My long holiday to the North East part of India ended with a short overnight stay at Calcutta. The last time I set foot on this land, I was just about 10 years old. My memory of this place was pretty faded and I was really excited to be here after about 3 decades.
The cab ride from the airport to Park Street where I was booked for the night was about 20 kms away & took well over one hour with moderate traffic. It was a very humid Saturday evening & the drive wasn’t really a pleasant one. It took me just a little time to figure out that the cars here have their accelerator & horns connected to each other. The minute the driver presses the accelerator, the horn begins to sound. All the locals are comfortably deaf to this blare & it really doesn’t matter how much noise you make, no one budges! I was surprised to see an ambulance blaring its siren to deaf ears. Not a single vehicle moved aside to make way for the sick. What kind of heartless city was this? The entire journey was like a full speed roller coaster ride with me sitting nervously at the edge of my seat wondering whom we would knock off along the way. But amidst this thrill trip, I noticed that no one ever drove past any red light, no lanes crossed, no wrong overtaking & infact all vehicles on roads politely stopped well behind the zebra crossings; allowing pedestrians to cross safely. What a contrast in driving etiquettes.
Staying at a 5 star hotel is not what I really enjoy. Most often I find the smiles fake & décor too jazzy. The place I was booked, was no exception. There was no pretence by the staff to hide their frostiness or boredom on a Saturday evening. After a quick check in, I had decided to explore the nearby places by foot; just the way I like it. The first thing that struck me as I got onto the streets, was the number of smokers around. It felt like I was walking through a chimney & the strong odour made me nauseous.
Calcutta is famous for its sweets. And all along I had imagined that there would be atleast one sweet shop after every third shop where I could buy & taste all the local sweetmeats. Especially ‘mishti doi’ or sweet curd that they are famous for. I walked around for over an hour in the heat and humidity (even at 7 pm) & all I got was drenched in sweat. Not a single sweetmeat shop anywhere. Boy! Was I disappointed? I know all my friends from Calcutta are really proud of their city. Totally disappointed, I walked into a nearby restaurant called ‘Moulin Rouge’ & began texting my Bengali friends about how disappointed I was. The responses to my text in defence of their city was quick. Soon I had some names of shops nearby with directions.
As I sat in this restaurant waiting for my food, I noticed that the walls were used as canvas for paintings that seemed really old & slightly peeling, giving the place a very vintage feel. The curiosity got me chatting with the waiter who was serving our table & in the process got to know that he had just completed 27 years of serving at this place. No one really knew exactly how old the place was but said it has been around since the time of the British rule. There was an old man patiently playing the saxophone in one corner as we dined. Later, as we chatted at the exit, he said he has been playing music here for over 20 years. (Wow!)
With yummy food in my tummy, slowly my mood towards this city started to change. Post dinner I started off on another walk, this time with proper directions to the closest & very popular sweet shop – KC Das for my Mishti doi as dessert.
Next morning was a new day with new attitude. I walked again to Chowringhee road crossing the Indian Museum where the Ashoka Stupa is at display & then passing by the iconic Eden gardens to reach the sweet shop to pack some fresh sweets for my friends back home. As I walked past all the street stalls, I was reminded of the stalls we have back home at Mumbai near VT & Churchgate station. You could find everything here for sale, right from clothes, electronics, leather, jewellery to handicrafts. As I waited at the signal to cross the road, I felt secure under the vigilance of the traffic police who minded the speeding/honking traffic. I then had to wait some more for a tram to chug by and then a ‘tonga’ (a passenger carriage pulled by hand); not something you see commonly in other Metros. As I placed my order that morning, the clerk at the sweet shop asked me, if I had visited last night too, showing familiarity and an attempt to friendliness. No smile on the face yet, but the serious sober expression was not to be confused with inhospitality. This is the way the people were & it took me a while to understand that about them.
As I walked back to my hotel I could suddenly smell the city. Hear its sounds. See its colour. The heat, the humidity, the sweat, the colors of various merchandise, the crowded roads, the buzz of the local market, the old man in white dhoti selling ‘kurmurra’ (popped rice grains) at every corner, the kullad wala chai (tea served in earthen cups). The lazy Sunday Calcutta morning where every person on the street was discussing an upcoming cricket match as they lay their wares for sale or bargained at the shops already open. I couldn’t have enough & wished I could stay longer. Get just some more time here. But my flight was due. I sat in the cab with my nose out of the window, my hair flying scruffily, taking in how much I could & making a promise to myself & the city, to return & spend just some more time. Yes I was in love with this charming city, in less than 24 hours!