Rain, lots of people and the Howrah bridge — that was my first glimpse of the City of Joy. I reached Calcutta on a summer evening late in April. Despite the rain, the heat and humidity levels were nowhere near bearable. The short walk from the air-conditioned cab to the air-conditioned hotel lobby had me sweating profusely. In my sweat-drenched kurta-salwar, with a rucksack on my back and a small sack and suitcase in hand, I must have looked a real sight. That night, as I lay in an unfamiliar bed some 2000 odd kilometres away from home, I thought I would never like this city; that it was just another city in India that I could add to my travels and forget. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Calcutta, the erstwhile capital of India during the British Raj, is steeped in history. It was considered to be the hotbed for social reformers, freedom fighters and political figures during India’s freedom struggle. Politics continues to be a hot topic in Calcutta. Not just because of Didi. Not only in colleges and other hotspots of political activity, but also in normal, middle-class households. I got to know a man there, who was an independent electoral candidate. The people in his areas loved him—surprising for a politician. ‘Dada’ they called him affectionately. He had brought about the changes he’d promised and he really cared about his people. The people reciprocated by putting him in office time and again.
I had heard many first-hand, second-hand and some purely Internet-influenced opinions about Calcutta. My Gran likes the city; my Mum hates it. Some people love the city for its easy, laid back pace, for its sweets (read roshogullas), for its appreciation and indulgence of the arts. Others hate the city for its traffic, for its semi-small-town feel, for its politics, for its squalor that exists alongside the riches. It is quite common to see men bathing on street corners early in the morning. It is just as common to see impeccably dressed businessmen hurrying past on their way to work.
Calcutta, I feel, is a quirky city. Something about this city spoke to me. Maybe it was just the fact that I knew next to nobody in this city, which made me feel free. Maybe it was the people I met, the strangers who smiled easily, the taxi-drivers who chatted nineteen to the dozen even as I raced to catch a train at Howrah or Sealdah, the mithai-wallahs who answered my ‘sweet’ enquiries indulgently and with a smile. Maybe it was the funny system of one-way streets that is unique to Calcutta. Maybe it is the enchanting old world feel I got as I went around the city in one of the many yellow Ambassador taxis. Like my home city, Pune, Calcutta still banks on its heritage and history to draw visitors. But, unlike in Pune where it comes off as slightly arrogant, this lends Calcutta a refined air. The city is openly proud of its heritage and invites the tourists to slow down, step into the past and appreciate Calcutta. I don’t know exactly what it was that made me fall in love with this city, but I fell for it like I’ve never fallen for another city before.
I, like a good little tourist, had a list of things to do and see in Kolkata. I completed most of it—the Victoria Memorial, the Indian Museum, Park Street, Dakshinapan Shopping Centre, College Street—the usual. Unfortunately, I missed travelling by the tram—an experience like no other, my Gran assures me. More than the “things to do in Kolkata”, what gave me the feel of the city were the experiences I had there. I ate LOTS of roshogullas—obviously. I ate puchkas. I learnt Bangla (and used it too!); I went from “Ami Bangla jaani naa!” To “Ami ektu ektu Bangla bolte pari”. I met an old man as quirky as his city, and his sweet wife. The old man is still quite young at heart, a terrific artist and an avid traveller. I met a lady who went out of her way to take me shopping, taught me to haggle like the best of ’em and showed me a delightful little sweets shop (the best roshogullas, she swears—and I agree!). This lady always had a smile on her face; had she not told me herself, I would never have guessed the hardships she had had to face in life.
I travelled by the metro, the yellow taxi, the rickshaw, the cycle-rickshaw and the bus. Kolkata’s buses are an experience in itself. A small, rickety, bright blue box on wheels, crammed full of passengers with the conductor hanging half out of the door, shouting the names of stops loudly while holding currency notes of all denominations between his fingers like a fan.
The blue box on wheels.
A bus conductor in Kolkata with a fan of currency notes.
In the four days that I was in Calcutta, the city made me its own. In a way, I found myself in Calcutta—the spirited, independent, outgoing individual I can be if I don’t take refuge behind a quiet façade. I have no doubt that, were my Mum to read this post, she would think I am romanticising the city, but it’s nothing of that sort. You have to visit Calcutta to understand.
Oh Calcutta! I can’t wait to return to you. I have already made a new list of things to do and see, as I am prone to do, and I am looking forward to experiencing other new and/or exciting things again.
The only thing is, the next time I visit Calcutta, I might not want to leave.