In The City of Joy
Kolkata has much to offer a traveller who is willing to wander through its streets.
There are people for whom the streets are a means to an end and there are those for whom the streets are the very end. You can find both types invading the streets of Kolkata
WARM air welcomed me as I stepped down on the cemented platform of Sealdah station. I stood there to absorb the moment; but the crowd swept me along. The passengers, their families and the porters all struggled for space - a familiar scene at railway stations across India. It didn't seem like the Kolkata I had imagined; perhaps, I had been naïve to believe that I'd step straight into a typical Bengali scene. Though it was 11.00 p.m., everyone seemed to move with a sense of unknown urgency, as if the stale station air was too heavy to breathe. I became a part of the mass of humanity in motion. I asked for directions trying to strike up a conversation, but was ignored unceremoniously by the preoccupied bunch speaking an alien tongue. Disillusioned by the notion of being in a crowd, I wandered around rather aimlessly. At the exit gate, my tired eyes opened wide at the sight before me - policemen dressed in white, numerous neatly parked taxis, with chaos and shouting all around - all so distinctive of Kolkata.
Into the city
From outside, the station building itself seemed transformed from a claustrophobic edifice to an expansive colonial building. Full of excitement, I made my way through narrow passages between parked taxis. I looked for an auto-rickshaw - on my tight budget I could not have afforded a taxi. However, rickshaws are not allowed in this part of the city.I took a taxi to Yatri Niwas, near the Howrah Station. Throughout the 15-minute journey, I stared out of the car window to see all that I could, while my taxi driver tested his broken Hindi on me. Yatri Niwas is quite affordable (Rs. 350 a night) with good airy rooms. However, you have to reserve a room well in advance, and in person. I learned this the hard way - I had booked my room over phone. Now no record of a booking existed and I was turned away. Nonetheless, I hung around in the vague hope of finding someone checking out. Luckily that did happen, and I found myself in a spacious room.I woke up to the sound of horns blaring just below my window. I looked out; it was still dark. The taxis were ferrying the passengers of the 4.00 a.m. train that had just arrived at Howrah. Later, despite the hassles and early morning nuisances, I woke up fresh and eager to move out to the awaiting city. When I peeked out of the hotel window, the street below was relatively deserted. The grim outline of the Howrah Bridge directly opposite meditated far in the silvery dawn. Sipping a steaming cup of tea, I reviewed the day ahead. A trip around the city on foot would be ideal.Outside, I became one of the millions on the streets of Kolkata. I decided to start my excursion with a trip to the famous second-hand bookshops of College Street. After a bumpy bus ride, I landed on College Street. To my disappointment the shops were closed - it was too early. I decided to explore the rest of Kolkata. I passed streets lined with fish markets complementing the vegetable markets on the other side. I walked through Park Street to the National Museum, my first stop since the morning. Inside, the quietness added to the grandeur of the building. For a few hours one can easily be lost in the treasures that the museum has to offer. The most interesting display are the fossils kept carefully under glass covered in layers of dust, unwittingly rendering an antique touch to the fossils.After a few hours in the museum, I returned to Park Street. A definite spot for the book-loving traveller would be the Oxford Store. The atmosphere gently nudges the exhausted entrant to browse through thousands of books. I chose The History of South India to prepare for my journey south. Back on the road again, I headed to the famous kathi rolls cart to treat myself on a day well spent. After gorging on hot kathis, washed down with a cappuccino from the conveniently located Coffee-Day, I took a taxi to the Victoria Memorial.A long drive on what seemed to be a never-ending curve got me there. An impressive remnant of the British Raj, the elegant marble building stood in isolation. Unfortunately, visiting hours (10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m.) were long gone, and I had to satisfy myself with its outer facade. The huge white building of Victoria Memorial is indeed a treat for the eyes. The magnificent building against the backdrop of a cloudy sky almost intimidates you with its presence but it speaks volumes about our history. I stood there under the shadow of the monument, watching the shimmering image in the glittering waters, while the last rays of sun gave it a glowing touch.
Later that night, I stood at one end of Park Street supporting myself on the sure permanence of an electric pole, studying the people. There are people for whom the streets are a means to an end and there are those for whom the streets are the very end. You can find both types invading the streets of Kolkata - beggars highlighting the inescapable poverty of the city; old couples from another time; and young couples touched by a culture that looks so inapposite here. I heard cheerful voices behind me and turned swiftly. A young couple strolled out looking into each other's eyes. The faded jeans dragged, and the dangling earrings winked mischievously in the streetlight. I cleared my throat, but they were oblivious. I sat down and sighed deeply. This glitter is a far cry from the grim depiction in Lappierre'sCity of Joy. Perhaps, I was consciously avoiding that part of the city, which somehow bubbles up even among the blinding lights here, reflecting through the beggars tugging at your shirt.Kolkata has much to offer - its colonial past, temples, and museums - so much that it may take a lifetime to understand the undertones of culture subtly present beneath the superficiality of city life. Perhaps it was time for me to go back to the hotel room and pack, reserving the rest of the city for some future visit.
This story appeared in The Hindu