Thursday, November 1, 2012

Be a traveller in Kolkata, not a tourist

You may not love Kolkata at first glance. It is noisy, polluted and overcrowded. But, if you allow her and are patient enough to go through her hard-to-get games, she will bewitch you.
My first trip to Kolkata was way back in 2000. My grandparents had left Patna, their home for over 50 years, and retired to a three-bedroom flat at Behala, the southern end of Kolkata. The move had not made me happy, for all my childhood memories were that of Patna - of their big house at Rajendra Nagar, where I would play with their black labrador, Gypsy, and recite poetry to my great grandmother, of Faggu tailor, who would stitch new dresses for me out of my mother's chiffon sarees, of the patients (my grandfather was a doctor), friends and house staff, who would speak in the different dialects of Bihar such as Maghi, Bhojpuri, Maithili and Bhagalpuri, of the Patna Women's College and St Joseph's Convent, where my mother had studied and of Bankipur Club and the Ganges right next to it, where my grandfather had taken me for my first swim when I was four years old. As a resentful teenager, I saw Kolkata as a place that could not offer me any of those things. It was too overcrowded, too hot and humid, my grandparents did not know much about the city to suggest new places to check out and worst of all, few people understood Hindi. Unable to communicate with the locals, thanks to my very weak knowledge of Bengali, I spent most of the very hot month of May indoors and was very happy when I got back to Mumbai.
My second visit to this metropolis, was in December 2004. The cold season made the city seem much better. It was decked up for Christmas and I was amazed at the number of people who would picnic at the Maidan or make a beeline for the zoo. My grandparents were much better equipped to take me around - to the National Museum, the Victoria Memorial, New Market, Park Street, Howrah Bridge and the Botanical Garden at Alipore, where we would go for our morning walks. Hindi was more commonly spoken, thanks to the increasing popularity of Bollywood films. I enjoyed the week I spent here and wanted to come back again to explore more of it.
I got another chance in early 2008. Having spent, the previous month in the steel city of Jamshedpur in Jharkhand, I actually looked forward to visiting this big city. Once again my grandparents took me around - to have some delicious Chinese food at Tong Fung, Park Street, browse through the music at Music World and buy dark brown leather boots from a Chinese-owned shop at Bentinck Street for just Rs 500. The city had new flyovers, which helped me cut traffic time by half. I also witnessed a huge rally organised by one of the Communist Parties, during which streets were lined with red flags and truckloads of people and cabbages (probably to be cooked for the participants' lunch) were being transported to the site of the rally.
The next year, I was back for a couple of days in February, and found new flyovers, discovered the Millenium Park on the banks of the Hooghly, a popular hangout for couples, had my first puchkas (Kolkata's version of a pani-puri), browsed through the 18th-century sketches of India at the Victoria Memorial and finally tried out the rum balls at the famed Park Street confectioner, Flurys. 
This year, I got the opportunity to visit Kolkata twice - the first time for a fortnight in March, and then in October, for the whole month. In March, I chose to spend my time with my ageing grandparents. I would wake up at 5 am and go with my grandmother for a morning walk to the Parnasree Lake, which has been cleaned up and beautified with a promenade, a walking track, benches, fountains and gardens. I met my granny's friends, who would sing Rabindranath Tagore's songs and recite his poems. I also discovered, from their speech, that most of the Hindu inhabitants of Parnasree, belonged to the erstwhile East Pakistan and had fled to India during the 1971 war between India and Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh. They would still talk about their ancestral homes in Khulna, Dhaka and Chittagong. I also noticed how many of the gates, walls and even buildings around the city were painted blue and white, the colours of the Trinamool Congress party, which had finally ended the 34-year reign of the communist parties in Bengal in the 2011 elections.
But it was in October this year, that I finally managed to enjoy the rawness of Kolkata. One day, I took a tram ride at 7 am from Beckbagan Row to Esplanade. We rode through lanes full of shuttered shops and roadside vendors heating the coals to cook a meal of luchi-tarkari (puri-bhaji) or shingara-jilipi (samosa-jalebi) for breakfast. I walked round the Governor's bungalow (I had mistaken it for a park), towards the Dalhousie Square, past the Office of Official Languages (yes!), then back through Chowringhee and New Market to Esplanade to take the tram back to Beckbagan Row in Ballygunge. Another day, I accompanied my mother to the Park Circus Market to watch her haggle with fishmongers and butchers. I salivated each time I entered a sweet shop - Gobinda at Behala, Mithai at Beckbagan Row, Gupta Brothers and Haldiram's at Syed Amir Ali Avenue, K C Das at Bentinck Street and Balaram Mullick's at Park Street - for they promised to offer to me a platter of the softest and sweetest sandesh.

As part of a huge mass of people, I hopped from one magnificent pandal to another decorated with various forms of Goddess Durga. I talked to Krishnapriya Dasgupta, who created an entire pandal of beaten metal sheets at Ultadanga and marvelled at his brilliance and effort. I took in the fresh cold air from the top deck of a ferry on a 61-km cruise down the Hooghly while watching the immersions on Dussera. I tucked into the famed chelo kebabs at Peter Cat, soaked in the ambience of Bar B Q and Trincas, ate delicious grilled fish and chocolate boats at Flurys, sipped a wine cocktail called Cosmo Fizz at Zara, South City Mall, had my fill of Badshah's double chicken rolls and ordered Chinese from Beijing Restaurant in Tangra and Chinese Pavilion at Syed Amir Ali Avenue (both strictly okay). I listened to a new band call Span at Someplace Else at the Park Hotel. I watched British tourists flipping through books on the city's history at Oxford Bookstore. Probably they were trying to find, in those pages, their ancestors who had come here at the time of the Raj.

I walked on the finest marble mosaic floor I've seen at the Marble Palace built by Raja Rajendra Mullick (a shipping magnate and jeweller) on Muktaram Babu Street and marvelled at his private collection of original paintings by Rubens and Reynolds (worth crores of rupees), statues of marble and alabaster, gold and silver, bronzes, Chinese and Japanese porcelain, Czech crystal chandeliers and over-10-feet-tall Belgian mirrors. I listened to Rabindranath Tagore's own voice through the moving lips of a dummy of him at the Town Hall and got a glimpse of the life in Kolkata before the British had come here. I stumbled into a room, where Tagore had breathed his last at Thakurbari at Jorasankho in north Kolkata and read his final letter which is displayed on the wall.

I also moved away from the city to explore the scenic Vedic Village near Rajarhat (about 70 km from the city centre), where I indulged myself with a Kerala Ayurvedic massage. I explored the beaches at Mandarmoni and Digha. I swam in the Bay of Bengal and chased big red crabs into their holes. I bargained hard for tangail and dhakai sarees at the Tanter Haat Exhibition. I learnt that the New Market was opened in 1874! I felt the pulse of the city rise and fall before and after the Durga Puja. I watched people discuss their food, music and books passionately. I went to the Victoria Memorial to watch the son-et-lumiere (sound-and-light) show only to be told it had been cancelled that day. I would have cursed had I not looked up at the majestic building and an orange moon. And in Kolkata, a city labelled as 'lazy and extremely slow', I watched my parents settle comfortably into a new house in a new city in just under a week's time.
There are some cities you can do as a tourist. You can go to the places listed in the guide and you will come back with a sense of satisfaction that you've seen all of it. Kolkata isn't like that. Yes, there is a guide and there are tourist hotspots, but if you stick to only those, you'll end up spending most of your time in the middle of a traffic jam or waiting in the queue at a ticket counter to enter a public space. You end up being disappointed and frustrated when people do not respond to your queries immediately, when they do not show up on time and when they simply do not want to work. Drop those time-references ("In Mumbai, they are so much more efficient," or "In London, it would have taken us only 10 minutes,") and enjoy the city for what it is, moving at its own pace. Imbibe its smells, sounds and tastes. You won't find the city 'slow' then. You may find her chatter noisy, but you'll sure miss it when she goes quiet. Don't be a tourist here, be a traveller. You may not get to see all the sights, especially if you have only a few days here, but what you see will be worthwhile. 


sujata sarkar said...

You have managed to feel the pulse of Kolkata. I believe each city has a character of its own one just needs an open mind and heart to assimilate and appreciate it. What would be the point of travelling if all cities looked and felt alike??

Alankar Mishra said...
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