A nagging hesitation persisted. From early childhood Gerard’s mother admonished, “Your room looks like the black hole of Calcutta” if it was not cleaned and tidied on a regular basis. Even within India Kolkata is considered an overcrowded and dirty city. But just before leaving Varanasi, a Russian boy told us he absolutely LOVED Kolkata, and that if we liked Varanasi, it would be a walk in the park for us! As our Mail Express (in name only) lumbered into the gigantic Victorian Howrah Station, we were pleasantly surprised by the level of cleanliness and amount of dustbins that people were actually using! And outside, instead of the utter chaos of rickshaws all clamoring to get our business we were met by an orderly queue of yellow and black Ambassador taxis, waiting for their prepaid customers. All-in-all a pretty good entry into the “City of Joy.”
We’d read so many bad reviews of budget Kolkata hotels –including repeated accounts of bed bugs- that we overreacted and picked one of the more expensive. Our first choice had not kept our reservation (just as TripAdvisor had warned), but the nearby Sunflower Guest house was more welcoming – a multi-storey, fairly well-maintained old building with an antiquated elevator operated by a cheerful young man. . Even though the room is non AC its very high ceilings and silent running fan make it relatively comfortable. Several more boys stand outside our room, and beyond. In fact everywhere we go – restaurants, supermarkets, the CD store “Music World” – all have a proliferation of waiting staff, a reminder of the huge labor pool in this over-populated and underpaid city.
The hotel is just off Park Street, an upscale area of town, recommended because it’s in walking distance to a few main attractions. Nearby is an old Muslim community – the place is jumping like fleas on a dog…and you know there’s plenty of fleas and plenty of dogs! In the early morning, at the end of the street construction workers cheerfully soap their bodies before starting work – white suds flying everywhere. Old remnants of the Raj in varying stages of decay overlap with newer concrete buildings that deserve no comment. There’s something about the area that is reminiscent of the Village in NYC- the busy narrow streets, small cafes and restaurants spilling out over the sidewalk, second hand bookstores… But there’s always the poverty – pitiful beggars and families who’ve tried to set up some semblance of home on the street or in doorways. Each night we pass a family of three adults, cooking a meal in their tiny cave, once a sliver of a shop. It seems impossible for all three to lie down in the space. I think at least one is on the street. But one morning, the woman sitting on her haunches looked up and gave me a wonderful smile saying “Namaste!” And her hand wasn’t extended! It’s a living testimony of how people can get by with so little. But with all this, and so much more, it’s still not the level of chaos and human horror that we’d pictured as Kolkata.
Like other Indian cities, Kolkata has its stark contrasts: a line of decrepit human rickshaws, their owners plying for our business, while a shiny BMW drives by taking a young boy in his starched white uniform to school. Down the street a rickshaw being pulled by a skinny little old man – his passenger a lot younger and definitely overfed. Gerard remarks, “This is a metaphor of this world of Kal: the overworked and underpaid always carry the weight of the over privileged and overstuffed – be it by possessions or food.”
The Blue Sky restaurant where we regularly eat is also frequented by the young men and women who come to work at Mother Theresa’s Home. They make up at least 50% of the western tourists, and come for a week or so, at most a month. Their youthful enthusiasm appears free of the personal conflict author Jeffery Eugenides had when he came to Kolkata to volunteer in the 1980s (The Marriage Plot). The Blue Sky reminds me of a NYC breakfast cafe – perhaps the Waverly in Washington Square! (Why am I constantly being reminded of NYC?). The waiters are fast and flirtatious, shouting orders through a small opening to the kitchen in the back, which delivers them up at rapid speed. A large garlanded painting of Mother Theresa sits on the wall, alongside a poster saying AUM SWEET AUM.
The heat (averaging 38C with humidity level of 95%) makes any kind of movement laborious – the more so because we’ve both brought heavy colds from Varanasi. But we manage to struggle down Chowringhee Road bordered on one side by colonial villas and on the other, by the Maidan, one of the largest city-center parks in the world. The Victorian Memorial sits there surrounded by formal flowering gardens. It’s too hot to enjoy them and by the time we’ve walked back and forth trying to find the memorial entrance (there is no signage), we don’t have much energy left. While other colonial monuments throughout the city have been renamed or demolished, the dramatic white marble Victoria Memorial continues to be Kolkata’s pride and joy. A somber statue of the elderly Queen greets you at the entrance. Inside 25 galleries are filled with mementos of British imperialism. But most interesting is the Kolkata Gallery, providing a history of the city, and the Independence struggle through paintings, documents and old photographs.
The nearby massive IndianMuseum was a disappointment – lots of archeological remains are housed in dusty glass cabinets and would only be of interest to a scholar. The room of faded stuffed birds from around India are questionably authentic – or if not, in dire need of a decent burial! Likewise the snakes and lizards sitting in glass jars of formaldehyde. But there are some interesting paintings by the Tagore family and other members of the CompanySchool, a group of nineteenth century Indian artists. Also a white marble Queen Victoria as a surprisingly attractive young woman offsets the somber statue sitting further up the street in front of the Memorial.
Back on Park Street, we stroll among the shady lanes of the Park Street cemetery. Huge trees and shrubs swallow up imposing pyramids, obelisks, pavilions, urns and headstones, all of enormous size. Some of the earliest headstones date to the early 1600s and by the late 1800s the cemetery was full and no longer used. Barely decipherable emotional epitaphs record the untimely deaths of so many colonialists and their young families who succumbed to sickness, shipwrecks, skirmishes with the natives… Civilizing came with a heavy cost.
Beaten down by the heat, we decide to hire a car and driver to spend a morning taking us around the city. The driver is a young Moslem who speaks excellent English. First to the ghat below Howrah Bridge where people are still trying to wash off their “Holi” color from yesterday’s festival, then the chaotic colorful and fragrant flower market, and the botanical gardens its main draw a gigantic 250 year-old banyan tree that has now spread over a very large area. St JohnsChurch is plain and simple and filled with the presence of young colonialists who are memorialized on its walls.headstones date to the early 1600s and by the late 1800s the cemetery was full and no longer used.
But what I enjoyed most was seeing more of this city – grand colonial buildings in varying states of repair, narrow streets with trams that look as old as the crumbling buildings they’re rumbling past. So many people, so many families staking out their pitiful spot on the curb – some seem to be getting by, while others look like they won’t make it through the night. But Kolkata has no exclusive on poverty. All that we’ve seen here, we’ve seen in so many other Indian cities. In the few short days we’ve been here, we’ve been attracted to the colonial style architecture, the energy and vitality of the street, and the friendly Bengali people. We hope to return in better health and cooler weather!