The man in the middle seat next to me on the flight from Calcutta is chewing tobacco and using the 'sick bag' to squirt out streams of browned mucus every few minutes. Delightful. Only 2 hours and 40 minutes to go.
Two days in Calcutta, Kolkota, one of the world's foremost 'love it or leave it' cities. Millions have left it over the years, out of necessity, but continue to love it from afar. Millions continue to come, finding a semblance of life on its streets, less out of love than out of necessity.
The city has literally sandwiched poverty between the modern high rises of "IT India" and the quaint remnants of British India.
The drive from the airport takes you through Salt Lake City, steel and glass towers housing the likes of IBM and planned residential projects with colourful and even tasteful buildings.
Every large Indian city appears to have its IT sector appendage; Delhi has Gurgaon, Bangalore has Whitefield, Hyderabad has Cybercity and Calcutta has Salt Lake City.
What follows is a few miles of non descript and largely decrepit housing, for those that have it. For those that don't the above ground sewage pipes provide a 'wall' for the rest of their tent.
I love the entry into old Calcutta, irrespective of the time of year, but especially now in the monsoon with its rainswept streets. The streets narrow, traffic slows, the scene dominated by big yellow Ambassador taxis. Retail is surprisingly glitzy and low rise and therefore more personable than noisy malls that characterize many other cities. "Chun King Laundry", a holdover from Calcutta's Chinese community, sits side by side with a Rolex store.
One of the chapters in Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children is called Hit the Spittoon. It's set against the backdrop of a group of old men who ponder the day's events while chewing paan and tobacco and trying to hit the spittoon across the street with their squirts of spit. I doubt whether my co passenger has any such dexterity.
The days' events that Rushdie writes of in 1940's India are of increasing Hindu Muslim violence, rising intolerance and the retreating British.
In Calcutta everyone at our customer visits wanted to know what Raj Thakeray would think of colleagues from Calcutta moving to Bombay. "Would they be accepted, would Raj Thakeray approve?" Raj Thakeray is a politician attempting to drive a chauvinistic Maharashtrian agenda at the expense of migrants from the rest of the country. To people in Calcutta, a city where for centuries people from other parts and communities had come to make their fortunes, it seemed incomprehensible that you would want to drive people out.
The film version of Midnight's Children is currently being premiered at the Toronto Film Festival but has no takers yet for its screening in Bombay. A book that is in large parts about Bombay and unabashedly showcases Rushdie's love for the city, may not get shown here for fear of offending one camp or the other.
While some people may like for Bombay to lose its tolerance, you realize when you are in the middle of the annual convergence of Ganpathi, Eid ul-fitr, Navroze (the Zoroastrian new year), and even the Ros Hosanna (the Jewish New Year, celebrated by a 5,000 strong community) that it's going to take more than a few incendiary remarks for that to happen.
Btw, the banner photo was taken from our holiday home outside of San Gimignano at 6.20 am. What light! It lasted all of five minutes.