Destinations / JOURNEY
“Garbage Mountain,” he says.
Garbage Mountain, as the locals call it, is Kolkata’s
dump. The pile of trash takes up approximately 10 square
kilometers and attracts thousands, who spend their days
picking through the city’s refuse looking for plastic, glass
and other recyclables. On our way back to the city, we pass
the area where this recycling is processed, including wide
quilts of crushed plastic shards splayed out beside the road
in an array of bright colors that will eventually be melted
down and re-formed.
From the countryside, we traverse the city again and
cross the Vidyasagar Setu, which takes us over the slate-gray Hooghly River into the city of Howrah. We stop for an
authentic Bengali lunch at a streetside joint, where we shovel
mounds of spicy rice, dal (lentils) and fried fish with our
fingers into our mouths, washing it all down with bottles of
Rejuvenated, we hit the road at full speed again, making
our way through Kolkata’s version of Chinatown toward a
vast botanical garden, where we dismount the bikes for long
enough to walk off our lunch. It doesn’t take us long to reach
the centerpiece of this garden, the Great Banyan, lauded as
one of the oldest and largest living trees on earth.
The tree feels more like a forest, each root dangling down
from its blanketing canopy big enough to be a separate
trunk, some so big I wouldn’t be able to reach both arms
around. When I put my arm out to touch one of the roots,
Ujjal stops me before my fingers hit the plant.
“No touching,” he says. “You pay lots of money.”
Doing my best to carry that experience with me, I re-mount
Although it appears plenty sturdy, the 250-year-old tree
has been ravaged by monsoons. The park sets strict rules
to prevent visitors from disrupting the fragile ecology of
its root system. I take a minute before we go to enjoy a rare
moment of peace and quiet under the protective canopy.
the motorbike and we take off toward our next destination,
the Mullik Ghat flower market.
WE PULL INTO A DARK AND GRIT T Y ARMPIT UNDER the
southeast end of the Howrah Bridge, where rows of vendors
sit cross-legged, baskets of flowers displayed in front of
them. The petals pop against their drab backdrop. Golds,
yellows, oranges, reds.
Eager buyers browse and haggle, likely looking to
brighten whatever the next festive occasion may be, such
as a wedding or other religious ceremony (both easy to find
in India, especially in December). A loamy smell fills the air
as we push deeper into the market. Each alley we turn into
offers new explosions of color, a seemingly endless floral
labyrinth. I try on an intricate crown made of flowers, one of
the more expensive items sold here, made to be worn by the
bride and groom at a wedding.
Not far from the flower market, we stop by a few of the
ghats lining the Hooghly River. A ghat is simply an entrance
or walk way of steps leading to a body of water, usually a holy
river. The first ghat we visit is a bathing ghat. Here, people
come to dunk in the river and bathe, or drink, or pray.
The second ghat we visit is called a burning ghat, where
wealthy Hindus pay to have their loved ones cremated on a
burning pyre. The cremation ritual is meant to help release
the soul from its human body in order for it to be purified
and eventually reincarnated.
Standing off to one side, we watch the dark outline of a
body burn on a heap of wood, smoke rising up as the rela-
tives watch from rows of nearby benches.
“See the head?” Ujjal says.
I see it. I try not to breathe too deep, avoiding the smell
of burning hair and flesh. Ujjal explains that, depending on
how big the body is, the burning ceremony can take any-
where from two to six hours.
“Very expensive,” Ujjal says.
An open-air funeral pyre can cost a family an entire month’s
wages. Many opt for the much cheaper electric cremation.
Back on the motorbike, the fresh air streaming up my
nostrils helps clear away the smell of death. I welcome