There is something undeniably cool about riding a motorcycle. Call me impressionable but the image of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider makes me want to buy a leather jacket and grow a moustache. When my wife and I arrive in Kolkata, the most chaotic and confronting of Indian cities, I jump at the chance to explore it from the back of two purring 350cc Royal Enfield bikes.
I have signed us up for a day tour of the city with locals Rajesh Shaw and Mowgli Kumar, who show adventurous tourists their home city on customised motorcycle tours.
With helmets on, we start in the downtown area from our hotel, Chrome, and roar straight out into a crush of morning traffic. Normally these traffic jams are enough to test even the most patient traveller, though we don't have to worry as our drivers slalom to the front of the queue in between the buses, idling cars and cycle rickshaws painted like mardi gras floats. We putter past chai stands where teenagers expertly juggle boiling kettles and watch in uncomfortable awe as schoolchildren sit atop tana rickshaws pulled along the bitumen by wire-thin men walking with bare feet through the melee.
The wind hits my face and Rajesh kicks the motorcycle up a gear.
I nearly forget where I am until we screech and swerve for a Brahman bull trundling across the road as if it is obeying an invisible zebra crossing. Twisting like Tetris pieces to fit through the traffic, we continue up to Park Street and it is as if Rajesh has suddenly muted the chaos around us. We leave the bikes and walk into a lush laneway of crypts and tombs, dating to 1769, inside the South Park Street Cemetery. The British used the cemetery during the infamous Bengal famine of 1770 that claimed 10 million lives across the state.
Rajesh says he always likes to bring people to the relative peace of the cemetery at the start of the tour, as the first gulp of modern Kolkata can be overwhelming. The rows of overgrown trees and bushes hide the tombs of the expats who once called Calcutta home. Rajesh shows us a grave that resembles a bathtub. "Even in death the British wouldn't take a shower," he says with a smile as we stumble across a crypt that has been cracked open. "Grave robbers?" he suggests.
Back on the bikes we pass the enormous Mullick Bazaar where the stalls are stacked with mufflers, exhaust pipes and disassembled vehicles. The market is notorious for stolen goods. Rajesh tells me that the last time his bike was taken he came straight to the underground market here and got it back within hours.
Rajesh suggests Mother Teresa House or the tourist haunts of Sudder Street for our next stop, though I'm after something we couldn't normally see. Rajesh and Mowgli look like Indian surfers, with tattoos, muscle tops and long mops of hair. They discuss the next destination and decide to show us "The Mountain".
The cliffs looming above us are grey and smouldering. I see a woman on the edge of the precipice placing objects into a large hessian sack on her shoulder.
"Welcome to Garbage Mountain," Rajesh says.
We are 10 kilometres outside of the city at the Kolkata dump. This might not seem like your average tourist site, but Rajesh thinks it's important to see the reality of his home. "Fifty-thousand people rely on this mountain for their living."
- Sydney Morning Herald