Kolkata: cosmopolitan chaos

Posted on November 27, 2015

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I arrived in Kolkata in the heart of monsoon season, a time when the air is so thick you’re forced to chew as you inhale. I’d flown in on an early morning IndiGo from Hyderabad, a balmier city protected by its high altitude breezes (more on my time in that city here). I hired a taxi in broken Bengali, earning a grin from my ancient driver, and in our rusty vehicle with its anxiously swinging prayer beads, we set off into the Kolkata traffic. It took nearly two hours to reach my accommodation in the south of the city, and the trip gave me a lot of time to ponder and stare at this most magical of places.

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Kolkata is a city that comes with a reputation, albeit an unclear one. In the 17th century, Thomas Babington Macaulay described it as “a place of mists, alligators and wild boars”. Rudyard Kipling saw it as a city of dreadful night and “one of the most wicked places in the universe”. More recently, Amit Chaudhuri called it the city of disappearances.

Sukhdev Sandhu, inspired by Chaudhuri, said: “If Delhi is the voice of power and bureaucracy, and Mumbai is the sound of showbiz cacophonies, Calcutta is ghosts and whispers, strange resonances, elusive melodies.”

I knew this was my kind of place before I’d even spluttered through a breath of monsoon air.

A little history
Kolkata, known by the British as Calcutta, takes its name in part from the goddess Kali. She’s a formidable and impressive deity, with two dead heads for her earrings, a string of skulls as a necklace, and a girdle made of human hands as her clothing. Her tongue pokes boldly from her mouth, her eyes are red, and her body is covered in blood. She is often depicted riding a tiger or standing with her foot on the chest of her husband, Shiva.

The first reference to Kolkata, or Kalikata as it was called then, is in the infamous Manasa Mangal, a Bengali epic poem written in the fifteenth century. A character passes through the village of Kalikata to pray to the Goddess Kali on his way to Saptagram.

When the Portuguese first began to explore Bengal around 1530, they would likely have passed through too on their way up the river to Saptagram. The other major port city they frequented was Chittagong, in what is now Bangladesh.

It wasn’t until 1690 that Job Charnock, a British trader, decided to settle there on behalf of the East India Company. Kalikata, along with two nearby villages Sutanuti and Gobindapur, were united under the new name Calcutta. The Mughal emperor granted East India Company freedom of trade in return for a yearly payment of 3,000 rupees.

The arrival of the British saw the city become one of the most significant trading sites in India, and eventually the hub of their political presence. As well as being a centre of trade, the city quickly established itself as a hub of Bengali and foreign culture. The Nobel Prize-winning poet and painter Rabindranath Tagore, Independence heroes like Subhas Chandra Bose, and the infamous Hungryalist Poets who went on to inspire the American Beat Generation, are just a few examples of the people, ideas, art and culture to emerge from the City of Joy.

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Some favourite places
But Kolkata is not the kind of place you can appreciate with words alone. You have to go there yourself to see the sky bleeding black clouds, taste the sweet misti, smell the sweat and rubbish and curries, hear the lilting Bengali voices, and feel a child’s hand grab yours outside Mother Teresa’s house.

These were my favourite places:

Boi Para
The name of this place means Book Street, and it is a whole locality dedicated to Bengali books. Most of the stalls are informal, perched on the edges of the pavement, pages fluttering as the crowds rush past. In the old buildings behind them are universities and publishing houses. Wander and appreciate the other people who are also wandering and appreciating Boi Para. Finish at the Coffee House where students, revolutionaries and writers have gathered over the years for the thick, sweet coffee and some overheard words of wisdom.

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Kumartuli
This is a small suburb inhabited by sculptors not far from the River Hooghly. Not just any sculptors, mind you. The community members are known as the Godmakers, after the statues they make of Hindu gods and goddesses. Most of their efforts go into creating the Goddess Durga, who is celebrated during the Durga Puja at the end of monsoon season. The artists take their clay from the nearby river, spend months creating statues, and at the end of the five-day Durga Puja festival, all of their artworks are immersed back into the water they came from. It’s bittersweet watching so much effort go into something that will soon be destroyed, but that’s also symbolic of life itself. Moments like this are why I love India.

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(I wrote about my time celebrating Durga Puja in Dhaka here.)

Madame Flurys
For a taste of British India, Madame Flurys is a delightful excursion into history. The high-ceiling fans, the white ceramic teapots, the glass chandeliers and the carefully-clad waiters make you feel like you’ve entered another era. Outside, Park Street (the posh part of town) carries on being modern and busy. Inside, you can sip on the Flurys home-grown tea and enjoy dainty European cakes.

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Bow Barracks to Tirati Bazaar
Imagine my surprise at visiting a synagogue, a Buddhist temple, a Zoroastrian temple and Chinatown in one morning! Thanks to Kolkata’s glamorous history, it’s possible. In Bow Barracks, a former British garrison, you can find the city’s Anglo-Indians. In Chinatown, I watched an elderly woman speak Cantonese, Hindi and English in one breath. Not far from there is the Armenian cemetery where the worn-down graves of traders and their families suggest just how hard life was when they arrived. Walk, sit where you can, talk to the locals, and eat lots of street food. This part of town is endlessly interesting.

Some other tips
Accommodation
I stayed in the Bodhi Tree guesthouse. It’s a little bit out of the main area, but is still accessible via Metro. In fact, it’s partly the location that makes its quiet, oasis-style charm. It’s about 15 minutes on the train plus a brisk walk to Kalighat. More info here: www.bodhitreekolkata.com/

Transport
The traffic in Kolkata is the same as traffic in most big Indian cities: congested and slow. I found the Metro was a great way to get around, as long as you’re a happy walker in between, as stations are pretty far apart.

The rickshaws in Kolkata are pulled by people in the same way oxen pull carts (i.e. there’s no typical bicycle for the rickshaw-wallah to ride) so I felt ethically uncomfortable about taking a rickshaw.

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Food
Oh! The food! This deserves a post of its own, but in summary my favourite Bengali food is still Fuschka. And this website does a good wrap-up of some other tasty street foods here.

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Local guides
Last but not least, a shout out to Jay from Walks of Kolkata, who gave me advice, history lessons and especially good company. You should definitely join him on a walking tour of the city. Find out more here: http://walksofkolkata.com/

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