My first visit to Kolkata was made possible by generous hosts, ever mindful of my well-being, and delightful by a few resourceful friends – among them a considerate ‘city guide’ who acted almost like a local guardian. After four busy, breezy days, I was back in my Delhi office. When I said I had brought fruit cake from the storied ‘Nahoum’s’, a former boss who had worked in Kolkata declared, “You have finally seen India.” I took very few pictures precisely because I didn’t want the memories to turn sepia too quickly, only to be filed away in a hard disk folder. Instead, I jotted down some observations at random, as a tourist and an off-duty journalist. One for the Calcuttans!
Architecture: The imposing British era structures reminded me of areas in my hometown: Fort Kochi, Mattanchery, Bolgatty Island. College Street and Shyam Bazaar, teeming with bookstalls and hawkers, are like bigger, busier versions of Kochi’s incredibly narrow ‘Broadway’. On the other hand, not very far from the the serenity of St.Paul’s Cathedral and the Victorian grandeur that colleges and even newspaper offices cannot escape, some of the houses I saw have been in perpetual decay for decades. As a senior colleague pointed out, “Go back in 40 years. Everything will still be the same.” Surely. And the next two generations will be living in the same homes, where despite the creaky windows and ancient light switches, some things don’t fall apart. I like the idea.
Traffic: But whose idea was it to have such vehicular chaos running through the middle of all that old world charm? The crowded ‘Made in India’ Metro system aside, buses, cabs, trams, share autos, cycle rickshaws and hand-pulled rickshaws all jostle for every inch of road space. The generally good-humoured cabbies are the most hasty, always plowing forward and stopping for none but their passengers. And it seemed to me that once evening sets in (“Rather quickly, this is the East”, my friend reminded me), almost everyone’s in a hurry to get to either Howrah or Sealdah. Disclaimer: I had to skip Kalighat (no boat ride on the Hooghly) and while I was really keen to board a tram, none came along just when we were trying to make it before Victoria Memorial shut for the day. Oh well. But cities are best explored on foot, or on a (motor)cycle. Never from sealed cars. So, after a mandatory cab ride during which I caught a glimpse of the ‘second’ Howrah Bridge and Eden Gardens (281*), we walked: From Victoria Memorial to Park Street. And later, through the bustling bylanes of New (Hogg) Market that even many ‘Kolkata Bongs’ cannot claim to know too well. I asked a woman who runs a Chinese shoemaker place if they still offered hand-crafted shoes, ‘made to order’. “We used to. Not anymore. Now we only sell ready-made pieces,” she said gently, smiling. The signboard remains.
People: The genial folks of the City of Joy are “quick with a joke or to light up your smoke,” as Billy Joel sang of his friend “John at the bar” in ‘Piano Man’. This could well be the confident, young waiter at the classy ‘Someplace Else’ who always had a thumbs up sign ready when reminded that our drinks were yet to arrive. He would disappear for five minutes and come back – without our drinks. And smugly give another thumbs up, as if to reiterate: “Everything’s under control.” The drinks materialised soon after. Or it could be the receptionist at my cozy tourist lodge in Salt Lake who heard my name and quipped, in style, “Raaaaaaj Kapoor!” And, just to keep things on an even keel, there was also the waiter at the boisterous Indian Coffee House who, in terse Bangla, told us, “Not me. Find the guy who served you that,” pointing at our coffee cups. But in this very humane, very receptive Metropolis, don’t expect anyone to say, “You can’t sit here.” Or “You can’t smoke here.” Yes, you can.
Attitude: Everything I had heard is true: The city moves (only) at its own pace. Slowly, at leisure. The world can wait, or pass by. And maybe ‘progress’ or ‘poriborton’ too, as the sceptics would say. Like Kolkata or Chennai or any other city, Delhi also has art and music and literature. But only a chosen few find the time to soak all that in. Too clubby. And time is the one luxury Mumbai just cannot afford. Too swamped. Here, time is all they have: To smoke a beedi, have a ‘chai pe charcha’, take a stroll. Almost everyone is a picture of langourous nonchalance. As they say, “Ashte adhte shob hoye jabe.” (Stilted translation: Slowly, eventually, everything will happen). I was reminded of a 2009 Australian movie set in Kolkata, aptly titled ‘The Waiting City’. Although its political volatility is shown up often, the former Capital is insouciant and utilitarian in its daily approach to life. On Sudder Street, now more infamous than ever, home to several ‘budget’ hotels catering mainly to foreign tourists and students, I saw many examples of a near-relic from the recent past of Indian cities: ‘Cyber’ centres. I know some Delhi markets still have those, but chances are someone will say, “Why? We have wi-fi.” For the record, Kolkata, too, has plenty of wi-fi, as West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee (Ahem!) announced recently. But what use is wi-fi if your dumb smartphone decides to conk out and you have to send an urgent email? Oh, and there was the waiter at a Bengali restaurant who, when I asked for a ‘colder’ soft drink, informed me, “Thanda cheez khate nahi hai log abhi. Fridge band hai.” The weather was just the right degree of pleasant and suddenly free of the jacket, I had forgotten that the Delhi winter is not the only cold that bites. But even that fridge, for now a needless excess, knows the season’s chilling effect on the Bengalis. “Khub thanda lagche!”
Food: I wish I had been a student here sometime. Because if someone wants to eat to their heart’s content without shelling out a small fortune, Kolkata is the place to be. The eggs rolls certainly lived up to their billing. ‘Tangra’ is lined with ‘Kolkata-Chinese’ restaurants, each one claiming to be more ‘authentic’ than the next. Kerala failed to make me a regular fish-eater, but Bengal would have converted me for sure. Being from Kochi and living in Delhi, I visited with an ‘I know how to eat well!’ attitude. But I plead no contest: The Bengalis know how to have their fill, too. Start with aloo poshto and rice. Then fish. Then (shell) fish. Then meat (Mutton in any form is a clear favourite). Then Tamaatar/Aam chutney. Then mishti dahi. Then paan. Then a cigarette. Then a nice siesta. I could get used to this life! From the signature ‘Chelo Kebab’ at Peter Cat and sumptuous ‘Daab Chingri’ at Bhojohori Manna to Mughlai Paratha at Indian Coffee House and Arsalan’s biryani followed by dessert at Flury’s, this was also quite an extraordinary culinary journey. Oh Calcutta! “So long, and thanks for all the fish”. Dhonyobaad… I’ll be back for another round at Oly Pub. Soon enough. Because I like a city that lives within its means, eats heartily and minds its own business.