Of all the Indian metropolises, few are as misconstrued as Kolkata. To many, it is synonymous with bleakness, associated with beggars and slums, congested traffic, diehard communists, and drained out rickshaw walas. But it is also part of India’s cultural bedrock having produced some of India’s greatest writers, thinkers, artists and filmmakers. On a recent trip, the city welcomed my curiosity. Its grim overcrowded look, incessant yellow Ambassador Taxi horns, and unpleasant odors tested me at first, but like the Bengalis say – the city grows on you. And it certainly did.
It is difficult to find a description that would do justice to a city built along the banks of the river Hooghly. But, it is a city of amiable contrasts. Simultaneously gracious and nasty, cultured and uncouth, Kolkata is a daily celebration of human existence. And it is all played out before your eyes on crowded streets where every inch of space is put to good use. No one, i feel, has captured the plight and beauty of Kolkata better than Dominique Lapierre in his famed novel City of Joy (1985). The book takes you to the pulse of what life is like on the streets of Kolkata.
If you haven’t read the book, the complexity of India’s second biggest city might be hard to comprehend, and one simply conjures up images of human suffering. But to people who live there or know the City well, it is the raw poverty which can lead to not only a depraved living, but also a humane one, and this is what makes Kolkata very different from other cities in the world. Perhaps this is the reason why Kolkata has produced some of the greatest works of India art and is considered the cultural and intellectual capital of India. The stark, in-your-face poverty, and the plight of human condition in this city, obviously has something to do with it.
Most of India’s 19th and 20th century philosophers, freedom fighters, poets and artists were Kolkatans. To name a few, Guru Ramakrishna (one of his famed disciples being Swami Vivekananda), Nobel Prize laureate Rabindranath Tagore, and the much acclaimed film director and Oscar winner Satyajit Ray.
Kolkata’s association with the British Empire began in 1690, when an agent of the East India Company – Job Charnok, chose Calcutta (as it was formerly known) for a British trade settlement. Soon, the East India Company moved in and started developing it as a Presidency city and over time turned it into a fortified mercantile base.
And thus, as a trading hub of British India in the east, Kolkata went on to become the most important city of the British Raj outside of England. Even today, the city has an alluring old-world charm and a frantic, yet tranquil pace, of life that no other Indian metro can boast of.
Influences of the Raj can be found in every nook and cleft of the city. From slow rambling trams – introduced in 1902, to grand Victorian-era buildings, Kolkata has managed, over the years, to retain its British past. The city may have ceased to be the capital of British India way back in 1912, but it continues to be a center of cultural creativity.
Venues all over the city showcase Bengali art, music, film, theatre, poetry and dance. Poverty certainly remains in-your-face but the elegant Bengali nobles continue to frequent the city’s impressive old club houses, ride horses at the Kolkata Racetrack, and play golf at some of India’s finest courses.
Like the Bengalis, it is a city of many moods. The name itself, I was told, is derived from the Bengali word Kalikshetra, meaning ‘ground of the goddess Kali.’ Legend goes that the swirling wheel of Lord Vishnu had sliced off the corpse of Sati – when Lord Shiva was performing his menacing dance (Pralay) with her on his shoulders – in a fit of tremendous rage. The body parts of the Hindu goddess fell at different places which later turned into pilgrimage centers for devout Hindus. Kalighat, built for Kolkata’s patron deity Kali, is one such sacred spot where a toe of Sati’s is believed to have dropped.
For those beguiled by history, Kolkata is a city that is worth every paisa.
For starters, visitors can immerse themselves in the ancient attractions of the Indian Museum. Built in 1874, it is the oldest museum in India and houses, among a host of artifacts, antiques, fossils, Mughal paintings, and a 4,000-year-old Egyptian Mummy, supposedly one of the oldest mummies in the world. But if armour, skeletons or mummies are not your thing, and you prefer being outdoors, then head to the Botanical gardens situated in Shibpur, Howrah. The best known landmark of the garden founded in 1786 is the great Banyan tree that is reckoned to be the largest tree in the world, at more than 330 meters in circumference.
For those who’re not interested in History but prefer shopping and sampling the local cuisine, the city is choc-a-bloc with sprawling malls, all new, and all boasting the latest in global brands. But first, take a trip around the city to get a feel of its exclusivity.
Start by getting on to the metro and visiting Park Street, where a chain of restaurants and bars are located. Be it Olypub – the average man’s watering hole, Flury’s – the classic confectionary, or Moulin Rouge, you can always find a range and variety of culinary delights. Remember, especially, not to miss the Kati Roll shop along the street.
The Hogg Market better known today as New Market is arguably one of Kolkata’s best shopping centers. And it is less than a mile from Park Street. The confectionary Nahum’s inside the market is a landmark by itself, but the best cakes come during the Christmas season and during New Year.
For connoisseurs of good food, the Nizams on Corporation Road, Sher-e-Punjab near Dumdum Airport, Jimmy’s Kitchen on AJC Bose Road, Azad Hind and Thai Tonight on Ballygunge Circular Road and Mainland China on Gurusaday Road are an absolute must.
Traveling further north, you could visit Waterloo Street for some custom made shoes, followed by a glimpse of the Lal Bazaar Police Headquarters while moving onto BB Ganguly Street where you could find the cheapest furniture and handicrafts in Kolkata. And since you are already there, don’t miss the Kolkata Medical College and College Street.
College Street is a narrow lane between Bowbazar and Mahatma Gandhi Road, and has been for a long time a regular hangout and a renowned meeting place for intellectuals and students. It has played an important part in Kolkata’s cultural history and is known as the hub of intellectual debates. If the debates don’t entice you, I am sure, the makeshift bookstalls, on either side of the street, definitely will.
As the sun goes down and you distinctly begin to crave a sense of quiet and peace, visit the Outram Ghat. Here, you can spend the evening watching the sunset over the Hooghly River with a traditional chai in an earthen pot, and admire the new Vidyasagar Setu stretching over the breadth of the water mass. Or, you could walk straight into the lawns of the Victoria Memorial and seat yourself besides lovers enjoying each other’s company as darkness sets in.
But remember, getting around in Kolkata, for some, could prove difficult to characterize and explain. In terms of elements, the city has it all and you can get from one place to another pretty quickly. But, the trick lies in knowing which direction you want to go in.
The name of lanes like Lenin and Shakespeare Sarani might intrigue you too and the sheer sight of the city is intimidating. But, bear in mind, the city is a little bit from and for everybody. If you get used to the bandhs, the heat and the poverty around, Kolkata is quite laid back and vivid. It is truly a city you ‘feel’ more than you see. But if you’re there between May and September, be prepared for some serious drenching.
As my trip had come to an end, I was sad to leave Kolkata. Charmed by Bengali hospitality and the city’s bond with the life of the mind, I was sure I’d miss the long conversations with talkative strangers in overcrowded bars; feasting on brain rolls on the streets of Park Circus; and the simple pleasures of lighting a cigarette the local way – with the slow burning butt of a coconut rope nailed to the wall of a corner pan shop. But, I know, I will return again to splurge on the simple pleasures of life. After all, it isn’t called the City of Joy for nothing.