If you are visiting Kolkata for the first time, you are probably coming by train, as I did, and arriving at Howrah station. The sight that greets you is a teeming multitude, reminiscent of a Mrinal Sen film, and it overwhelms you.
Now you encounter the serpentine queue for the taxi, and the argumentative Indian venting forth in vociferous Bengali. Daunted by the sight of the immobile traffic you remember the unsolicited advice of your garrulous co passengers on the train, and follow the signs and the bustling junta to the Ghats, to take the ferry across to the city proper. The bracing breeze and wide expanse of water revives you and you are ready to face the city of many epithets; Kipling’s ‘City of Dreadful nights, RGs Dying City, Grass’s Show your Tongue, or La’pieres’s City of Joy’.
The initial confusion with the cacophony of the crowds, the exasperating traffic, and the congested bewildering urban sprawl slowly gives way to its seductive charms.
The ‘Bhadralok’ gentry, soft spoken and mild mannered as long as you did not oppose their favourite football team, be it Brazil or Mohan Bagan, or political party, or dada as in Sourav, is a most helpful if rather voluble species, and will make you an honorary Calcatian. Of course, if you have learnt a few words of Bangla, and profess a liking for Bengali food, sweets and Rabindrasangeet, the city is yours.
The theatre scene is fabulous, and tickets for class acts are dirt-cheap. Ditto the music scene, whether Bangla or Hindustani classical. The street food is cheaper than anything other than the MPs canteen in the parliament, and it beats anything available anywhere in the country. Only Bangkok can compare in the variety and taste.
The office goer’s pubs in Dharmatolla are budget and people friendly, and shared tables leads to bonding with all and sundry. There are peculiar treats to be had, like the Chinese breakfast bazaar at Dalhousie, exotic oriental cuisine in china town, Burmese dhabas, Armenian churches, Buddhist pagodas and Jewish Synagogues popping up in the most unexpected places. The crumbling imperial buildings of Dalhousie are architectural landmarks in sad disrepair, and the pseudo Gothic married to opulent oriental palaces in North Kolkata seem funny, heroic and tragic at the same time.
If cities could be compared to women, this is the impression I gather.
Kolkata is the ageing courtesan, captivating in her youth, now sadly past, trying halfheartedly to hold on to her old glory, not quite succeeding , but barely concealing her heart of gold behind a faux haughty facade. And you are madly in love with her
This is why, Bengali or not, anyone who has lived in Kolkata for a while, becomes an honorary Kolkatan, and you can take him out of Kolkata, but cannot exorcise the Kolkata out of him