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.