9. Calcutta

So finally I have come to Calcutta – former capital of British India, site of notorious rebellions, the third largest city in India, with 15 million people, and home to the world’s longest-serving democratically elected Communist government (until they were ousted two years ago). As far as big Indian cities go, Calcutta has a reputation for being the safest and most laid back, and to some extent I can see why. But it’s still a rather exhausting place, especially with daytime temperatures rising above 30 degrees.

First, I should explain about the name: since 2001, the official name of this city has been “Kolkata”, which is apparently a more phonetically accurate spelling of Calcutta. I debated about which to use for the title of this blog, but I liked the visual alliteration of the later. I now feel well justified since coming here, as the Times of India, printed in “Kolkata”, comes with a tabloid supplement called the “Calcutta Times”. At some point since achieving independence, many streets here have also been renamed; as a result, the US Consulate is now humourously located on Ho Chi Minh street.

I arrived here via another overnight train, this time in Sleeper. We pulled in about an hour late, but the train brought me right into the heart of the city at Sealdah station. As usual, I chose to walk to where I was  staying, a possible miscalculation, as I had underestimated the sheer size of this place. Although it has nowhere near the bewildering craziness of Varanasi, Calcutta scales everything up a thousand-fold, including the level of inequality and in-your-face poverty.

It’s taken me a while to get into the rhythm here, and I’ve finally decided it’s because there are actually two distinct cities which overlap in the same physical space. On the one hand there is the upper/middle class city with shopping malls, coffee shops (more on that in a minute), restaurants, bars, taxi cabs and movie theaters. At the same time there is a second city of people who are basically living on the street, with little interaction between the two. From beggars to hand-drawn rickshaw pullers, there is a huge number of people living in very obvious poverty. Hand-pumped water spouts are widely distributed throughout he city, and it is quite common to see people bathing on the sidewalk. All the major streets are lined with a seemingly infinite supply of a handful of basic services – shoe-shiners, tea sellers, food vendors, and the occasional curbside barber. I’ve walked through whole districts where everyone was repairing motors by hand-winding copper wire. The most memorable example I’ve seen is a group of people painting an iron fence black, by hand (i.e. without paint-brushes).

Architecturally, the city feels like a cross between London and Kampala (or another third-world capital). Like many ex-colonial cities, Calcutta is dominated by somewhat dated monumental architecture, but the scale at which this city was envisioned is nearly incomprehensible, almost as if they were actually trying to create a second London or Paris. There is a distinct Victorian feel, and there are some quaint human-scale British flourishes, like old-fashioned mail boxes. Mostly though, this place is an ageing Modernist Utopian vision. Giant stone buildings that once housed insurance companies line massive boulevards six lanes wide, with railways running along the banks of the Hooghly river. Vast parklands stand mostly vacant, and huge traffic circles bring all of these worlds together in a great spiraling sprawl.

Here are a few examples of the monumental architecture:

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The following was taken in a park on the banks of the Hooghly, along with the accompanying audio track from a nearby loud-speaker:

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[audio http://www.dallascard.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/LS110065_waterside.ogg]

Unlike everywhere else I’ve been in India, in Calcutta, cars rule. In particular, the roads are dominated by a huge fleet of identical yellow taxi cabs that look something like old Bentleys. Apparently the actual make is the Hindustan Ambassador, “the king of Indian roads”.

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The city is also remarkably well-connected by public transit, with buses, streetcars, and even a subway, India’s first. The subway has just one line, but it only costs about ten cents to use, and like pretty much every other subway in the world, puts Toronto to shame : )

At the same time, however, this place can be rather unfriendly to pedestrians. The boulevards, businesses, and busy streets, make a high-speed Manhattan pace seem appropriate, but the heat, broken-up cobble-stone sidewalks, and slow-moving crowds force you to slow down. Police officers and lights ensure that the traffic takes turns at intersections, but cars which are turning apparently have priority over pedestrians, which can make crossing the road rather hazardous. And a couple of times I’ve been caught in the mazes of this urban planning nightmare, with only one endless path to follow between the fences, freeways, and monuments. (The most famous monument here is a memorial dedicated to Queen Victoria, which is, admittedly, quite lovely).

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Sadly, not much of the city is so well-preserved, with some parts of the city in a state of almost perpetual decay (due in part, I’m told, to a system of rent controls that has removed any incentive to conduct repairs). Admittedly, however, the crumbling facades can make for some rather photogenic buildings.

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Not surprisingly, Calcutta is considerably more expensive than elsewhere I’ve been in India, both in terms of restaurants and accommodation. Fortunately, there is a delightful selection of street food available, such as samosas (two for twenty cents, served in a leaf bowl), chai (milk tea for four cents, served in tiny little terracotta cups), and sugar cane juice, made using large hand-cranked grinding machines, with ginger and lime. It also seems to be a much more secular place, although there is still the odd Hindu shrine tucked away in corners of the city, and I was able to record this call to prayer from the roof of my guesthouse:

[audio http://www.dallascard.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/LS110070_rooftop.ogg]

Overall, however, the best experience I had in Calcutta was a cooking class with a Bengali woman in her home, organized by a small tour company run by two Australians. By necessity, it was a bit like a cooking-show, with much of the preparation done in advance, but it was a fantastic five-course meal (pakoras, chicken, fish, green-papaya curry, and a sweet tomato chutney) and I learned a lot. Things are already starting to blur together a bit in my mind, but it turns out a big part of the flavor comes from Mustard seed oil, which I don’t recall ever encountering in Canada (though I’m sure it’s out there). The best part, of course, was the chance to discuss everything besides food, including politics, religion, and family life. It turns out that my host has a daughter studying immunology in the US, who even spent some time at the University of Manitoba!

Now, I know what you all want to know. How was the coffee??? Well, I’m not quite sure how to say this, but it turns out that I may have come to the wrong part of the country. In retrospect, it should have been obvious. The British aren’t exactly known as coffee connoisseurs.  I just assumed, with Calcutta being the cultural and intellectual capital of India, that surely here would be coffee!

In fact, there were a few options. The wealthy Calcutta naturally has a few chain coffee shops, such as Cafe Coffee Day and Barista Lavazza, but these are basically Starbucks knock-offs, primarily serving large milk drinks, and not exactly what I had in mind. There is also one place, called Flurry’s, which despite sounding like an ice-cream shop, is actually a fantastic European-style coffee shop and confectionery with origins dating back to the 1920s, and fabulous art-deco interior. It, however, was very upmarket, costing almost as much as Canada for a comparable beverage. Moreover, it is unfortunately located at what has become the most touristy intersection of the city, right across from Music World, McDonalds, and KFC.

The greatest find, however, was the Indian Coffee House, located near the university. Although the coffee was absolutely tasteless, the ambiance was unbeatable. Founded by the government and later re-established as a worker-owned cooperative, the organization apparently has hundreds of branches throughout India. This location was a large echo-chamber filled mostly with students (plus a few tourists) and has apparently been a hotbed of literary and artistic activity throughout its history. The coffee costs about a quarter, and is served in little white cups, by waiters in white uniforms and unmistakable hats (which, I can only assume that they, as the owners, themselves voted for). Here’s some quick photos and a recording:

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[audio http://www.dallascard.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/LS110066_ICC1.ogg]

All things considered, I can’t really say that I found what I was looking for in Calcutta. Fortunately, I was able to learn during the cooking class that the right way to get the best coffee in India, is to go to the source, down to Kerala, where it’s grown. Everyone tells me that the South is already heating up, but checking the weather forecast, I see some 38 degree weather headed towards me, so I’m inclined to escape the city before it gets too hot, and take my chances in the South. So, with that, I say adieu to Calcutta, off to see what I can find in the former colonies of the Portuguese.

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5 thoughts on “9. Calcutta

  1. Beautiful! I l so oved this post Dallas! I can’t wait to hear about what you think of the South. I too loved the street chai when I visited India. I highly recommend trying out some paan (betel nut paste in a leaf that you chew and spit out). It’s really fun! 🙂

  2. Great story Dallas. You’re a natural journalist. Well done. I can almost taste the tastless coffee.
    Uncle Danny

  3. Fantastic Blog Dal! I look forward to seeing the new installments in my inbox. Too bad the coffee in Calcutta was such a let down.

  4. Another well written and very interesting Blog post, Dallas. I liked the Music especially. Happy Birthday and I hope you have an especially interesting and nice day! Love CUG/ Gary

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