The sun was a silver disc in a colourless sky and quite unequal to the task of burning through the haze that permanently hangs over the city. Pollution and dust, blended with the odours of diesel oil and urine: that’s Kolkata.
It’s probably the traffic that you notice first. Swarms of yellow taxis, battle-scarred and rusted without exception, outnumber all other vehicles racing each other down the wide streets. Horns are for honking – unremittingly, incessantly: to warn other traffic to steer clear as the driver attempts another crazy manoeuvre; to advise unwary pedestrians to leap back onto the pavement if they value their lives; or to attract the attention of a possible fare. Buses, overloaded with passengers, grind their way along much more slowly, their conductors hanging out of the door and constantly on the lookout for another passenger to somehow squash in with the rest. Trams trundle and screech along their pre-ordained routes. Unlike Delhi and some other Indian cities, there are no cows adding to the mayhem. We were told that this is because if a cow is involved in an accident, the owner of the cow is held responsible and must pay for damages. These days, money obviously speaks louder than the threat of bad karma.
Over the years there have been calls to ban that iconic form of transport, the rickshaw, pulled by a wiry man, often in bare feet. There are 20,000 rickshaws in Kolkata. Those supporting a ban argue that it is degrading and outmoded in the 21st century; the counter argument is that the rickshaw wallahs would find it difficult to find any other employment. The high wheels also mean that they are the vehicles best suited to cope with the worst of the monsoon floods – even in 21st century Kolkata. Undoubtedly many of the rickshaw pullers are very poor, but not all are as near destitute as you might think and some manage to make a decent living; most of them don’t want a ban. I read in one of the local papers how one rickshaw wallah had managed to put his son and daughter through medical and business schools respectively. He reckoned he could save enough over the next three years to do the same for his youngest child – provided there was no ban.
The second thing you notice in the city is the poverty. It’s unavoidable. Home for many is a plastic sheet attached to the railings or perhaps a patch of bare earth beneath an overpass. Life is lived on the streets; all the daily routines are carried out in public: washing, teeth-cleaning, delousing a child’s hair, washing clothes … Privacy is an unknown concept: personal cleanliness is not. Each morning outside our hotel window we would see a young man soaping himself all over and rinsing himself off with a bucket of water – and rinsing the pavement off at the same time. Standpipes in the streets are for public use – and there are blocks of concrete urinals – well-used, judging by the stench. There are also ‘unofficial’ urinals that advertise their presence only by their overpowering smell. I don’t know where you go for other ‘business’ – and I never found out where ladies are supposed to ‘go’. Fortunately there was never a need to know.
We had four days respite in Kolkata between tours. It’s not often the words ‘respite’ and ‘Kolkata’ belong in the same sentence. These four days brought home to us that it is the people that give the city its character and bring it to life.
It was some time before I realised the paviors were of different colours – blue, yellow, red and not just dust coloured. We walked by crumbling buildings that harked back to an era of grandeur and affluence; we walked past rows of stall holders dusting, dusting – and dusting again as they put their wares away at the end of the day. Cooking aromas mixed with traffic fumes and dust. There were chai stalls, hot food stalls providing a constant supply for their lines of customers, displays of sweetmeats with the inevitable wasps and flies, shoe shines, letter writers pounding on a manual typewriter for their customers … We’d occasionally pass two or three boys carrying stumps, bat and ball, on their way to or from an impromptu cricket match. All was clamour, commotion, curiosity and friendliness.
There are always people who will fall into step beside you. Usually, after an exchange of pleasantries, we’d part company after making it clear we didn’t want to visit their shop – or their uncle’s/cousin’s/brother’s/friend’s shop. One particularly persistent hanger-on attached himself to us when we were consulting our street map. (Always a bad move.) We were looking for Suruchi’s, a small Bengali restaurant run by a women’s co-operative, but we really didn’t need his help – not that he knew where the restaurant was anyway. He claimed he’d been a chartered accountant before his retirement and had worked in London for several years. He was well-spoken, I’ll give him that – but as for the rest … I don’t think so. We said our goodbyes, went in for lunch and thought we’d seen the last of him.
After lunch we carried on to Park Street Cemetery. It’s possibly the perfect setting for a Hammer House of Horrors film, but I failed to see the charms of grimy phallic memorials, each seemingly trying to outdo the other in size and importance, crammed together among dark dusty trees in a sunless high-walled enclosure. And then I spotted our hanger-on waiting for us outside the entrance … (It had come up in conversation that that’s where we were headed after lunch.) Fortunately I’d noticed that there were two entrances/exits – so we slipped out onto a side road and lost him. I don’t know what he wanted of us. Perhaps he was just lonely.
Another day, we visited a Muslim quarter – a less than salubrious area that makes its living from recycling. Not so much eking out a living as confronting it head on and working hard at it. Rags, cardboard, old paint tins, empty cooking oil tins, wood – everything cleaned, flattened, stacked, recycled. The people were cheerful and friendly – happy to pose for our cameras and to pass the time of day. We attracted a following of children with cheeky grins who wandered with us, looking at what we looked at and vying to get in every photo.
There are worse slums in Kolkata. In Chinatown, apparently, there are heaps of garbage that people burrow into and call home … Some tourists do go there – but I didn’t feel I wanted to gawp at other people’s misery, however humbling I might find it.
Freshly cooked samosas fortified us before we carried on to the flower market at Mullik Ghat under the eastern end of Howrah Bridge. It’s a blare of colour – dazzling orange and yellow ropes of marigolds, strings of blue irises, red rosebuds – and slippery underfoot with layers of rotting vegetation. Flowers are titivated and primped into displaying their petals to best effect before being added to arrangements. It’s busy, busy, busy. Tourists – and their cameras – are tolerated as long as they don’t get in the way.
Hogges or New Market is where you can buy anything and everything from wigs and hairpieces to the latest in ladies’ wear, biscuits and nuts, meat, fruit and vegetables. The fresh meat section is not for the squeamish. We went in past a row of stinking urinals, past live chickens and ducks penned under large domed baskets, into the dimly illuminated filth and grime of the butchers’ hall. Hooded crows flew through, perched on the rafters and pecked at haunches of red meat hanging above the butchers’ blocks; a tethered goat placidly awaited its fate; mangy dogs and cats sniffed around in the hopes of scraps – and out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a rat scuttling along the drainage channels. More than once. Dead chickens were being skinned – not plucked – skinned – their feathers and skin pulled off in one swift skilful motion and deposited along with the feet in a bucket. I cannot think what later use these feathery pelts would be put to.
We escaped to the grounds of the Fairlawn Hotel for a refreshing drink. It was an oasis away from the jostling crowds and traffic: a dusty oasis, but not a quiet one. We closed our ears to the cawing of crows and the traffic horns. Garden umbrellas shielded us from crow fall-out rather than the sun.
We visited the botanical gardens; a lunatic taxi driver drove us there and another lunatic taxi driver brought us back. Kew Gardens it isn’t. Things have mostly been left to nature; any pruning had been done by the chop and drop method, left for someone else to clear up – or not. There were one or two formal flowerbeds, but these were behind locked gates; green scummy ponds hosted the occasional water lily; every bench was occupied by a courting couple. Signage was minimal and confusing; we never did find the enormous banyan tree despite signs pointing every which way – and we struggled to find our way out.
One evening we decided to have dinner at Kewpies, another restaurant specialising in Bengali food and much touted by various guide-books. The owner of our hotel recommended Oh! Calcutta instead, as in his opinion it was much better – but by then we’d already booked our table. When we arrived, there was only one other (Western) couple there – which is usually enough to persuade us to go somewhere else – but since we’d booked, we stayed. The waiter was less than helpful, the service slow and indifferent (the pickles and chutneys arrived just before the desserts, the very greasy poppadums afterwards), the food was cold (although that’s not unusual in India) and the portions minute, expensive and not particularly tasty. Marks out of 10 for enjoyable dining? Zero. Wouldn’t go back. Wouldn’t recommend it. Our favourite restaurant was Teej which serves vegetarian Rajasthani food and is almost invariably full of locals, often in large family groups. It looks very grand inside, but the atmosphere is relaxed and casual, the staff friendly, welcoming and attentive. And the mili juli sabji is de-lic-ious! Kolkata is a city of contrasts, extremes and intensity: the delicate mirrored mosaics of a Jain temple and the sterile beauty of the Victoria Memorial; the cawing of crows, the strident horns of the taxis and the mellow crotal bells of the rickshaw wallahs; the grime and the colour; the hardship and the smiles.
Kolkata – you hate it; you love it.