Summer was 44 Deg C and limiting myself to a congested air-conditioned room seemed suicidal on an extended weekend. There wasn't a better idea than travelling. It was Eid and the airfares were soaring high. I scrolled down my wish list to see what could fit into my budget. Kolkata! I badly needed to get soaked in the rains. Been reading Alexander Frater, it was literally Chasing the Monsoon for me. Though it was sad to forcefully limit the trip to just 3 days for the sake of a better flight deal.
Dubai-Kolkata had a stopover at New Delhi. Terminal 2 of Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi, with its state of art facilities, is one of the best transit locations you can get in India.
All major airlines have direct or connecting flights with Netaji Subash Chandra Bose Airport, Kolkata. If you are a foreigner,check India's visa policy before you book your tickets.
Kolkata Airport welcomes one with Tagore's own manuscript, printed on the ceiling. I collected my prepaid taxi coupon from the counter. Approaching one of those yellow Ambassador cars in queue, my heart was pounding faster. I got in the rickety old car and felt my persona switching to that 5 year old kid who was taken to school in a white ambassador car every morning. I breathed in the smell of 'rexin' which the seats were made of. Call me mad when I say the smell too felt the same. For us Indians, the comfort of the back seat of an 'Ambassador' cannot be beaten even by a Mercedes.
Through the busy roads of the city, cars, buses and motorbikes seemed to be screaming at each other and the pedestrians, as if the horns of the vehicles were connected to accelerator and brake pedals. (Honking is a driving habit in India but felt a bit more prominent in Kolkata).
Road travel in Kolkata can be a nerve wrecking experience until you get accustomed to. Taxis, buses, auto-rikshaws(tuk-tuk) and trams are common ways of commuting on road. Tuk-tuks are shared by upto 5 persons, though it can hardly contain 3. The yellow taxis charge the meter reading, however the drivers often find reasons to add 20-25 rupees to it. Air conditioned taxis charge 25% higher. Also late night hours have a surcharge. Underground metro and sub-urban trains too serve big time in connecting the city.
Human Pulled Rikshaws or carts are another conventional and prevalent means of transport. These carts have been discouraged since a decade and a legislation was passed to ban it, however continues to operate as rehabilitation plans of the rikshaw pullers did not fall in place.
This track of 'Rabindra Sangeet' may catalyst the rest of the journey with me
I had booked a home-stay for the 3 nights. Red Brick Residency, a typical two storeyed Bengali heritage house, with lots of books, vintage stuff and furniture, a courtyard with trees and bespoke home cooked food. Though a bit expensive, it provided me the ambience and space I was yearning for since long. And for this reason alone, I took occasional breaks from my wanderings, to spend time in the majestic corridors, to watch the rain from the window, sipping ginger tea and listening to music from an old record box.
Stepping out of the house, I had concerns on reaching the old town of North Kolkata and its passion nested alleys in the short time I was there. But interestingly, taking the metro and walking randomly, I ended up in the places I had pictured within. Google Maps weren't of much help betrayed by the broken data roaming.
Calcutta, as I would like to mention it, may be the only portion of British-India left with that majestic old face. The brick red buildings of colonial past, now with huge banyan trees grown over, are homes for many families in the city. It drizzled, and life reflected on the wet roads. The yellow taxis made squeaky noises while braking. Some rikshaw pullers converged themselves under the tiny roof of their cart, some others got wet; some of their passengers had rainbow coloured umbrellas unfolded. I stood on the divider of the road, my camera-bag covered in its raincoat, hugging this obsession called monsoon. Monsoon had always gifted me a rejuvenating feel; inspiration and life showered with the rains.
As I walked further, the rain gave way to the afternoon sun. Makeshift tea shops on the wayside were busy brewing. Thick-milked tea kept boiling on kettles-typically served in (cup cake sized) mudkas or earthen cups fuelled heated conversations on politics, arts and literature.
Home to many of India's greatest poets, film makers, artists and scholars, Kolkata upheld that air of creative energy. The operator at one of the machine shops passionately talked to me in broken Hindi of the huge video cameras of his brother whom he said is a documentary film maker.
I walked ahead and the trams passed by my side making grungy, clanking noises justifying its age and history. Kolkata has the oldest running trams in Asia and the only active one in India. Though many tram routes were being closed down after independence, I hold a prayer to keep these nerve lines of the city alive and healthy.
My romance with Calcutta got intensified with every turn I took in those maze of labyrinths. I wished the walls had voices, for the buildings there would have stories to tell. In one of the windows was seen a woman with a subtle expression, her face neatly fitted within the four wooden frames across a honeycomb grill. When I urged to click, she gestured a no and I continued my walk with a curious mind.
It rained on and off shooing away the hot-sweaty feel. Kids played soccer on the wet lanes while a procession was moving on the main road celebrating the 125th anniversary of Mohun Bagan FC.
I realize that from a very shy boy, I've grown up to someone who is ok with the crowd. Or maybe it is my anonymity that is getting me closer to them. With many random thoughts and a very excited mind, I walked through the busy evening markets of Calcutta. Undeterred by the heavy rains, women crowded near ramshackle fancy stores on footpaths. One of the best beauty genes of India reside with West Bengal. Leaving far all beauty notions from Hollywood and Bollywood, Bengal defines its indigenous charm. Every women or girl you encounter on the street has grace.
It was almost 5 in the evening when I started realizing that I hardly had any food the whole day. Despite of the incessant walks over unaccounted kilometers, Kolkata charged me with energy all the way. Yet, I decided not to leave my tummy empty. In that random restaurant I popped in, I was served with a mixed cuisine of hot and sweet dosa garnished with raisins, grated coconut and green chutney along.
The night was spent in IIM Kolkata with a friend and traveller soul, Azhar. He was the one who accompanied me to Jordan, now doing his Post Graduation there. Though the wilderness of the green in the campus was soothing to my mind, there was some level of discomfort I sensed being inside a fenced one. I was reconfirming that I cannot fit into campus academics anymore, the world outside being my classrooms since long
Another day was born. Kids rejoiced showering in wayside-open-bath-spaces. Hairdressers got busy under banyan trees. ‘College Street’ was active with its routine business; the street is nick named 'Boi Para' or 'Colony of Books' for it exhibits an array of academic book shops selling textbooks for almost any course above secondary school. College Street is enroute to Calcutta Medical College, the University of Calcutta and many other colleges. I was to have my breakfast from the legendary Indian Coffee House of Calcutta, which witnessed the city's intelligent gatherings for decades. Being carried away by the diverse colours of life in that part of city, I missed the Coffee House. Sigh!! But glad it added another reason to visit Calcutta a second time.
Life in Kolkata extends over a wide range of spectrum, often to extremes that an outsider finds hard to perceive. Streets of the city are home to many. Life in various degrees co-exist with joy and sorrow under flimsy roofs or no roofs. Impoverished kids are either petting stray dogs or helping their parents to earn their daily bread. Amidst the hardships and poverty, life continues in full swing; blessed are they with great souls that need no guides on living content. From them are big lessons for the rest of world
It struck two in the clock when I reached back Jatin Das Park Metro Station. I decided to savour homemade lunch that day, though Kolkata's street food scene was tempting me to the heavens. I took two deep breaths suppressing my temptations for a better experience of food tasting with Kolkata Food Walk that evening. They are a bunch of passionate youngsters proud of their home town and its culinary culture. These food walkers are ready to take you round gifting the best times for your taste buds. It was Srotoswini who accompanied me along the 'tasty-roads' of Kolkata. She was keen to explain me the ingredients of each item we tasted and it was surprising to know from her that Kolkata stays different from the rest of West Bengal in savories. Singara, King Kachori, Rabri, Fish Rolls, Sandesh, Rasmalai... the mouth-watering list goes on. But we had to wind up as rains got stronger, with a promise to continue on a second visit to Kolkata. When you treat your taste buds with them, don't forget to give a pat on their back in form of tips.
On the third day I greeted the sun at the Howrah. Rabidrasethu aka the Howrah Bridge stood tall above the On the third day I greeted the sun at Howrah. Rabidrasethu aka the Howrah Bridge stood tall above the Hooghly (river). For a moment everything seemed as a black and white film roll except for those yellow taxis. The steel trusses ran criss-cross making beautiful patterns of light and shadows. Gradually as the rain clouds gathered over, the bridge seemed to be a silent witness of the tale of emergence of the city.
Bigger stories were happening down and around the bridge. Ferries moved people across the Hooghly, fishermen prepared for a fresh catch by mending their nets, people washed and bathed. A teenager by the ferry refused the packet of Oreo cookies that I offered, but demanded to clean my shoe which is how he earned his bread. Next to all these was the Mullick Ghat Flower Market. From a distance, the market appeared as a community of bees bustling in a garden of flowers, so lively and busy in the early hours of the day. On the marshy mud of the market was a lot of faded lives, hiding behind the blazing yellow chrysanthemums, blood red roses and blushing pink lotuses.
Taking a taxi to Victoria Memorial, it was all green around. Even the Raj Bhavan seemed to be fenced by trees such that from outside, the building was only seen through the road that went straight from its gate. Victoria Memorial is that magnificent marble building built almost a century ago in memorial of Queen Victoria, under the order of Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy of British India.
Walking from the Sudder street to the Park Street Cemetery, I got lost. When Google Maps was sure that I was in front of the Cemetery, all I could see was a multi-storeyed car parking building. It didn't seem to be a wise decision to have an ugly looking concrete cube before a heritage site. Park Street Cemetery is one of the oldest non-church Christian cemeteries in the world and the largest outside Europe and America in 19th Century (info: wikipedia). I found my way inside the cemetery through a hole in the wall that seemed like another car parking. Walking through the moss covered paths, I was rather walking into a past century. On the huge tombs in Gothic and Indo-Saracenic styles were epitaphs engraved in marble, beautifully talking about the life of people buried there. Light rays sieved in between the trees that shaded the place. Reading the past from the tombs, I spent almost an hour of time there.
Two days being in Kolkata, I started thinking and reading seriously on Mother Teresa and her time in India. I decided to visit Nirmal Hriday, the home for the sick, destitute and dying, at Kalighat. The road that led to Kalighat Temple and the adjacent Nirmal Hriday was lined with shops that sold beads and bands often associated with temple living. There was a big queue of women before a public tap and some shops that sold music instruments. Knocking on the doors of Nirmal Hriday, somebody answered from a window that Thursday is closed for visitors. Desperate, I walked back. Beside the narrow alleys were women, lazily clad in saree, adorning their lips with bright red lipsticks and jasmine flowers held in their hair. Kolkata possesses a lot of red-light districts though prostitution is illegal in India..
When the life in Kolkata played in my mind as a reel of images and emotions, I was walking back home, lost in thoughts. My palette was full of colours struggling to perceive 'Life in Kolkata'....