Oh Calcutta! Reflections on my second visit to the City of Joy

A week in Calcutta, my second visit to the city, now lies behind me. I am back in Bangalore again, looking out over the rooftops as the sounds of a busy Saturday remind me that life is ever alive and vital in a large Indian metropolis. But, as I sit here, the sights, sounds and scents of Calcutta are still coursing through my imagination. It’s a hard city to shake once it gets into your system.

Last year, as my first introduction to India, Calcutta was not what I expected. A full assault on the senses in ways I was not prepared for. It is still is, but this year I returned with a little bit more perspective, however limited. Unlike some people I’ve spoken to who cannot imagine why anyone would want to, or dare to, go to Calcutta, picturing the city at its most difficult times (enhanced perhaps by a little Hollywood melodrama as well), I had arrived expecting it to be more modern than what I found, especially in the grand, old, if somewhat decaying central parts of town. This time, however, I noticed more office complexes and taller buildings although somehow Calcutta manages to do “modern” and yet maintain a distinct element of shabby chic. Either that or, as in the new curator’s offices at the stately Victoria Memorial demonstrate, create a generic and unremarkable annex completely at odds with the echoes of the past. It’s a wonderfully eccentric we’ll do it our way way of being as stubbornly defiant as the hand pulled rickshaw drivers that continue to make their way along the back streets.

And speaking of streets, after a taste of the traffic in Bangalore, Mumbai or Kochi, Calcutta is comparatively ordered and slow. Very slow. Typically vehicles stay in their lanes, and the traffic police ensure a general order, lights at intersections are obeyed, and major roadways can be safely crossed. Which is saying a lot to be honest. It is a walkable city. The pathways can be rough at times, or filled with street sellers and food vendors, but if necessary one can generally manage to travel along the edge of the roadway. Some of the backstreets are fairly quiet and empty much of the day. But if a single vehicle comes along, you will hear of it. More than one vehicle and you won’t be able to hear yourself think. The noise of the car horns can be ear splitting. I’m inclined to think that anyone out to acquire a new or used vehicle must head to the showroom, car lot, back alley or wherever such transactions might occur and simply lean on the horn. If a few windows shatter, it does not matter if the wheels are falling off, it’s good to go!

Another traffic related observation I noted this time is the increased use of helmets on motorcycles. Friends told me that it has been a point of enforcement over the past year. And a good thing too. I was heading up a major thoroughfare on my way to meet a friend at the Marble Palace, when I came across a motorcycle accident. There were two children and one or two adults on the cycle, all fortunately with helmets. The one boy must have fallen off. As I passed, they were carrying this dazed child to a bus stop bench and a large crowd was gathering all shouting and offering their opinions. Without helmets it could have been far worse. All I could think of was the woman I saw speeding down the expressway in Bangalore with her young daughter on her lap, neither with helmets. But of course, where I live, motorcycles are a seasonal mode of transport, not a practical necessity as they are in this part of the world.

Traffic and faded architectural glory aside, to be back in Calcutta felt like coming home. A place I returned to seeking to refine a creative focus. On my first visit I came fully intending to write; this time I came with no such illusions. I came to experience, to meet other creative spirits, and to reconnect with all the good people at Seagull Books who have become dear to me. This time my stay was shorter, but coincided with so many wonderful visitors and events. It began, the night I arrived, with the opening of Removing the Gaze, an exclusive showing of collages by German artist Max Neumann. Monday morning began with NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank’s masterclass at the Seagull School of Publishing, followed in the evening by my conversation with him at the Victoria Memorial (still fretting a little at what I had hoped to talk about but didn’t, I’m afraid). Tuesday it was my turn to lead a school session. As with my first experience last year, I was caught off guard by how quickly the three hours passed and by the engagement of the students. Wednesday was a full day of sightseeing with a new friend, Italian poet Franca Mancinelli who, by coincidence, has been in the city on a residency, and Thursday morning featured a masterclass with conversationalist extraordinaire, Paul Holdengraber. Throughout the week I also had a number of meaningful conversations with Colin Robinson, the co-publisher of OR Books who was staying at the same residence where I was and doing some work with Seagull. Along with many visits to Seagull Books’ new office in their former school space, now newly opened up—a bright, cheery and inspiring creative environment—this was week packed with literary energy.

Now to see if I can carry some of the inspiration and focus I was seeking forward.

In Bangalore tonight, the friend I am staying with remarked on a new sense of perspective, of direction, and perhaps peace. As if India does give me something I need. The one thing it won’t give me is planned time for the two of us to travel, as unexpected circumstances now call him to be with his family. But such is life. This leaves me with a little over a week, and apart from one more overnight journey out of the city, much needed time and solitude to put some perspective to my own writing goals and direction before I return to the distractions and demands of life at home.

Of course, I will be back. India is not finished with me yet. Nor I with her.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

14 thoughts on “Oh Calcutta! Reflections on my second visit to the City of Joy”

  1. This is the India I know nothing about, and I’m enjoying these posts immensely. Even your choice of photos – the top one corresponds to others I’ve seen except for the absence of traffic; the middle one by contrast shows beautifully maintained buildings that might easily be in Europe somewhere; and the third one shows a space with aesthetically pleasing comfort for a bibliophile, which could be anywhere in the world. This last one seems unexpected to me – a response which tells me that what I ‘expect’ is the product of the kind of stereotyping that I’ve been exposed to…

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    1. In some ways Calcutta is not like other Indian cities in the way all levels of society share the same space. The “empty” look to the streets reflect the fact that I tend to walk the back roads to avoid the deafening noise of the main thoroughfares. I also wait for breaks in traffic because it is the buildings and general sense of life I want. I will not photograph people who are obviously poor and disadvantaged, of which there are many. The crumbling architecture is a charm and a tragedy and exists beside well maintained and newer structures. The final image is taken at the Seagull office. It is a gorgeous oasis just off a hectic major road. But you have modern shopping districts, galleries and other spaces like any other large city.

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    1. Thanks. I can only access my phone images on the road but on this trip I have found my regular camera attracted too much unwanted attention on the street. As well photography is forbidden in many tourist sites, so phone street shots are perfect. And preserve the feel.

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    1. Thanks Susan, these are just sketches. Because I have primarily stayed with friends or planned my visits to meet up with people, I am less the standard tourist. The true wealth of my experience has come through an opportunity for long conversations. I feel I have barely scratched the surface of the cities I’ve been to.

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    1. The orderliness is relative. What shocked me last year now seems tame after other Indian cities. But then Calcutta is a slower, sometimes frustratingly slower paced place. On the Sunday I walked up to the old business district which was remarkably quiet (crossing traffic circles on the way was pretty dicey mind you). However, the noise volume of the vehicle horns is incredible, magnified where roadways were congested and narrower (one under an overpass is especially loud. I chose smaller roads and backstreets at every opportunity.

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