Text and photographs by Ananya Jain
At the end of July, I took a two-day trip to “The City of Joy”, Kolkata, along with friends. As someone who is obsessively enthusiastic about history, I did know my fair share about the city, its roots and its flourishing culture that had repeatedly come up in my history lessons at school. Even so, it was my reading of Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines that had shaped my vision and expectations.
I had never even visited Calcutta before, yet the image created by one of my favourite books was dreamy, mysterious and one that I was looking forward to. I could almost imagine myself following in the footsteps of the book’s nameless narrator, walking the streets, talking in metaphors and attempting to find hidden pieces of history.
Yet, coming from Delhi, a city with years of history and culture behind it, which has still grown into a sprawling, fast-paced, crowded metropolis, I was prepared that Calcutta may not truly be like the descriptions I had read in books.
After all, the 21st century has brought about too many changes, and what was once the largest port in all of Asia would surely attract the commercialisation that globalisation brings with it. So I braced myself for an unexpected journey.
In the two days we had, my friends and I tried to cover as much as possible in order to get a small glimpse into this glorious old city. The first afternoon was spent eating lunch in a neighbourhood called Tangra, often dubbed as the Chinatown of Calcutta, at a restaurant called Kim Ling gorging on possibly the best Sino-Indian cuisine I have eaten.
Throughout the rest of the evening, we toured the WB National University of Juridical Sciences in Salt Lake City, visited an extremely charming cafe near New Market (Raj’s Spanish Cafe), and spent the rest of the night walking around Park Street.
My favourite part of the day was walking through the crowded streets of New Market, each corner flanked with stalls of all sizes selling jewellery. The fact that it was after dark made it all the more enchanting, since the hundreds of sets of metal earrings could be seen dangling and shining, reflecting the bright street lights.
The next two days were spent rigorously sightseeing, and we managed to visit the Victoria Memorial, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Rabindranath Tagore’s home, and the Indian Museum in a span of just 24 hours.
But while these obvious emblems of history, both from the British Raj as well as traditional Bengali heritage, were magnificent, it was the smaller and more traditional experiences that will always stay with me.
For instance, a 45-minute boat ride on the Hooghly at Prinsep Ghat with the old Howrah Bridge in the distance was perhaps the most rewarding experience of the entire trip. Yes, the waters were extremely murky, yes, the humidity was a downside.
But everything was overlooked that evening, as the sky turned purple and we sat in silence, watching the water ripple. There were occasional bursts of soft music from our phones, and the changing times meant that the boatman wasn’t the source of song and lore anymore. But apart from that, the ride felt as timeless as a hundred years ago.
Even if your trip is short, there exists no other place like Calcutta in the entire world. They say Mumbai never sleeps, but Calcutta never stops either. Life seems to be an intermingling of fast and slow, modern and traditional.
On a street where one of the greatest symbols of imperial grandeur stands tall in the background, The Victoria Memorial, surrounded by massive and expansive green lawns, the area just outside bustles with local hawkers, truly Bengali in language and culture, with their multi-coloured stalls and carts, selling everything ranging from bhel, to puchkas, chhole kulche, shikanji, and more.
This juxtaposition of the two cultures is nowhere out of place or strange, as it represents the reality of this city, an amalgamation of Western influences, while still retaining indigenous elements.
In his book, The Epic City: The World On the Streets of Calcutta, Kushanava Choudhury writes about this intermixing of elements in a similar way. He says that this is what makes this city unique, because it is here that these two seemingly polar opposite elements are made to complement each other perfectly.
A lot of people claim that the city is stuck in a different time. In a recent conversation, a friend categorically described it as, “Delhi, but dirtier, smaller and worse with regard to food.” Yet, my own appraisal was at the opposite end of the spectrum.
I loved the little corners of Calcutta, the meandering narrow lanes, streets bustling with locals, people working out of colourful box-like structures, selling street food, fruits, vegetables and working all kinds of odd jobs, people across classes standing in groups, the crowd seeming never to disperse from the addas, the traditional roadside hubs where cultural and social revolutions were once sparked over cups of chai.
Its close-knit paras (neighbourhoods) are where communities flourish together. In a world where one’s neighbour is slowly becoming a stranger, these communities have retained human communication and interaction.
I don’t think Calcutta is stuck anywhere. I think it rests in another time purposefully, resisting the waves of rapid commercialisation and cultural homogenisation that are washing out everything that made Indian cities unique and different.
The same waves that hit Delhi, Bombay and Bangalore like tsunamis making large stretches of the cityscape non-differentiable from one another appear to have paused at Calcutta’s shores.
Ananya Jain is a student of history and literature at University of St Andrews, Scotland.
First published in eShe’s September 2019 issue.