the rush of energy I feel coursing through my system and
savor the feeling of being alive.
BY THE TIME WE ROLL INTO KUMORTULI, THE POT TERY
and sculpting quarter of Kolkata, the sky has darkened.
Rows of brightly lit shops line a dingy, narrow road, each one
overflowing with clay statues of Hindu idols, some brightly
painted and others not painted at all. Some half finished.
Others complete. Some enormous, taller than me, and oth-
ers the size of my palm.
One artist, a gray-haired man squatting as he sculpts a life-size clay bust in front of his studio, barely looks up as I ogle the
elaborate detail of his handiwork. Another shows me how he
creates rows of identical Ganesh statues, using a mold to form
the clay into the shape of the well-known elephant-headed god.
The larger idols have a frame inside, covered by a layer of straw
and then covered with clay before they are finally painted.
Ujjal says these statues will be featured in temples and
religious festivals throughout the area. We had just missed
the Durga Puja festival, one of the biggest of the year (which
takes place in early October and features the many-armed
Hindu goddess Durga). I make a mental note to check the
festival schedule next time I plan a visit.
We whisk off as the sky goes black, snaking our way back
toward the bustle of downtown Kolkata. Ujjal has warned
my husband and me that for this final part of the tour, we
cannot take photos. We are heading for a neighborhood
called Sonagachi, the red light district, home to an estimated
10,000 sex workers. The documentary film Born Into Brothels:
Calcutta’s Red Light Kids turned a worldwide spotlight on
the area when it won an Oscar for best documentary in 2005.
Although prostitution is technically illegal in India, the trade
flourishes in certain areas, like Sonagachi. As a result, sexu-
ally transmitted diseases like HIV and human trafficking
have long been major issues for the city.
The roadway leading to the main drag looks like any
other downtown Kolkata neighborhood: hectic, gritty, loud.
Then I see the women. Masses of women, lining the streets.
All shapes, sizes and colors. Many of them Indian, wearing
saris, some with bleached blond hair. Some foreigners too.
Women every where. They clog the streets, which have been
reduced to a narrow pathway, their beckoning eyes aimed at
the drivers on the road. Waiting for anyone to pull over.
But we’re not pulling over. Ujjal revs the engine and the
motorbike breezes through the gauntlet.
Soon, the women of Sonagachi are behind us. The ghats
are behind us. The beautiful banyan tree and the doomed
goats at Kali Temple. The workers buzzing around Garbage
Mountain and the inspiring Motherhouse. All behind us.
By the time we return to where we started, I’m exhausted.
I step off of the bike feeling a mix of relief tinged with disappointment that the ride has ended. But mostly, I have an
overwhelming sense of satisfaction in knowing that I saw
parts of Kolkata I never knew existed. Not just the tourist
parts. But the parts that make Kolkata real. The parts that
make it multifaceted and unique. After such a ride, I can’t
help but make a vow to come back. M
Although motorbike tours are relatively common in countries
where that mode of travel is preferred, the focus on non-tourist
destinations made this one unique. The group that organized
the excursion is called Backpackers, which also offers a recommended tour of the Sundarbans jungle. tourdesundarbans.
Opposite page, from
left: Recycled plastic;
Kolkata street scene;
This page, clock wise
from left: Statue maker
in the artist district;
Anna at the flower
market; young people