair. On the walls and rooftops there's dilapidated burlap, rotted wood, shards of tin with flaking paint, rusted metal, decaying, mangled plastic sheets, bricks, tiles, mud, rope, flimsy cardboard, dirty and frayed rags, rocks, car tires, wire, cement, sweat, mucous, blood, shit and sperm. It all is constructed as an impromptu architecture of necessity. Every element carefully put into place for the exclusive need of function without any regard whatsoever to aesthetics; a design by deterministic default. To me, this complete abandoning of function over form, which consequently creates an entire visual field of light and shadow, texture and color, becomes rich in aesthetic experience. Apart from the politics, the economics, the social and cultural baggage of the subject, slums, to me, are incredibly, stunning and beautiful.
Then on the horizon, popping up out of the landscape of this potential hyperbole of utter chaos is a beacon: a Circle K Convenience Mart! No, a freeway overpasses! The Emerald City! A Satellite Dish! Placed into the paintings of the shantytowns, these are not beacons of hope, but signifiers of our first world privileged oblivion to the plight of much of the third world and the delusional thought that, "it is far away and does not affect my life in any way."
I've had enough.
I finally tell the taxi driver to take me back downtown Calcutta. On the way to my $3/ night hotel, I have him stop at an ugly street stall so I can buy a cholera-flavored ice cream Popsicle. It has a wrapper printed with a crude rendering of the cute and cuddly dog Pluto on it.
I sit sweating in my room, on sticky sheets with a ceiling fan clattering away above me. I‚m feeling dejected, heavy and terrifyingly depressed. I try to reconcile the conflicting stresses built up in my head and heart, much like the gorgeous tangle of flotsam hell that I had just spent the last couple of hours walking and driving aimlessly around in. I ponder the blatant discrepancies of moral and social paradigms and wonder what part, if any, I play in all of this. What the hell am I doing here, drawn to this metaphysical and psychological abyss?
The Pluto ice cream bar has melted, forgotten, into a creamy puddle on the garbage strewn floor. I slouch further onto the bed and begin to slowly drift off to sleep as the ceiling fan swirls away above me: another fucking machine, flailing blindly.