Ask any Indian- or rather any urban, educated Indian- and he or she will tell you that India has five metropolises: Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Bangalore. And if the Indian you choose to question has a little bit of time to spare, he or she will probably also tell you that each of these cities has a distinct character all its own. In Delhi, it’s politics, administration and pollution all the way; in Mumbai, it’s business and film-making; Chennai is populated by the upwardly mobile, as is Bangalore, which is, more or less, the Indian equivalent of Silicon Valley. Coming to the question of Kolkata (or Calcutta, as most of the world still knows it), your Indian may take some time to decide; because assigning an off-the-shelf character to Kolkata is quite a task. Politics is important here (and despite the sleek brands and big stores on Park Street, Kolkata is the capital of one of India’s communist states: the state of Kerala holds the record for being home to the world’s first elected communist government, and right on Kerala’s heels followed West Bengal). Literature, and culture, and art- all are important here. As is fish, football, cricket, filmmaking, commerce… and so much more.
Kolkata has an ambience all its own. We landed on a cool morning in October, and traveling the stretch from the airport to Ballygunge, where we were to stay, was an experience in itself: the bright yellow taxi we took was ramshackle, and the driver drove like a lunatic, but Kolkata’s traffic was too dense and too slow for even him to make his way to Ballygunge in less than the hour we eventually took. Trams rattled slowly past, on gleaming lines which had half-disappeared between grass; men went past, their cycles loaded with green coconuts; a roadside barber vigorously rubbed alum on the freshly-shaven jaw of a customer. Rickshaw-pullers ran past, bare feet thudding on the tarred road; pools of water, some covered with a thick carpet of water hyacinth, stood alongside the highway- and we saw another day begin in Kolkata.
Kolkata has many faces- and that can be a bit surprising, considering the fact that this city, compared to many of India’s other big cities, isn’t that old. Where Delhi or Chennai claim a past of many centuries, Kolkata is just over two centuries old. An East India Company man, Job Charnock, is credited with having established Calcutta (as it was named by the British), and it was the British who made Calcutta what it is. They built Fort William here; they made this the base of their expeditions into the rest of India; and they eventually made Calcutta the capital of India (before it was shifted to Delhi, in 1911).
The British have gone, as have most of the Anglo-Indians who were an important part of Calcutta society till the 1960s; but even today, Kolkata retains more than a trace of its colonial past. While India’s other cities call their municipal divisions `wards’, Kolkata calls them `boroughs’. While Delhi has done away with Hastings Road and Curzon Road and renamed them after patriotic leaders, Kolkata sticks stubbornly to Entally, Royd Street, and Elliott Street- each of which have more visible signs of a Brit past. Walk down them- or Park Street, Jawaharlal Nehru Road and Mirza Ghalib Street- and you’ll see what I mean: shuttered wooden windows, Corinthian columns, arches, wrought iron balconies- they’re all there, well-preserved, well-kept.
There are, of course, the more prominent monuments to the past: the imposing Victoria Memorial, its pristine white marble surviving, almost miraculously, the pollution of nearly a century; Fort William itself; St Paul’s Church; St James’ Church (known by everyone around as the `Joda Girja’- the `Pair Church’, because of its twin spires); Chaplin Square, its main gate topped with a black dome in the shape of a distinctive bowler hat; and- not to be overlooked- Kolkata’s very own brand of English. Bengalis are among the best educated of India’s people, and English in Kolkata’s better schools is of a very high standard, but whoever writes the slogans on Kolkata’s walls, no matter with how good an intent, apparently needs a bit of help. "Hooking can land you in prison" will probably not make any sense to the average illiterate hooker- but it definitely provided some entertainment for us.
There is much that is dear to Kolkata and its people. Fish would be among the top ten; for any Bengali, no meal would be complete without fish, and Kolkata consumes thousands of tons of seafood every year. As high on the list as fish, is football. Where the rest of India worships cricket with a fervour which borders on fanaticism, Kolkata thrives on soccer- although in recent years, with India’s cricket team being captained by a Calcuttan, loyalties have shifted a bit.
`Adda’ is another of Kolkata’s big-time favourites. It’s a Kolkata classic, the name given to the almost-daily meeting of a group of men, usually at a neighbourhood teashop, to discuss everything from poetry and politics to literature and love. Adda is the life-blood of too many Calcuttans to die out completely, and despite television and other more contemporary forms of entertainment, adda survives. Like the Calcuttan’s love for sweets; like his enthusiastic celebration of the annual festival of Durga Puja, in October, when all of Kolkata holidays. Like his respect for illustrious Calcuttans of the past: Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore; film-maker Satyajit Ray; philosopher Raja Rammohan Roy; scientist Meghnad Saha, who first translated Einstein’s Theory of Relativity into English…yes, to list all of Kolkata’s best-loved people would require more than just a few pages. It would also probably require a visit of at least a month to come to understand this city really well.
If you’re in India, come to Kolkata: this is a city with a deliciously cosmopolitan feel to it, a charm and a quaintness which none of India’s other big cities can match.