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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

Shillong and Cherrapunji

shillong city

Shashwat and Pavan at the Shillong City view point (more photos at the end of the post)

Traveling with two IITians: Cherrapunji to Kolkata [PDF version of the article in Koseli] The event described in the blog happened in the first week of October. Here’s Parmalink: http://wp.me/pjyem-s6

The highway leading up to Shillong from Assam’s Guwahati was terrific. The trip began with some glitches. The road in the beginning is being expanded. But as it climbed upward the spiraling trail that passes through dense forests became mesmerizing. The three-something hour ride was wonderful. I didn’t feel dizzy as it usually happens with me on spiral hilly roads.

Reaching Shillong bazaar, I tried to wander around and wanted to find hotel ignoring the Lonely Planet guide book. After walking for about 10 minutes, I found a hotel. No rooms available, I was told. I then dialed all the hotels that were listed in the book. They were all fully occupied. I began to worry. I headed to PB. Police Bazaar, that is. This part of the city is packed with hotels of all kinds. I went to the reception desk of one and I was give the same reply that I had got on phone. I went to the next one. Same answer. It was freaking annoying. Finally, as it happens with everyone at some point in time, I found one room. I didn’t bargain. I just wanted to get hold of the room and throw my luggage inside.

That I did and got out into the bazaar. Amidst the bustling activities of PB, I was thinking about where to go. I was also looking for cyber cafe. I was standing and thinking about where to start. Then a boy approached me. “Excuse me,” he said. “Are you a local from here?”

“No,” I replied. “In fact, I am not even from India.”

The heavily bearded boy smiled. “Oh we have also come here to visit,” he said after I introduced myself to him.

Meet Swash and Pavan, 20-something IITians at Kharagpur, wandering on the hills of Shillong, looking for some fun mixed with smoke.

Swash asked me if I knew about some good restaurants in town. I turned the pages of Lonely Planet and mentioned at least two of them. Then the young man came to the point.

“Do you know where we can find ganja?” Swash asked.

“Now, that can’t be found in this book,” I said.

We all laughed. We encountered again that evening and became friends, co-travelers. In fact, we had become friends on the instant Swash approached me. We would travel to Cherrapunji and Kolkata together, take pictures in front of one of Asia’s highest falls, dine in a restaurant floating over Brahmaputtra and browse books in Oxford book store in downtown Kolkata. Later I would describe my journey and some of our conversations in a piece that I wrote for Koseli (PDF).

Interesting thing happened that evening. The boys hadn’t found ganja yet when we met second time. “Lets find out,” I seconded and walked with them. Soon, we chanced upon a boy who happened to be a Nepali-speaking local (Indian citizen, local of Shillong). I started talking with him in Nepali, occasionally telling the boys what we were discussing about. Such was the situation was that Swash and Pavan, both Indians, were feeling excluded (my observation though they might not be feeling same) where as I, a non-Indian, foreigner, was trying to explain them about the locality and town based on information that I was getting from the boy. I asked the boy if he could find Swash and Pavan some gajna. It seemed like he could. Swash and Pavan were visibly excited. The Nepali-speaking boy said he will have to ask his brother (or some relative) about the availability and place to procure. Soon the other man came and we five went for shopping. We found, Swash and Pavan bought and stuffed the thing into my bag!

Because Swash and Pavan were staying in a crappy hotel room that they badly wanted to change, I suggested them to go to my room instead and check the quality of ganja. The puffing and drinking and talking started. By the time it was all over, it was already 11 pm (or more, I forget as I am writing this entry pretty late). The guys went. I locked the door, brushed, and was about to sleep when somebody knocked on the door.

The same guys! Apparently the hotel security had locked the main entry and wouldn’t open after 10 pm. Mine was single bed and there was no way we all three could be accommodated there. I took out the bed sheet and blanket and the boys slept on the narrow floor between the bed and wall. (There was another thin blanked that I used).

Next morning, I moved with the boys in a different hotel, a few kilometers far from Police Bazaar. We went to Cherrapunji and came back in the evening to have dinner in ‘the most expensive hotel in town’. On the third day, I went to meet a Nepali writer (local from Shillong) in a town where many Nepalis live.

Here are photos from my Shillong and Cherrapunji trip (Click on a photo to read caption in detail):

Previous entries from the same trip:

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

2. The Hills of Gangtok, Sikkim


While returning from Chandanpur village the next day that was sunny and beautiful, we were having snacks in the middle of the road just above the green and scenic Lele village. Then seeing Suraj lying on the road, I decided to do some acrobats. Thus these photos. No, I am not going to the Beijing Olympics. Continue reading