I headed to India without any clear expectations about what I might find in Kolkata. The trip seemed to arrive much faster than I could prepare myself. But just as well. I like to approach a place with an open mind, content to inhabit a small corner, tracing and retracing pathways until they become, for the moment, familiar. I anticipated a fair degree of wandering, alone and unguided. However, as fortune would have it, nearly every day I was out with a friend or acquaintance, for a walk, coffee, or a meal. The opportunity to see fragments of the city through the eyes of others—life-time residents and more recent arrivals, regular visitors and newcomers—opened up varied angles and perspectives I would never have glimpsed as a lone, foreign observer.
A kaleidoscopic view of a kaleidoscopic city.
Love it, hate it, or a complicated mix somewhere in between, it is difficult to imagine Kolkata leaving anyone indifferent. I suppose one could sit still or tread carefully from one established tourist venue to another, but quite honestly it is a city that, despite initial appearances, is more welcoming and safer to move through than one might imagine. It invites personal engagement.On my own, walking remained my default mode of locomotion and, over the course of two weeks I came to know a couple of routes well, especially the stretch of Sarat Bose Road, from my home-stay to Minto Park, a diverse, commercial street. The only public transport I would entertain was the Metro, the aged but determined subway line running across the city from north to south. There was a station close by and one morning I squashed myself into a crowded car to travel north to meet a friend outside the Central station. Together we wandered through the book-lined roads and alleys of the College Street area before joining her husband to enjoy cold coffee at the legendary Indian Coffee House which has, over the past seventy-five years, served as an important gathering place for leading intellectual, cultural and political figures.
Kolkata, at least in the older central part of the city, is conspicuous in its absence of a cluster of gleaming high-rises and commercial office towers. It appears to the outsider like an accidental city. Yet it was once the centre of an empire. Scratch the surface and a cosmopolitan quality still lingers. It has a rich artistic and cultural heritage, but the weight of history and ghosts of the past are tangible. The scars of years of decline and neglect mar the surface.
Layers of existence and subsistence share the same spaces in a manner unimaginable in other major cities. Sidewalk vendors and luxury hotels. Modern buildings beside crumbling ruins. It is a place where anyone with a burner and a pot, a few shoemaking tools, or a pair of scissors can set up business. No one is swept off the street, tucked away out of sight. A dynamic urban ecosystem exists here. At once vibrant and decaying, often side by side. As a friend of mine said, there is a place for everyone in Kolkata: “there is food for every budget. There’s space for every fatigued body and there is transport for every pocket.”
My final weekend in the city was spent in the company of this same friend who had come up from Bangalore for a few days. Together we rode ferries, hired tricycle rickshaws, and experienced the prickly hospitality (or hostility) of an assortment of Yellow Cab drivers. We started out on Saturday morning with a ride across the Hooghly River to Howrah where a rickshaw driver carried us up to the railway station. There we bought platform tickets and my friend shared his enthusiasm for train travel. He led me through a third tier A/C car, insisting that I must, at some point, experience India by rail. (I’m not quite yet confident to attempt that on my own, but challenge registered, and accepted.)
We made several more transits across the river on Saturday, with a longer ride between the Dakshineswar Kali temple and Belur Math on Sunday. These passages introduced an entirely different space and pace. The Hooghly is a wide, languid, opaque green waterway. After the sensory crush of the city, time seems suspended, but even here echoes of the past persist. A mix of magic and sadness.
My friend and I covered a lot of ground over two days, in kilometres and in conversation. At his insistence my experience of Kolkata included small pleasures I would not have otherwise entertained—water from unripened coconuts, delicious fresh squeezed sugar cane juice, and peanuts and puffed rice served in bags crafted from folded newspaper. And his personal perspective on the intersection of municipal grandeur and deterioration helped me begin to frame what I’d observed during my sojourn. A walk after dark through B. B. D. Bagh (Dalhousie Square), the seat of the provincial government and central business district, was a powerful experience, inspiring and haunting in equal measure.
And what would a trip to Kolkata be, in the end, without cab rides? Yellow cabs, even.
And so I left the city carrying the intensity of the place—its mass of contradictions—as a kind of thickened stew that will take time to sift through and clarify. Calcutta. Kolkata.
I remember jammed roadways. Taxis—yellow, white and, Uber. An endless chorus of bleating car horns. Brightly coloured buses jammed with passengers. Three wheeled auto-rickshaws scooting by. Bicycles and motorcycles, sometimes with a single passenger, but more often couples, even families—father driving, mother behind sitting side saddle in a sari, and a youngster on the handlebars—typically all without helmets. The whimsical magic of the Seagull Books office, the enthusiasm of the students at the school, the ambitious and inspiring Peaceworks project. Ngūgī wa Thiong’o in conversation at the Victoria Memorial, under the open sky, surrounded by that monument to colonial glory. Towering tombs, and stalls overflowing with books. The century-old residence where I stayed and my eager, affable host, Nandu.
Coffee. Conversation. Friends.
Until we meet again.