87. Kolkata

Kolkata: In Kolkata, they mostly say “Calcutta,” but they write Kolkata. Writing Kolkata is an affirmation of Independence, a shedding of the regal illusion of the British Raj era that’s more evident here than in any other Indian city I’ve visited. After Independence, the Indian government officially renamed all of the city streets that had British connotations – Harrison becomes Mahatma Gandhi, Wellesley becomes Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, Brabourne becomes Biplabi Trailokya Maharaja and so on – though in the fine and endearing Indian rendition of free will, the people of Kolkata will use either name willy nilly. Sometimes they’ll use both names in the same sentence, with abbreviations, as in the directions I received to a local museum. Sort this one out:
“Yea man, first you are walking only about 500 meters down Harrison Road, okay? When you arrive at Mohan Avenue you’ll be turning right from MG. The museum is right there, right there, behind Mahatma Ghandi.”

The city is brimming with that beautiful, bewitching contrast between the grand and drab-gray leftovers of Victorian England and the swirl of a crusty, modernizing India. Those curvaceous Ambassador cars are the taxi and chauffered auto of choice and they rule the streets. Crumbling old English edifices, tall, stained, ornate, tower over wide boulevards and dark alleyways of Dickensian London. When I’m out walking one night, an ancient fire engine rumbles past me on the street, it’s siren nothing more than a thick brass bell being rung vigorously by a thicker, broad-chested Sikh in a canary yellow turban. And Kolkata is the last bastion of the hand-pulled rickshaw carriage, those black, gothic contraptions with tattered parasols and impossibly thin drivers. The carriages are slow and beautiful, though they enrage modern motorcycle and taxi drivers and vex local government. They persist because during the heaviest months of monsoon, the streets of Kolkata can flood in minutes, calf-deep water crippling every mechanized mode of transport. That’s when these guys make their money, double and triple their normal fares for slogging shoppers and businessmen through dirty, septic water all day.

And Kolkata is modern and hip, a high culture crossroads that vehemently defends its Indian hertiage and independent thinking. Mother Theresa is entombed in her Mission here and her name is never spoken without the speaker clasping their hands in prayer. I saw this over and over again. The restaurants and street vendors serve the most mouth-watering northern and southern food I’ve had in India, including the Bengali specialty, the kati roll – a fresh grilled paratha stuffed with tikka-spiced egg and vegetables and topped with red onion and lime, a knee-weakening culinary experience served on every street corner, for about 25 cents. Museums, cheap bookstores, classic Bollywood cinemas, an army of NGOs working to help the masses of poor and probably the friendliest people in the busy North of India, I fell head over heels for this city. Oh, Calcutta.

 

  1. Byron says:

    Sloan,

    This is also the home of the great 19th century rishi Ramakrishna, who attempted to synthesize Hindu, Christian and Buddhist thought. One of the great sages of the modern era – I’m wondering if there is any evidence of him there?

    Byron

  2. S says:

    I can’t say that I saw any evidence, but five days in a city like Kolkata is barely enough time to scratch the surface.

  3. Manojit says:

    Thanks for a very nice assessment of my hometown Calcutta. You could have added that this is the last bastion of the extremely bureaucratic communist govt who are as corrupt as any in any Indian State although they say that they are pro-poor & progressive.
    Yes you missed the cultural aura in 3 days which still keeps us different than those Mumbai,Delhi. Next time visit end January when that huge Book Fair is held and almost the whole city plunges onto the greens of the Maidan area , our only green part which dodged the eyes of the greedy real estate developers)
    As for Sage Ramakrishna, His home is still there in Dakhineswar Temple ,North Tip of Calcutta,where he worked as a priest and gave his sermons.