NB due to a slight illness and then a new job back in London, it has taken a bit of time to get this published. I did in fact arrive, and write the bulk of this, on 25th March. I hope you enjoy!
I made it! After over 7 weeks in the saddle and having visited 28 cities, I finally reached Calcutta, where I had long fantasised about grabbing a few beers and chilling out for a few days before my flight home. Unfortunately, as I explain in this blog post, the last 500km proved especially arduous, as the humidity skyrocketed, my body finally succumbed to travellers’ sickness and additionally I was put on antibiotics for a particularly unrelenting fever. Note to self: never google your symptoms, as at one point I was absolutely convinced that I had contracted dengue fever. My hosts for the night assured me that it was the wrong season for this, but the temperature and general sickness stayed with me for the final week, somewhat tempering the euphoria of completing the challenge. Now that the dust has settled and my body has fully recovered, the grim satisfaction of finishing is also tinged with a bizarre nostalgia for the bleak last few days. They weren’t much fun, but I’m glad I got through them, by and large with a smile on my face.
With time until my flight home beginning to run out, I made the decision to tackle the remaining route head-on, and plough directly through what remained of Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. Heading south from Bodhgaya to rejoin the Grand Trunk Road, I planned to cover the remaining distance in four rather intense back-to-back days, enabling me to leisurely enjoy Calcutta and all that the ‘city of joy’ had to offer. This meant, for only the first time in the entire trip, I would have to stay outside the confines of a proper city for a night, and Bagodar, characterised by anonymity and a sense of transitory irrelevance, felt like the middle of nowhere. It was only as I attempted to find a hotel that I was informed that I was now in a new state, Jharkhand, and furthermore that the hotel in front of me was the only one in the town. The exorbitant price and utterly unwelcoming mould on the walls gave me reason to ignore this advice and push on, but 15km later I began to realise my foolishness. Eventually, India’s equivalent of Fawlty Towers appeared and, out of options and energy, I gave in to the outrageous prices and settled in for another night with an entourage of mosquitos for company.
Waking with an unmistakable fear that my body was beginning to succumb to illness, I did battle once again with the errant hotel manager, finally acquiring a stack of cold and unbuttered ‘butter toast’ that had somehow taken 45 minutes to materialise, and took stock of my aches and pains. My temper was beginning to fray, frustrated not by their surprise at my presence but by their apparent contempt for it. Slamming down the stack of rupees for what had been a thoroughly awful night in that dive of a hotel, the first few kilometres back on the road were fuelled by anger. However, barely 30km into the day, I soon realised that anger and toast isn’t a particularly reliable source of fuel and I slumped in a roadside dhaba, energy dissipating in the suffocating humidity. For the first time in the trip, I was now really worried about how I would make it to the next city. Every metre on the bike felt like a challenge, and it was taking every effort just to keep the pedals moving. I’d ‘hit the wall’ cycling before, and this felt different. It wasn’t so much a pain as just a complete absence of energy, and such lethargy also has a weird way of shutting down your fighting mechanism: for 2 hours I sat in that dhaba occasionally attempting to drink chai but otherwise slumping down with my head resting on the plastic table, and feeling defeated. When I reached my next hosts’ home, I would be put on antibiotics for a fever, but that was still 100km away and whilst I knew everything wasn’t right I didn’t know what was wrong.
Asansol is situated on the Bengal side of the border between Jharkhand and West Bengal, home to heavy industries like coal mining, and the smog blurred the sun almost into obscurity. Just as people had generously extended their hospitality to me following my crash in Etawah 3 weeks previously, I was unbelievably lucky to have such wonderful hosts again, at another low point. I stayed with Vivek and Shikha, a doctor, in their homely house on the banks of the Damodar river. One night became two, and two became three, as my embarrassment at being a terrible lingering guest was slowly eclipsed by the realisation that I needed to get better before heading on. Shikha took fantastic care of me, and despite me spending large chunks of the stay overcoming the fever in the confines of my room, the conversations we had were some of the friendliest and most interesting in my entire visit. Politics featured heavily (at my insistence – West Bengal has a fascinating slant on the BJP debate) but also their dreams for holidays in Europe. I’d love to cross paths again, and hope one day to host them in London.
From Asansol to Burdwan, and another Couchsurfing host. My recovery had been partial at best, and whilst I made the ride in good time, I was thoroughly shattered and, I fear, a pretty useless guest once again. Up early to tackle the last day to Calcutta, I only had a dim sense at the difficulty that lay ahead; at only 115km, the strong headwind blowing from the Indian Ocean, crazy humidity and lingering fever nonetheless conspired to make this by far the worst day in the saddle. Chugging away at a now feeble 15km per hour (nb this is VERY slow indeed!), I plodded into Calcutta, and was suddenly overwhelmed by a veritable cacophony of yellow taxis and street vendors selling delicious seafood. The journey, at least as far a the Grand Trunk Road was concerned, was over, and the overriding emotion was relief.
First stop: the Victoria Memorial, a powerful colonial motif that, I think it’s fair to say, might garner more substantial praise were it not for its association with empire: it is a quite exquisite building that confidently proclaims an empire teeming with self-belief in its immortality. It is therefore almost awkwardly juxtaposed with postcolonial Kolkata, but the following days proved a fantastic opportunity to peel away the layers of the city, and to discover a history teeming with similarly awkward juxtapositions.
Kolkata is a city to be lived in, rather than visited: tourist guidebooks encourage experiences – the fish markets, the ghats, the libraries and art exhibitions – rather than knockout tourist sites, but the aforementioned Victoria Memorial had good company with the Princep Ghat and Mother Theresa’s home to name a few. Princep Ghat encapsulated the slightly incongruous juxtaposition of a colonial city in which both rulers and subjects contributed to the urban culture, bordered and at times dominated by the rampant modernity that followed. Nationalist movements reclaim this colonial legacy piece by piece, renaming Park Street after Mother Teresa, yet all but the most fervent nationalist Bengalis continue to refer to it under its colonial nomenclature. I spent one afternoon melting under a tree watching the many cricket matches being waged on the Maidan (Hyde Park eat your heart out), and when the heat became too much, I would retreat to the bustling cafes that could have very easily been in west London.
After a few days of recuperation, I was very excited to visit the institutions supported by Save A Child. It had been a long time since visiting the Institute of the Blind in Delhi, and what I had witnessed in the intervening period had strengthened my convictions regarding the absolutely vital work charities like Save A Child do. First stop, the All Bengal Women’s Union, where I addressed a group of girls directly supported by SaC and then was guided around, hearing heartrending stories of domestic abuse, abandonment and adversity, but surrounded by smiling and happy girls gaining an education and the skills for a future. As before, I left ABWU uplifted by the experience: the enormity of the inequalities may well dwarf the current capacity to alleviate the problem altogether, but the passion and vigour of these institutions can at least give you hope.
The Ramakrishna Vivekananda Mission was my final stop, and the children were gearing up for exams. Save A Child enables the schools to get tutors in to help with the final preparation, and I didn’t want to intrude too much into their classrooms. However, it soon became apparent that they had caught sight of a lanky white person (me) wandering the corridors with their headmaster and were soon loitering in the doorways to catch a better look. Again I was humbled and filled with admiration for the work that its staff do every day, and as a way of finishing my time in India, it seemed a fitting encapsulation of the energy with which this country is facing and overcoming its many complex problems.
Empire has much to answer for, I had increasingly learnt, but the Grand Trunk Road is a living example of the ingenuity and vigour that Indians have historically applied to shape their world, moulding it into the myriad society that bewitches Western observers. A suggestion to end with, however: if the West is serious about averting its complete eclipse by a resurgent East, it might do worse than to start to understand India’s wonderful history: Sheh Shah Suri might not have shared a great deal with Modi otherwise, but the latter’s obsession with development and progress echoes over the centuries, and chimes with Sheh Shah Suri’s magnificent project. Just watch as the Grand Trunk Road becomes, once more, an epicentre of global change.