David and I spent this morning trying to get into the Garden of Eden, but it seemed thoroughly sealed off to the outside world. From the map it looked deceptively accessible, the inviting green patch (with the words 'Garden of Eden' stretched across) just millimetres from where we were staying. Turned out that this was one of those fenced off sorts of gardens. We began to walk around the outside of the high concrete wall, looking for a gate or an entrance of some sort. A well-maintained tangle of exotic-looking green beckoned us from inside the Garden. Kolkata (Calcutta) pulsed on the outside. Over rocky sidewalks we filed past bubbling caldrons of potatoes and spices; boys playing cricket on patchy littered grass; a tiny girl slapping a soapy, miniature piece of fabric against the pavement. Ornate buses and hundreds of yellow taxis whizzed past. The wall protecting the Garden remained high as ever.
Finally we did find an entrance - a foreboding archway labelled 'Water Gate'. We entered to find concrete buildings and soldiers riding about on motorbikes. A woman in a red patterned sari was walking the road, towards us. She waved at us in a shooing motion. We turned around - clearly this wasn't the Garden, but an adjoining army base. We must have come too far. We set back outside the gate, back in the direction we came.
There was a road that we'd walked past before - this time we took the turn. It looked more promising and before we knew it, we'd found the gate to the Garden of Eden. But alas, it was locked! Through iron bars I could see that gardeners were scattered amongst an organised sort of a jungle, which was thick and moist against the Kolkata sun. I wondered if the gates were ever opened - or whether the Garden of Eden was Kolkata's version of a living room that is too good to ever be used. We left Eden's walls and wandered through the streets of Kolkata instead.
I quickly developed a fledging affection for this city. There's an old-world charm about the place - in the side-walks piled high with sweets and special breads, in the rickshaws that are pulled by short sturdy men in their lungi and sandalled feet, in the gentle blues and pinks of the old architecture. The people seem friendlier than in Delhi, and will call out 'Hello!' and street vendors charge only minimum white-person premium for the food they sell. A woman saw my baffled look as I figure out how to cross through an endless stream of traffic. She said, "This way," and led me across. Traffic police hold cars and buses back with their hands, while pedestrians cross. In Kolkata, the government cares about pedestrian safety! Incredible.
After we'd had our fix of dusty, busting streets, we decided to go see what an Indian shopping centre was like. We hopped into one of those yellow Ambassador taxis (India must be the only country in the world that continues to manufacture cars from the 1950s!) and went off to the mall. The taxi stopped often in traffic and when it did, enterprising people took the opportunity to see what they could get out of two young white folk. A flock of young men tried to sell us punnets of strawberries, the prices getting lower and lower as we continued to shake our heads ("If you can't peal it, you can't eat it" - and we were due to fly a plane the next day). We sped off with the taxi and left them in the dust.
At the next traffic jam a man with one arm and a big smile came to my open window. "How are you? Having good day? Money please? Just one rupee? Handicapped, see, one arm. Just one rupee?" I shook my head. "Sorry, no." I had a personal policy about not giving to beggars. The man walked off swiftly, and the taxi moved on.
I saw the women on the side of the road even before the taxi stopped, and I saw them weave through the traffic to get to my open window. I decided not to close it - if I was going to say no to beggars, I had to look them in the face. They were young and both held babies with thin yellow hair and puffy eyes. They were the sickest-looking babies I had ever seen. They didn't even say the word 'money'. "Baby very sick. Need medicine, hospital, need food. Please. Please." I said no. They stood there, repeating the various words. "Medicine. Hospital. Food." I said no again. For the longest while, until the traffic started up again, they just stood there with their palms outstretched saying, "Please. Please." As the taxi started up one of the girls reached into the car and touched me. I pulled back. As we drove away, I felt so ashamed for drawing away, like she wasn't even a person.
The shopping centre rose out of the dust like some glassy space ship. Street vendors sold food on the other side of the street, and to get across you had to climb through a hole in the metal fence dividing the road. "If it's one thing that India knows how to do," said David as we skipped up the pearly steps, "is juxtaposition." So we hung out in the mall for a few hours, alongside middle-class Kolkata in their shining saris and denim jeans. Eventually we took a taxi back to our hotel.
We're leaving India in the morning, and I probably won't have a chance to see if they ever opened the gates to the Garden of Eden.