Streets of Kolkata, India

Kolkata was one of the four largest cities in India where I hadn’t been to until October 2009. I went to Mumbai in October 2008, Delhi a month later and Chennai in July 2009. By the time I went to Kolkata, I had visited Mumbai once again in July 2009 and I have been living in Delhi ever since I came here first time. So I wanted to go to Kolkata not just because I could add it in the list of also-been-there places, but to really see how the city that I have been hearing about since my childhood looked like. I remember a distant relative/neighbor in our village who, after living many years in Kalkatta (कलकत्ता- that’s how Nepalis spell and pronounce the city that was until recently known as Calcutta), had returned with some strange thego (थेगो): बासावाजो लेकिन । There’s a clear pattern as to where in India Nepalis go for various purposes and the reason is proximity. Those in eastern part of Nepal go to Kolkata where as those in western Nepal go to Delhi (eight hours drive from Mahendranagar). I come from the east Nepal where one can hear many stories of Kolkata. A folk song from eastern Nepal even talks about Kalkattee Kainyo (Kolkatan comb): कलकत्ते काइयो केश मेरो बाङ्गो टेबुलमा ऐना छ‌‍…😉

When I was in Shillong, however, I wasn’t entirely sure about going to Kolkata. I wanted to return to Delhi because I was already traveling too long. But Indian Railways had different plan for me. Ticket was not available in any of the trains going out of Assam for Delhi. Because Shashwat and Pavan, my co-travelers and Kharagpur IITians, were going back to Kolkata, I was tempted to travel with them. They kindly helped me buy e-tickets with their debit card to Kolkata and from there to Delhi via Ranchi as no direct train ticket was available because of holiday rush. The Garib Rath Express (Chariot of the Poor) brought us to Kolkata safely and late by several hours.

Both of the boys were not new to Kolkata though it’s not their home city (Pavan hails from Andhra Pradesh where as Shashwat from Agra). Kharagpur, where their school, the first Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), is located is only three hours away from Kolkata by train. They wanted to chill out in the city for a while. They had classes from the next morning and there were only a few hours remaining to catch the last train to Kharagpur. They helped me to find the hotel where we all put our bags and moved out to quickly explore the city.

We went to a busy market area (I forget the name) and had bhel puri recalling a Hindi movie song that went something like this: Long drive jayenge, bhel puri khayenge… I was eating bhel puri for the first time. In a way I was surprised. I had heard about bhel puri a lot and had imagnied it to be something like a mixture of dahi and puri (curt and bread). That was because I had liked dahi bhalla already in Chandani Chowk, New Delhi. There was no trace of neither dahi nor puri in this bhel puri.

I accompanied Shwash and Pavan in their hunt for ganja. I must admit this here that I was surprised how efficiently they looked for the thing and managed to find that in a matter of few minutes. Later I told myself that I wouldn’t have found that with such an ease if I had wanted to get some. For me, they were just daring, asking any ‘suspicious’ guy on the street about the location where they could buy the thing! I was impressed🙂

We went to Oxford book store. I had gone to Oxford’s Darjeeling branch couple of months ago and this was the main store. I think I bought one book there. The ambiance was good. I liked.

Then we went to a McDonald’s.

It was a nice evening. I bid goodbye to my co-travelers. I did have a great time with them.

Second and Last Day in Kolkata

First thing I did was to check out from the hotel and put my luggage at the reception so that I could go around the city without any loads, return back in the evening and head for the station to catch the 9:30 pm train to Ranchi.

I decided to make Kolkata Metro rail line the base for my tour. It seemed easier to explore the city that way. If I hadn’t seen Metro rail in Delhi (and before that in Washington DC and New York) already, I would have certainly been surprised. The underground railway line has become pretty old now and compared to advanced metro system in Delhi, single-line Kolkata metro looks basic. It’s somewhat dirty and poorly lit. But the fact that it was made by Indians, many years after the Independence of their country, should convince one not to complain about it.

I took a train from a nearby station and got off at Kali temple station. I visited the temple which I found smaller than that of my imagination. Like many other Indian temples, there too, the priests (or pandas) were waiting to rip off devotees. I was shocked to see how a group of priests sat right at the front window of the temple blocking the view of the main idol. If paid, say Rs. 50, they would not just go aside but also push other devotees to clear the space so that the payer could have clear view of the idol. I didn’t pay but somehow stole the view.

After visiting Victoria Building I went to MG Road making Howrah Bridge my destination. The MG Road neighborhood is grand, old, colonial and Indian. The buildings are most interesting of all. Old buildings housing trees and tall plants stand side by side with newly renovated ones. I wanted to know why those old buildings were not repaired. I was also curious to know why people let those trees grown like that on the walls of their houses. Don’t they harm the building? Those trees are attractions of MG Road.

As I moved towards the bridge, I saw many elements of Old Delhi (Chandni Chowk/Chawri Bazaar) there. All sorts of household things and equipments like chains, boxes, locks, keys, iron rods were on sale. In some shops, people were busy making things giving me the impression that I have just reached a factory. The crowd, particularly near the bridge, was so intense that I can’t remember facing same type of crowd anywhere in India. Not even in Chawri Bazaar, Delhi.

Click on the photos to enlarge them:

Previous blogs from this north-east India trip:

1. In Guwahati, Assam: a Temple at the Hill

2. The Hills of Gangtok, Sikkim

3. Shillong and Cherrapunji

Next: Rickshaw Pullers of Kolkata who pull their rickshaws and run

4 thoughts on “Streets of Kolkata, India

  1. Your post is very personally written and well explained. This took me back to my time in West Bengal where I spent 4 years in university. My experience of Kali Mandir was more intense than yours and I was terrified for sometime, at the behaviour of the “pandas” there. You missed some places like the Salt Lake City, I must say. Salt Lake City is the “new” Kolkata. And the crowd at Howrah during peak hours, and in the local trains of South Kolkata during evenings is not comparable to the one you say I guess🙂

    Park Street and Esplanade are two other places I like besides the Shakeshpeare Sarani (the one where Oxford book store lies). Interesting are the names and monuments of Kolkata. There is a street named ‘Ho Chi Minh” Sarani, and there are life-sized statues of Lenin and other communists in main places of Kolkata.

    I love the city, for its people, its imperial-ancient grandeur and style, for its laziness, for the old colonial buildings and new structures and developments made possible by the ‘new’-India.

    From being the capital city of India, to being called ‘a city that is dying’ by Rajiv Gandhi, to the new bustling, pro-investment communist state of India, Kolkata has seen it all. It is also the lifeline of North-Eastern India and countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal etc.

    Bibek

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    1. Salt Lake City! When a friend of mine told me about that, I was like, are you talking about Utah? But I quickly checked Lonely Planet and found the place…kind of satellite city to Kalkatta.

      Yes, we went to Park Street first that day. That seemed to be the backpackers ghetto.

      One thing I observed about the city but forget to mention was this universal/international nature of the city..going by the names of its streets. (Same applies to many other cities in India but I thought it was more evident in Kolkata). Here’s what I found very interesting about street names (quoting from Lonely Planet): “After Independence, the Indian government changed nay street name that had Raj-era connotations. The Communists continued the process. Humorously they chose to rename Harrington St so that US consulate found itself on Ho Chi Minh Sarani. [Emphasis added]

      “Today most major Kolkata streets have two or even three names. Citizens and taxis still tend to go by the British-era names [for some streets].”

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