Friday, 30 June 2017

Kolkata - the City of Joy n' Everything else

I admit to my repugnant inertia as a travel blogger. There is no other explanation for why I haven't jotted down my impressions of a city that deeply entrenched my fickle and flighty mind with its cacophony of emotions. My prior interactions with those who imbibed the city's cultural heritage have always left me in awe of its liberalism, intellectualism and artistic versatility. I was curious to get into the vein of this intriguing land of writers and filmmakers, scholars and poets, and unravel the mystery for my own understanding. So, I grabbed the very first opportunity that came my way to visit Kolkata - the City of Joy as its popularly known.

January 2016

Azal's bestie from college was getting married in Kolkata and there was no way I would let my chance slip. We boarded the Mysore Howrah Express from Bangalore City Junction at three in the morning on the 18th of January 2016. The train journey was uneventful and pleasant. We shared the compartment with a young jovial man from a village on the outskirts of Kolkata who worked as a cook with an online food delivery service in Bangalore. He was going home to attend his brother's wedding with a box of chocolate cookies he baked himself. I remember him for his cookies more than anything else. We reached Howrah Junction by 3 pm the next day. Commotion, typical to a railway station, heralded a mundane welcome to the travelers. A fleet of yellow ambassadors were lined up outside the prepaid taxi counters. We hired one of them to go to Hotel Lindsay in the bustling New Market area. As the taxi made its way across the iconic Howrah bridge, I marveled at the mammoth steel framework forming a canopy over the sea of vehicles and pedestrians. The dilapidated buildings with their hand-painted name-boards smothered with dust and age, the maroon and beige architecture of the 19th century monuments and the unobtrusive flow of human traffic deported me into a world that was still caught in the wide chasm between the pre-independence era and a fledgling modern economy. Sometimes the streets looked straight out of a movie scene with its wide roads dotted by yellow cabs and the dome of an ancient cathedral in the vicinity.

Lindsay Hotel is situated in the middle of a historic market replete with vendors selling all kinds of products from fresh produce and exotic varieties of cheese to fashion garments and accessories. The main market is inside a Victorian Gothic style complex overlooking a narrow lane filled with food stalls and hawkers. The location of the hotel was perfect for us - we were right in the middle of all the activity. That evening we visited the Prinsep Ghat on the banks of the Hooghly river - the lifeline of Kolkata. Hooghly has played a key role in the growth and development of this riverine port city, right from attracting the mercantile interests of the East India Company and elevating it to the first capital of British India to sustaining the local economy and enriching the culinary delights in this part of the country. We took a boat ride under the twilight sky on the tranquil waters of the Hooghly against the backdrop of the resplendent bridges with a euphonic Bengali song humming from some place beyond - it was almost mystical. The Palladian porch built as a tribute to the Anglo Indian scholar James Prinsep stood tall against the spokes of the Vidyasagar Setu. We hopped on a local train from the Prinsep Ghat station and walked past the Shaheed Minar and Eden Gardens to get to our hotel. There wasn't enough time to do everything but we tried to squeeze in as much as possible into those five days. The same night we grabbed a drink at a joint called Someplace Else on Park street, one of the oldest pubs in Kolkata frequented by locals for its live music and vibrant atmosphere. We walked back to Lindsay street with the satisfaction of a day well spent. 

Azal was keen on experimenting with the Indian Chinese cuisine in Kolkata. Online sources confirmed that Terreti Bazar was Kolkata's very own Chinatown with the streets going live in the early hours of the morning. We are sure we reached the right place but we could not find the juicy momos and soupy noodles we were looking for. Instead we got to see life in action - fish and flowers laid out by the roadside and locals bathing and shaving and cooking all next to each other on the narrow pavements. We walked through the inside lanes to catch a glimpse of the despicable poverty and filthy living conditions Kolkata is often linked with. I feel the colour of the city is brown - brown with age, brown with dust, brown with dirt and in its varying shades, the color captures the earthy tones of existence in its crumbling brick walls and congested alleyways inhabited by a forgotten strata of society. The next on our agenda was Kumortuli - the globally acclaimed potters' quarter that manufactures and exports clay idols to different parts of the world. The artisans were at work as usual, adding a stroke here and a knot there. The straw and bamboo framework was plastered with paper mache and cow dung before the clay was applied. There were enormous statues of various Gods and Goddesses from the Hindu mythology fashioned out of clay dug out from the river side. We stopped to speak to an elderly man engrossed in his craft and watched him give life to clay right before our eyes. For lunch, we chose Nizam's inside New Market - the legendary restaurant that claims to have invented the ubiquitous Kathi roll. I must say the place lives up to its name. We attended the marriage that evening - a traditional Bengali wedding with all the hooting and snickering and chuckling that made it a happy affair. I watched intently as the couple underwent the various rituals with the holy fire bearing testimony to their lifelong union. The highlight was of course the sumptuous feast with an array of fish and mutton delicacies and the quintessential rasogolla. 

The next morning we headed straight to the Victoria Memorial, a visual delight in Indo-Saracenic Revivalist style made from white Makhrana marble. The monument dedicated to the memory of Queen Victoria is distinctly European with a formidable collection of paintings and artifacts. The first half of the day was spent absorbing and assimilating the unparalleled historic wealth of a city that has somewhat lost its past glory. By noon we vacated our room at Hotel Lindsay and checked into Hotel Eastern Plaza on VIP road, close to the airport. Moving from the ancient quarters steeped in antiquity to the urbanized half of the city was a long leap. The former sported an old world charm that was lost upon the modern aura of the newer half. Post lunch, we visited Science City, the largest science centre in the Indian subcontinent and a distinguished landmark in post-independent Kolkata. Later that evening we caught up with an ex-colleague of Azal's at a nearby mall that had not yet come out of the festive mood of Christmas and New Year. The chit-chatting continued over dinner at her cozy little apartment where we hogged on authentic Kolkata biriyani from Arsalan and guzzled some chilled beer. 

Shopping was next on our agenda. We battled the morning traffic to get to Gariahat market that is famous for its saree shops. That is when we inadvertently walked into Gupta's to experience one of the best mishti dois in town. We savored more of the freshly prepared sweets including the 'notun gurer sandesh' and bought a box of the delicatessens to take home with us. All the sweetness was followed up by some extravagant shopping at Indian Silk House and a hearty meal consisting of Mutton chaap, Biriyani and the best ever Shahi Tukda from Royal Indian Hotel which has a legacy of serving customers for more than a hundred years. Swarming in and out of the first metro railway in India, we plunged headlong into the intellectual hub of Kolkata - College Street. It is the largest second hand book market in the world with countless book stalls packed together on either side of the road. One can find almost any title here, all at throw away prices - from academic textbooks and paperback editions to rare gems which aren't stocked elsewhere. Many renowned educational institutions are located here including the Presidency College, the University of Calcutta and the Hindu School. I picked up a book to mark the memory of my visit to this book lovers' paradise - The Weekenders - Adventures in Calcutta, a collection of fiction and non-fiction travelogues about Calcutta by eminent writers from around the world. Back in Bangalore, I relived my personal adventure in this esoteric land as I flipped the pages of this gripping book. 

We attended the wedding reception in the evening, conveyed our heartiest wishes to the newly wedded and feasted some more on the choicest culinary creations. On our last day in this eclectic city, we paid an early morning visit to the much revered Dakshineshwar Kali Temple. Both of us being non-religious, it was more of a sightseeing activity than anything else. Devotees thronged to the temple in large numbers to make offerings to Goddess Kali and take a dip in the holy waters of the Ganga. Ardent religiosity seething with vermilion was the concluding note to our Kolkata tale. There is a lot more to see including the Indian museum which is the largest and oldest museum in the country, Mother House, St. Paul's cathedral and Nicco Park. It seemed as if we had just scratched the surface of a fathomless sea of secrets. I hope to go back some day and delve a little more into the profoundness that is Kolkata. I wish to listen to an ardent fan passionately untangle the many threads behind Tagore's poetry artfully scrawled on the subway walls. I long to relive the heart wringing melody echoing on the distant horizon of the Hooghly. And maybe then, I'll find true joy in the deepest core of this singular city of idiosyncrasies. 

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