It would be hard to visit Kolkata and not to leave with a changed perception of the world. It is a city of contrasts and one that wears its history on its sleeve.
When we disembarked from the night train after our journey from Darjeeling it seemed like just another Indian city: hot, bustling, noisy and dusty. The platform was crammed with passengers, unloading parcels, frenetic porters and rickshaw drivers trying to find customers. But as we fought our way out and started walking towards our hotel we began to realise that it was a very unique city and different from Delhi.
Kolkata, with it’s location on the River Hooghly, between the plains of Bengal and the sea, was founded by the British as a prosperous trading centre. However it is this prosperity and geographic position that has also made it the collection point for thousands of displaced people fleeing desperate situations in the countryside and seeking some way of making ends meet. In his famous novel ‘City of Joy’, Dominique Lapierre narrates the lives of a collection of people in one of Kolkata’s slums, he describes how famine, war and political change brought people to the doorstep of the big city and their struggle for life. I was actually reading this book for the first time during our stay in and it was an incredible eye-opener for me and helped me to start to understand Calcutta.
Exploring the streets of the city’s central and eastern districts brought the contrasts in the life of the city to light. From our hotel near Sealdah we first explored the streets and markets of the Banerjee Road and Ganguly Street area. This was an intense sensory experience: incredible numbers of busy people meant fascinating people-watching opportunities, huge amounts of noise from traders, cars, rickshaws and animals, and some pretty intense smells of rotting vegetables and meat from the stalls. We also had to have our wits about us to keep out of the way of all the activity! Off Ganguly Street, Ed wandered into a dark alleyway lit with red lamps, which were illuminating the collosal stacks of red onions for sale, after a couple of pictures, he quickly emerged with two shady characters in tow, sticking to busy streets we lost them, but despite a general feeling of safety we realised this was not a place to flash about material wealth.
We also noticed that Kolkata has some very distinctive types of transport: matching yellow-painted ‘Ambassador’ taxis are everywhere, and in addition to auto-rickshaws and cycle rickshaws there are also plenty of hand-pulled rickshaws. These guys must be the hardest-working people in Kolkata, often barefoot or in flip-flops, they can be seen pulling people who weigh significantly more than themselves. We had read that Kolkata is the last city in the world where hand-pulled rickshaws are widespread, and there have been some attempts to ban them as the work is brutal and demeaning – but on the other hand the workers still need to earn some money.
It was the poverty and the difficult conditions under which people were living and working that really made an impression on us in Kolkata. Walking through the streets it was impossible not to notice how many people are living on the pavements: sitting with a bundle of possessions on a sari spread out next to the road, sleeping under a blanket against some railings, curled up on the seat of their rickshaw or around their children in a corner of the pavement. Burst water mains spout brown river water into the air, these are hubs for bathing in the street. There are a lot of beggars, and also a lot of people selling very little, or carrying out exhausting porter work. No wonder Mother Teresa made the city the centre of her life’s work and many other people are drawn to try and help here.
In contrast the historical heart of Kolkata holds many impressive buildings which contest to the wealth of a few in the city. We wandered through the BBD Bagh district where the Writers Building is situated; this was originally built for the British East India Company and has an impressive red façade. There are also a significant number of photogenic crumbling ‘colonial-style’ buildings with interesting architecture.
To the south is probably Kolkata’s most famous building, the Victoria Memorial. This monument to Queen Victoria was built by public subscription in the early 20th century, despite the fact that as Empress she had never visited India. It is an impressive domed white marble structure set in large gardens. A far greater !monument than was built in the UK.
The Howrah Bridge is another landmark of Kolkata and was particularly dramatic at sunset with its view over the Hooghly River, not to mention the hordes of people crossing the bridge.
We then ventured further north to the Marble Palace which was a private residence of a wealthy merchant and probably the most bizarre building we visited. The dirty white marble of the building and resident collection of shrieking exotic birds only added to the spookiness, while the interior was filled with old and slightly sinister oil paintings, many Chinese vases and weird statues.
Kolkata has some very interesting market areas. We walked through the alleyways of the BBD Bagh district which was unbelievably crowded. A mass of pedestrians, porters carrying large loads, motorbikes, cows and rickshaws all trying to fit down the often narrow alleys between shopfronts which spill into the street made sticking together even just as a pair pretty hard work! We also came across a Jain religious procession with some very decorative floats.
A further contrast came with a walk down Park Street, the middle class shopping district full of Western brand name stores and expensive coffee shops. We did treat ourselves with a trip to ‘Flurys’, a very fancy tea shop, as we were unable to resist the call of the incredible cake counter!
We had heard that the food was good in Kolkata and in particular were keen to try the Kati rolls – paratha bread fried with egg and rolled up with chilli sauce. They come highly recommended! There was also plenty of fresh fruit available to buy on the streets and we ate lots of guavas, papayas and mandarins. The most common dish was dal and chapati cooked up by street vendors everywhere, either served on dried leaves or metal canteen style trays. This picture shows some of the amazing desserts on offer here!
In fact the plethora of interesting food available prompted us to take a cookery course while we were there.
We approached Kali Travel a company run by an Aussie guy that arranges home based cooking classes with locals, that are keen to share their skills and knowledge. We spent the day with a super friendly lady cooking Bengali traditional dishes. A lot of mustard both seed and oil is used. Being veggie we cooked a great dal, a mustard spinach dish and then an aubergine and lentil cake dish. A brief practise at Parathas (a flat bread) then we sat down and started eating a feast!
It was great to just hang out with the lady teching us and chat about varied topics from education to politics while cooking.
We left Kolkata on a train for Delhi with mixed feelings. The obvious poverty here makes you feel guilty for being just a tourist, we felt we should have done more to help. While you can stay in certain districts and totally miss this side of the city and therefore the heart of Kolkata. We however stayed on a random street that made it hard to miss anything. On a Sunday the food stalls were closed and the pavement became a gigantic bed with bodies sleeping everywhere. The numerous kids begging present a dilemma but we chose to support those trying to sell whatever they could from a few flowers to pieces of fruit. It seems that to support schemes and programs are the best way to help this city that while full of joy has so many issues. I would think about why you’re visiting before coming and try to make sure you make the most out of visiting Kolkata to ensure both the city and yourself benefit as much as possible from whatever time you have here.