Friday, February 04, 2011

South Asia Diaries - Kolkata


I had always wanted to visit Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). Not only was it the birthplace of the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, it was a kind of Bizzaro World to me. Here was a land that spoke Bengali (or so I thought!), consisted of Bengali people that were neither Bangladeshi nor mostly Muslim - so I always wondered how similar or different it would be from Dhaka (or Bangladesh) that I knew so well.

We Bangladeshis also suffer from the greatest inferiority complex in the world - so you often hear of richer folks in Dhaka going to Kolkata for wedding shopping, or the "better" stuff in Dhaka markets claiming to be "Indian" - this is why I was curious to see what Kolkata would be like.

After our adventures in Dubai we barely made it to our flight. I slept the whole way through (except during the meal time when I thankfully woke up because someone on board was shouting at the flight attendant for giving him a vegetarian meal when - in his words - he was "strictly non-veg"), and we landed in Kolkata at around 8 in the morning.

I could see Kolkata from the air. It looked like a very green city. With that amount of greenery, you would think the city would not be very polluted, eh? How wrong I was!


To put it politely, Kolkata was as clean as a garbage dump. It is a huge city, much larger and much more populated than Dhaka, but boy was it dirty! Rubbish was thrown everywhere and litter was all around the streets as we drove into the main city centre.

My cousins lived near Park Circus, the main shopping area of Kolkata.


These buildings, viewed from the balcony of the place we were staying at, form a part of what is called a "colony". Kolkata is mostly a Hindu city of Bengali people, but the fact is most of the Muslims are Urdu-speaking. So not only are the Muslims a different religion than the majority (obviously), they also have their own language, customs and food. So the "Muslims" live in their own 'colonies' and you could walk through the whole place without hearing, having the need to speak, or eating anything, Bengali. Bengalis are famous for their fish, but it was a foreign food in the "Muslim" areas of Kolkata.

The rust bucket that was Kolkata's tram (streetcar)

Few things pissed me off about Kolkata, but the worst was how much a secondary language Bengali had become in this city. As a Bangladeshi, I am used to people loving the Bengali language and culture. The whole International Mother Language Day was in honour of the brave Bangladeshis who died defending their language. And here in Kolkata you have Bengalis who are loathe to speak Bengali! I went to shopping malls, urban centers, sweet shops, and all around the educated people prefer firstly to speak in either English or Urdu/Hindi. No wonder the cultural centre of Bengali has slowly shifted to Dhaka, with better music, albums, movies and natoks all coming from Bangladesh now.

One of the better things to see in Kolkata (and we were there mainly to attend some wedding events) is the Victoria Memorial - a memorial building dedicated to Victoria, one time Queen of the United Kingdom and Empress of India.






It's a great structure that has a huge park around it. Families were there in the evenings enjoying the day, and if you click on the picture with the lake and trees in front of the memorial, you will see that under each tree around the lake, there was an amorous couple! This seemed to be the spot for meeting your lover in secret. I was actually surprised as to how explicit these couples were in expressing their "love"!

Inside, where cameras were not allowed, was a museum with some British memorabilia, as well as swords from ancient times, copies of holy texts, paintings etc. And oh, at these places, never say you are a foreigner or they will charge you sky high prices! We went in as "locals" and paid the domestic rate :-)

Of course one famous thing in India was the food. Here was one such breakfast, specially prepared and sent to where we were staying by my aunts.

A typical Indian breakfast of roti, peas, alu bhaji and er, meat.

Seeing how filthy this city was, I refused to eat outside unlike my cousins, who taunted me that if you visit Kolkata, you must eat the phuchka and bhelpuri from the street vendor. They did, and I stuck to brand name restaurants.

Here's some food that I tried from Haldiram's, a famous eatery in the city.



A day after eating from a roadside vendor, my cousins fell sick, and I wanted to say "haha! I told you so!". But then guess what, I fell sick! Despite eating close to nothing (Oh, Kolkata was a great weight loss program I tell you) I still fell sick.

Moral? If you are in Kolkata, not only do you drink clean mineral water, avoid food as much as you can, breathe less when you go outside, you will still fall sick.

Of course, we were there for some weddings, and what fun we had! The most memorable memories of Kolkata would be 50 cousins in one room talking, playing charades, cards, and other games and having fun till late into the night. It has become fashionable for some people to make fun of the huge number of guests or the extravagant ceremonies of a desi wedding, but it's lot of fun, not to mention quite a colourful stuff.





Of course, no visit to Kolkata would be complete without visiting Howra, the famous bridge over the equally famous Hooghly river. We visited the area round evening, went for a ferry ride to the nearby Millennium Park (and that's being a local Kolkatan for you).

Birla Planetarium - a must see in Kolkata

The famous Howra bridge, the signature symbol of Kolkata

The extremely busy Howra rail station

The famous yellow Ambassador cabs of Kolkata

So what to make of Kolkata? I loved being with my relatives, and they made me feel very welcome. We had lots of fun and the wedding events were a blast. However, the dirty city was quite a shock.

Kolkata was also my first impression of India - and I was left wondering if the rest of India would be like this. Thankfully, Delhi and Agra went quite a bit into making a more favourable impression of India.

22 comments:

luckyfatima said...

It is sad to see how some of these once great cities are crumbling. Sorry about your health woes.

Who are the Urdu speaking Muslims in Kolkota? Biharis?
I believe in rural West Bengal you will find a lot of ghoti Bengali speaking Muslims who did not go to BD at partition.

Looking forward to your next posts!

Lat said...

Enjoyed the pics very much!

Why do you think the Bengal language is losing it's importance there? The media,status of hindi/urdu?

Makes me more grateful of the way my city is makes integration possible with different races.Here we are not allowed to segregate unlike in Malaysia or other larger countries,and as you say in Kolcatta.I see the wisdom in participating in different cultures and even learning to speak simple words of another language,promoting understanding and accepting tolerance.

The food does seems fine but you sick after that? Maybe it's the water?
The victoria building looks awesome and so does the bridge! Thanks for sharing!

mezba said...

@Luckyfatima, yes it is sad about Kolkata, especially when you compare it to other cities like Delhi, Bangalore etc. I think part of it has to do with the leftist government in the city, and their politics.

The Urdu speaking Muslims are from UP or Bihar, usually.

@Lat, when I was in there in Kolkata, it reminded me of being in Dubai. In UAE, you could be living there for 20 years and still not know Arabic, as that is not the language spoken by everyone. Dubai has an excuse as 80% of the people are non-Arab but that's not the case in Kolkata.

The fact that the non-Bengali minority has not integrated into the Bengali society does not bode well for the city - Kolkata seemed to be a collection of different communities that interact only when the kids go to school, it seems.

As for the sickness, Kolkata is really very dirty. And the air is very polluted and the water is indeed very, very bad.

Nadia said...

Wow, lovely pictures, Mezba! Specially love the ones you took of the Victoria Memorial!

And it looks like the wedding was really grand. Please post more pics on FB :)

About the language, maybe Kolkata can do something similar with whatever they're doing in Tamil Nadu. People there speak either Tamil or English. They're really proud of their language, and are very successful in preserving it.

My sister loves going to Kolkata at least twice a year for shopping. Did you guys buy kurtas and stuff?

Azra said...

Great pics as always. My mom and sis really want to visit India but honestly, it's not on my (very long) list of must-see-places. Unless of course, I get a free trip lol ;P

era said...

I never been to Calcutta but looking at the picture and description, it doesn’t seem much different from major city in BD (maybe even worst).

I can understand moving toward English or Hindi as there are too many language needed. Yes a person can learn multiple languages but u can’t expect that from a group. Not everyone wants to learn or is good at language. It is sort of like the Sylheti community here in west, kids are expected to learn: English, Sylheti Bangla and Shudho Bangla. But as we notice in UK and soon in USA, one of those Bangla gets skipped

Loginbd said...

WoW!.......fantastic post with some very beautiful pictures....

Anonymous said...

Which city did you and the wife like the most?

'liya

mezba said...

@Nadia, Victoria Memorial is a nice place and we were lucky to get nice weather and clear skies. And mashAllah the weddings (both of them) were quite grand (and in true desi style, thousands of people).

I heard the government in Kolkata banned English education in state schools in West Bengal some time ago (ironically to promote Bengali language), so all the people who wanted English education sent their kids out of state to boarding schools. They came back, and since they were the richer kids, the movers and shakers, and now they were all more comfortable in English than Bengali, and thus began the erosion of Bengali.

We got lots of kurtas and some shopping done in Kolkata, but personally I thought Delhi had much more variety.

@Azra, I have absolutely no desire to visit India except to see our relatives. To me it was pretty much a third world country with some first world stuff. I liked the historic stuff, but the rest, meh.

@Era, Kolkata is just like the dirtiest part of Dhaka.

I noticed amongst other communities in India that they were proud to speak their language (and English). But in Kolkata you have these ethnic ghettos where the local language and customs have all but disappeared.

Even the khutbah in a mosque was in Urdu!

@Loginbd, thanks!

@Liya, I have to say Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Amongst India, Kolkata was most fun because our cousins were there. For sightseeing it was Delhi and Agra. And Bangladesh is always good :-)

Misha said...

Great pics! The "strictly non-veg" thing made me laugh, haha.

Looking forwards to your next travel post!

Khalida said...

Beautiful photos, especially the Queen Victoria Memorial! The food looks wonderful. I've actually been looking for a legit Bangladeshi restaurant in Toronto, but no such luck yet.

sunehra said...

Great photos!

I've heard how filthy Calcutta is but nevertheless would love to go there someday.

Loginbd said...

Mezba did you see the first match of Cricket world cup in BD 2011???... Wanna see a post from you on world cup and the opening ceremony which is organize by BD..bye...

Nabeel's Cosmos said...

The pictures were awesome ... felt like a small trip to that city. So you guys don't spell it "Calcutta" ?

mezba said...

@Misha, haha yes, I could see a grin on many people's faces on that flight too. But you know, that guy was right. I don't know why Emirates (or Etihad) does it - they give you a choice of dinner but mostly the meat is taken by the time they get to the end rows. They should have enough for strictly 'non-veg' people.

@Khalida, hmm. I wish I could help you with the search for that Bangladeshi restaurant, but we don't go out for Bangladeshi food - eat that at home! :-P

You might find something on Danforth (Little Bangladesh) between Victoria and Main.

@Sunehra, thanks. Oh yes, it's very filthy. Do take some medicine with you before you go - they say everyone gets sick in Kolkata.

@Loginbd, ah - the Bangladesh cricket team. Less said about it the better. Being a fan of that team is bad for your health. And I just stayed up all night (here in Toronto) watching the Irish game (Bangladesh batting innings - 205 all out).

@Nabeel, I think "Calcutta" was the old spelling. It's now officially changed to "Kolkata".

Nabeel's Cosmos said...

I find the car decoration bearable, but the groom riding a horse, man I always found that uncomfortable. That's too much, I think.

mezba said...

Haha.. desi weddings are almost all over the top! I like it though.

Ekua said...

Oh Kolkata!I had a similar experience of seeing the green from the sky and getting excited, only to see how filthy it was! I was also there for a wedding! Looks like our trips were fairly similar, but I think you didn't have the Varanasi experience... I think Varanasi may have been dirtier than Kolkata and to add to that, everyone was soaking in the filth... quite possibly my least favorite city in the world!

mezba said...

Hi Ekua, welcome to the blog!

Sadly, I wasn't able to do Varanasi or a couple of other cities in India that I wanted; with two weddings to attend as family, our time for touring was severely restricted.

Mashriqi said...

Great travel posts. I just thought that I'd point out that Urdu is given great importance in West Bengal because Muslims have been discriminated against for a very long time, thus they seek to create a separate identity. Persian used to be the state language of Bengal for 500 years, now the main language for South Asian muslims is Urdu. The Bengalis in West Bengal have taken a very good step in this regard because cultivation of Urdu will allow them to integrate with Muslim communities all across India and Pakistan. Also, Urdu language contains a TREMENDOUS amount of Islamic literature and music, Bengali Islamic literature is minuscule compared to it. Learning Urdu grants one access to this treasure trove of Urdu that has been cultivated for centuries, even by non-Muslim authors. Whereas Bengali literary tradition is much more recent and all of its stalwarts excepting Qazi Nazar-ul-Islam are Hindu. Bengali Hindus, in partnership with the British, also altered the nature of Bengali centuries ago, removing the majority of Persian and Arabic that had been integrated into it.

Cultivation of Arabic would also be a great bonus, but I doubt the Hindu government there will take any steps in that direction. I wish Bangladeshis would follow in the footsteps of their West Bengali Muslim counterparts. We are Muslims first and foremost, ethno-linguistic identity is not that important in the larger scheme of things.

And Bengalis did not give their blood to preserve their language. A few protestors died in 1952 due to the idiocy of the Pakistan government and police. If Bengalis truly loved their language, the influence of Hindi and India would not be as all-pervasive as it is now. Neither is there much international recognition in the form of awards or readership that would attest to this great love Bengalis profess to have for their language. The international mother language day is almost a non-entity, people show the love for their language by producing great works of literature and music, take internationally recognized Pakistani bands such as Junoon and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for example, or the more recent "Coke Studio". When Bangladesh produces work of such caliber, then Bengalis can boast about their language.

mezba said...

Mashriqi, What a stupid comment, written by an Urdu-fascist who thinks Urdu is a language of Islam and Bengali is a language of Hindus. I will debunk all of your statements here.

Persian used to be the state language of Bengal for 500 years,

Not so. Bengali originated in 1000 BC from the tribe of Bang (check your encyclopedia). One of the earliest foreign references to Bengal is a mention of a land named Gangaridai by the Ancient Greeks around 100 BC. Even during the Mughal times enough of Bengal was independent and preserved Bengali as their language.

now the main language for South Asian muslims is Urdu

There are almost as many Bangladeshis as there are Pakistanis. Pakistan's current population is 169,708,300, of which not everyone is a speaker of Urdu, and certainly not everyone is Muslim (even though Pakistanis like to believe it). Bangladesh's population is 162,220,760, merely 7-8 million less, not counting the Muslim population of West Bengal, India. And certainly there are lots of other Muslims in India who do not speak Urdu (such as Kerala), so this fantasy of Urdu being an Islamic language or language of South Asian Muslims is just that - a fantasy.

The Bengalis in West Bengal have taken a very good step in this regard because cultivation of Urdu will allow them to integrate with Muslim communities all across India and Pakistan

Yea, the collapse of Pakistan was the best reply to the foolish theory that is Two-Nation Theory. Hindus and Muslims in Bangladesh live in peace, same as in India, yet for some reason Pakistan thinks every Muslim in South Asia is dying to join them.

Urdu language contains a TREMENDOUS amount of Islamic literature and music, Bengali Islamic literature is minuscule compared to it.

Quantity is not quality, my friend.

Whereas Bengali literary tradition is much more recent

Laughable statement, considering how old Bengali, Sanskrit etc. are, compared to Urdu which is more recent.

mezba said...

Mashriqi, continuing the reply ...

and all of its stalwarts excepting Qazi Nazar-ul-Islam are Hindu.

Trust me, we Bengalis care less about religion when evaluating a literary work. A Bengali muslim is as proud of Nazrul as he is of Tagore.

Bengali Hindus, in partnership with the British, also altered the nature of Bengali centuries ago, removing the majority of Persian and Arabic that had been integrated into it.

Of course, it won't be a statement without a conspiracy theory conveniently blaming the British without proof.

Cultivation of Arabic would also be a great bonus, but I doubt the Hindu government there will take any steps in that direction.

Yes of course, government should waste its time with language rather than taking care of people's basic needs.

I wish Bangladeshis would follow in the footsteps of their West Bengali Muslim counterparts. We are Muslims first and foremost, ethno-linguistic identity is not that important in the larger scheme of things.

By trying to learn Urdu? You contradict yourself now.

And Bengalis did not give their blood to preserve their language. A few protestors died in 1952 due to the idiocy of the Pakistan government and police.

Now I know you are Pakistani. As I wrote before, some of their favourite past times include trying to revision history.

If Bengalis truly loved their language, the influence of Hindi and India would not be as all-pervasive as it is now.

Have you been to Bangladesh? There may be Indian channels at everyone's house (and I am sure Pakistanis are more patriotic to PTV than Zee tv, yeah right), but people still love their language.

Neither is there much international recognition in the form of awards or readership that would attest to this great love Bengalis profess to have for their language.

Number of nobel prizes for a Bengali literature - 1 (Tagore).
Number of nobel prizes for an Urdu literature - 0.

Number of Oscars prizes for a Bengali film - 1 (Satyajit Ray).
Number of Oscars prizes for an Urdu film - 0.

The international mother language day is almost a non-entity

It's still there. Number of international languages recognized by UN for Urdu = 0.

people show the love for their language by producing great works of literature and music, take internationally recognized Pakistani bands such as Junoon and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for example, or the more recent "Coke Studio". When Bangladesh produces work of such caliber, then Bengalis can boast about their language.

Again, just because you don't know it, doesn't make it not famous. Nusrat and Junoon are only well known because they are big in India. It must rankle Pakistanis that their artists are big only when they make it big in India, and then they adopt India as their home.

We Bengalis have lots of famous artists (Runa Laila - known in Pakistan), Miles (whose music was copied by Anu Malik in "Murder"), bands such as LRB and Winnings are more famous in Kolkata than their own bands, and of course the music of Azom, Nazul, Tagore, are all known, as are the works of Satyajit Ray (an Oscar). Bengali actresses line up Bollywood (Kajol, Moonmoon to name a few).

Sayonara with your fantasies, pal.