Kolkata, India: A confusion of Nevilles

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Kolkata, India: A confusion of Nevilles

He said his name was Stephen and my father and I were too weary to disbelieve him. It was only mid-morning near Kolkota's Dalhousie Square and already we were worn down by the press of hands-out humanity, hucksters and humidity.

So when Stephen walked up and introduced himself we just kept on moving. He did the usual persistent questions: Can I help you in any way gentlemen, would you like to visit my shop . . .

We ignored all these -- we had heard them a dozen times in the previous half hour -- but then he asked where we were from and my spirit must have broken. I told him.

"But this is extraordinary,"he said bouncing with delight. "I have a brother in Pukekohe near Auckland. Where are you from? What a marvellous coincidence."

Stephen was small but solidly built, crisply dressed in well-pressed slacks and white short-sleeved shirt, and had impenetrably dark eyes which darted with excitement beneath enormously thick eyebrows. He would consider it an honour, a privilege even, to show us around his wonderful city -- and because we came from New Zealand he would take us places no other tourist would see. And he would do all this for a nominal fee, cheaper than an official guide.

He quoted a price and insisted we could go back to our hotel to compare. The humanity, hucksters and humidity had got the better of us and we agreed to go with him.

By the slightest hand gesture he conjured up an Ambassador taxi driven by an enormous Sikh which had been quietly cruising behind us. Stephen extolled the virtues of New Zealand -- a very beautiful country his brother had told him -- and said he was currently saving up to go for a visit. But of course he would have to get back home quickly because he was an accountant, and this was his day off. Or something like that.

But he did take us to some memorable places, notably a temple some kilometres away through endless dusty streets. There we waited in the taxi while he negotiated with the local priest for us to come in and look around. There was much waving of hands and eventually he gestured us forward.

We walked up the long path shaking hands with the priest, all the while watched warily by many and various old men and women. Stephen had negotiated a price of 20 rupees for us to take as many photographs as we wanted.

Around the back women were gathered around the burning body of someone's husband, down by the river I asked what the round stones were piled up in the muddy water where people bathed and washed.

"Nevilles," said Stephen.


"Yes, Nevilles."

We moved on, me frowning and him leading us around to where the Tiger Man lived.

On the riverbank was a three-sided concrete box the size of telephone booth. In the centre was a hole in the earth and around it were framed photographs of an enormous man swathed in a tiger skin, his thick hair pulled back and so long it curled around his ankles. His beard reached his knees. He was a fierce sight and Stephen said he was a wise man who lived down the hole and came out only at night to take the food which was left by local woman.

Encouraged by the local priest we banged off some more photos and headed back to the temple. I looked at the smooth stones in the river and asked again.

"Nevilles, yes. After someone dies they cut out the nevilles and put them in hollowed stones then put them in the river. It is the sacred Hooghly River and the nevilles are being returned to the Mother."

I looked at the dirty river full of navels, the women washing their clothes on the bank opposite, the women nearby crying by the pyre . . .

It was time to leave.

The holy man came up with his hand out, 20 rupees. My dad paid him.

A howl of anguish and shouting.

A crowd suddenly gathers.

Stephen quickly backs off.

Now the deal has changed, 20 rupees for each photograph.

We dispute this, Stephen is reluctantly pulled into the fray and doesn't know which side to take. We give him maybe 100 rupees and make for the taxi waiting at the end of the driveway. We are followed by howls in injustice and Stephen.

He jumps back in the cab, the mob are banging on the taxi roof, Stephen tells our driver just to go. It has turned into a nightmare. The holy man curses us and says we will have no photographs to show we were ever here.

Our Sikh slowly negotiates his way through the gathering crowd and then we speed off.

Near our hotel an unusual thing happens. Stephen spots a long-lost friend in the crowd and asks the driver to pull over. If we could just pay him now he could catch his friend. So we do and he peels off some rupees for the driver who will take us back to our hotel.

Stephen pumps our hands furiously and says he hopes to see us in New Zealand next year, then disappears into the melee.

Some little distance from our hotel the driver stops the car, turns in his seat and asks for payment. We say he has been paid by Stephen.

"No. That was for one person. Now you pay for the other."

So who was scamming who here? Had Stephen scammed the driver, or was the driver now scamming us?

We didn't care either way. For the second time that day we did a runner. The driver stayed outside out hotel for an hour shouting insults with the assistance of a gathered crowd until they were hurried off or got sick of the standoff. It was a nightmare of a day, only hilarious in retrospect.

That night I checked how much an official guide would have been.

Stephen had stiffed us for half as much again. Of course.

Two days later we went into a dark place in the corner of an old post office to carefully remove the film from the camera and the whole thing was coiled and twisted. Not a photograph to show we were ever there. 

You know, when I come to think of it, I don't believe that guy's name was Stephen.

And he probably didn't have a brother in Pukekohe either.

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