For many years, Kolkata had been on my bucket list as a city to visit. I am not sure how it got there, especially when my bucket list is otherwise empty. I suspect it is because of films and books. They always romanticize the city and its residents. The cinema from Bengal often represents India at various international film festivals. Their doe-eyed woman are beautiful and men are portrayed as intriguing with multi layered personalities. Also, recently I read many books written by writers from Nepal who never failed to mention Kolkata in their stories. Several renowned musicians hail from here. The land of Rabindranath Tagore, Academy award winner Satyajit Ray, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, Mother Teresa, the Hooghly river, the iconic Howrah bridge, Flurries bakery, macher jhol, durga pooja, puchkas; it all seemed like a mystical world from a distance. And it proved to be equally intriguing, when earlier this year, I finally had the opportunity to visit Kolkata.
My first impression of the city, as I drove from the airport at midnight, was that it is big. The roads seemed wide and well lit, giving it a vibe of a safe city.
I stayed at the Calcutta Club in the city center. This place exuded the colonial aura of the British India. It was a true Mecca of the intellectual elite, complete with a strict dress code and continental menu at the restaurant. The salt and pepper men smoking pipes and their elegant ladies, draped in handloom sarees and big red bindis, were straight out of an arthouse movie. Mentally I had divided them into Ghosh, Sen, Ray, Das and Bose; which in my mind were the people who graced a club of this social standing and discussed literature and economics while nursing their drink. The uniformed, subservient staff stood at the beck and call of the babus, ensuring that the social gap between them remained intact. While the privileged did their bit in maintaining the hierarchy by looking through the have-nots as if they didn’t exist. No one questioned the structure set a long time back and it continued to prevail, sadly, in harmony. My place in this scenery was mainly undetermined. I was the outsider with no role to play. In general I was restricted to the fringes or in other words, I was invisible.
Top on the list of places to visit was the Victoria Memorial. The garden lacked nurture and the structure didn’t appear in good repair. I think over time, it had succummed to the over-hype. I decided to take a few selfies here with the memorial faintly in the background as my souvenir of this visit and check it off my list.
One cannot go all the way to Kolkata and not visit the Kali temple. The midday sun did not dampen our spirits. Unfortunately the temple itself was underwhelming and the godmen strengthened my belief in religion being the end of spirituality, an emotion I had recently experienced at Ajmer. At both places I was threatened by the priests of ill-fate for not making monetary offerings. I said a quiet prayer in my mind, while trying not to being mugged by greed, asking for Kali’s well-being in her own temple and moved on.
From the pedestal to the street, a short journey…
No more monuments for me. I had decided to wander around aimlessly.
The alternate reality of this big city was yet to be explored. And it took us to the old city. The pace was sluggish, the people lacked curiosity; even the stray animals couldn’t have cared less. It was mid-week, business hours. But the absence of movement left me very baffled. How did these people earn a living?
What seemed like a regular day in the city
After spending spending some time in Kolkata, I came to the conclusion that the two things the Bengalis thoroughly enjoyed were shopping and eating. Lunch was copious amounts of rice with various fish curries cooked in mustard oil. It was uniquely delicious. This meal explained the general lethargy that prevailed. After their siestas, they would wake up to shopping. Beautiful sarees and artistic jewelry lined the street sides. The atmosphere was festive. There was more food and sweets as we made our way through. The tram ride was fun. In general, one couldn’t help but notice the overall lack of upkeep in the city. Its dusty surfaces and walls with peeling paints had somehow become it’s unique charm.
Upon combing the lanes and by-lanes, the disparity that had made an appearance at the Club, started to root itself firmly. The gap was more evident in Kolkata compared to any other Indian city I’ve been to. The two classes didn’t seem to overlap at any juncture. However, the one unifying theme throughout the city was the pace of life. No one seemed to be in a rush for anything. I failed to understand how it was considered as a major metropolitan. It was a different world by itself.
Whether I want to go back to it or not, I haven’t between able to decide. But most certainly I will be thinking about it for a long time to come.
Charming boat ride at Princep Ghat on the Hooghly