It’s eleven pm and we’ve arrived in India. At the airport we go to the prepaid taxi stand so we don’t get tremendously ripped off getting to our hotel, we meet a very eager taxi driver and he rips us off tremendously as he screeches through the midnight streets, braking only when ABSOLUTELY necessary and regarding red lights as mere suggestions. The air is thick and warm and there are people everywhere. Welcome to Kolkata, the Bengali gateway to India.
Before it was a city, Kolkata was a collection of three villages built on marshland and jungle. Then the British came and thought it would make a damn fine place for the capital of their colony, which is why the city’s buildings boast such solemn grandeur. They later moved that capital to Delhi when the politics of the Bengali city got in the way of their colonial endeavours. And these days that grand solemnity is crumbling in on itself because it is too expensive to maintain and restore the buildings so people are just abandoning them and moving to new apartments. It makes for an incredibly picturesque city.
I had never been to Kolkata before, I really didn’t know what to expect. Streets lined with beggars, destitute and hopeless? Too many people and not enough of anything? Dirt and rubbish and no infrastructure? The Calcutta of old perhaps. The Kolkata of today is an approachable city. There is no hostility and its people seem happy and relaxed. Old and new mingle, as do rich and poor. There are streets lined with shanty towns, there are expensive European chain stores. There are beggars, throngs of people swarming the narrow lanes of street markets and branches of expensive Western-style coffee shops on every street. The streets smell as intensely Indian- of incense, urine, cow poo, flowers and sweet chai- as the inside of the starkly impersonal air-conditioned shops smell Western. The city is alive with opportunity for metaphor and the contrasts of modern India.
My abiding image of Kolkata is of a city being reclaimed by the jungle. It is an incredibly green city, there are trees everywhere. On every footpath, sprouting from decaying buildings and buildings still in use. Where they can, trees grow. The air is thick and warm with humidity and smog, almost tepid. The trees want their jungle back, and ever so slowly they are advancing on the streets.
stay – Red Brick House, Shakespeare Sarani. Wonderfully airy rooms in a heritage house, in a good area to explore.
eat – Street food. Hot Kati Rolls on Park Street are always serving queues, and the breakfast stands on Wood Street make piping hot chickpeas, potato and fried breads. ‘The Bhoj Company’ restaurant for a safe, inexpensive and delicious taste of Bengali food.
read – Voices in the City by Anita Desai, for a view of the city through the eyes of middle class Kolkatans.
drink – For a pretty good espresso (the best I’ve had in India so far, but the locals drink chai for a reason…), Barista on Park Street is a winner.
do – Ride the ANCIENT clattery old trams, just for a laugh. Wander along the river front for some peace, then plunge into the flower markets squished in between the river and the train tracks for a burst of intense ‘Indian-ness’. Then, if you feel the markets wall to wall with flowers, people, cows, trucks, bicycles and rickshaws, smelling of incense, rotting flowers and concentrated humanity are not crazy enough for you, walk back into the centre of town along the road that runs paralell to the river. It’s a little bit like being in a video game, and when you emerge you will feel like you’ve been beaten over the head with a very loud, heavy, smelly something.
shop – The street markets around the India Museum sell anything you could want.