What do you do about a problem named Kolkata?
From the moment I rode out of the train station on the way to my hotel, I developed a love hate relationship with Calcutta/Kolkata. No matter how many pictures and movies I have seen in the past, they are no comparison to the impact of seeing the people living out their lives on the grubby streets of this city.
Upon arriving at my hotel, the Aafreen, Lonely Planet’s budget top pick, I knew I could not stay in this area or in this hotel. The staff was surly, the paint peeling off the walls and an ant family living in the woodwork, joined me on the bed as I took a short arrival rest. Immediately after the staff delivered my bags to my room, I got a cab and headed out to the Swiss Street area in the southern part of the city to check out Trip Advisor’s top pick of Kolkata guesthouses, the Bohdi Tree. It was more than anyone could wish for, in a section of the city where street trash was the exception rather than the rule. Here was this lovely enclave of only five rooms set within a former private home and art gallery. The room was over double the price from $20 to $45 a night, but it was lovely. There was WI FI in all the rooms and each was decorated with a different theme (I stayed the Bengali room), a staff that really tried to make me happy, and the frosting on the cake just, it was a couple of blocks from the Kolkata metro. Oddly I arrived without a reservation and they just happened to have a five-day opening. Eureka!
Grungy is the best adjective I can think of to describe the rest of Kolkata. Whether it’s the streets, the museums or most of the city. In the poorer neighborhoods around Sudder Street, Kolkata’s nearest to what could be called a backpackers’ area, the street people were rampid. Some live under black tarps, small protection from the elements, while others just live in the open. Covered or not, street people have placed nails in the walls and along fences on which they have strung a piece of rope for hanging their clothes and/or laundry. Faucets imbedded in small rectangular lipped areas on the sidewalks are large enough for two men hunkered down to take care of their morning libations; their soapy bath, brushing their teeth, washing, their hair. Seeing my camera, two men smiled and waved me over to take their pictures. People sat on stools along the street getting haircuts and beards trimmed.
Paan sellers called Paan Whallas sort large piles of leaves, sprinkle each with different favored essences, pack them with tobacco, then roll them to sell throughout the day to those who imbibe in the soporific addiction these rich green leaves gave to the chewers. Also called betel nut, not only does it give the chewer a relaxed high, it also stains their teeth brown with hints of red around the edges and over the long-term ruins their teeth.
Every so often on the sidewalk, I would see what I call a ‘pissarteriam,’ a three sided tile enclosure about shoulder high, built with the opened side backed to the rest of the sidewalk and the buildings, for people (I think only men but I’m not sure) to relief themselves. On the street side of every ‘pissarteriam,’ there was a metal plaque stating the name of the politician who provided the facility, his title or position in the government, generally a Councilor of a particular district. As political office holders can never let any political opportunity go to waste.
The next morning before checking out of the Aafreem, I took a couple of hours to photograph life on the streets around the Sudder Street enclave. Again, I found my pictures did not do justice to the horrible reality of theses peoples’ lives. Children naked or only wearing only bottoms playing a version of ‘Ring A Round the Rosy.’ People sleeping on the sidewalk where ever they found a spot to lie down a piece of cardboard or small blanket the size of their body. Women and children searching for scraps of wood they can use to make fires in their braziers along the street side of the sidewalks to cook the family meal. Makeshift food stalls where one can buy a chapatti, curry, or rice dish for a pittance. Dogs, lots of somewhat emaciated dogs, mostly brown and white, sleeping here or there, or off on some special business moving slowly because of the execrating heat.
Most people when they saw my camera, were thrilled to have their pictures taken, and loved seeing the outcome. Less than one percent demurred and would simply refuse, shield their face or turn their back. During the few instances when I was asked for money to take a picture, I didn’t take the shot.
Kolkata is the only place left in the whole world that still has human rickshaw pullers. Although the government has considered stopping this inhuman occupation, it is still a necessary evil because of the monsoons. During these periods of heavy rains the water is too deep in which to drive a car and the human rickshaw pullers are the only transportation available other than the metro.
Kolktata is considered India’s cultural center. And there is a decadent elegance to many of the old colonial buildings originally built by the British now left to decay by the Kolkata community. The Indian Museum building is in desperate need of repairs and even the displays are a shambles. Although I was told that the museum has it’s first ever curator (out from England), and it is going through the process of major repairs, it was a sad example of a museum. Not much work was happening, but there was scaffolding and one lone man was painting a wall within the building when I visited. There was also one air-conditioned room with a well-done modern museum display. The Academy of Modern Art was also closed because of a major theft and I was told they too have been bequeathed an amount of money from the government for repairs.
The Victoria Memorial is a lovely piece of architecture, with displays of the history of Calcutta. As Kolktata was the original base for the East India Company and eventually the first seat of the British Government in India, the pictures and information are really quite interesting. There are also rooms of poorly displayed paintings of little interest. Outside are beautiful gardens with large pools of water surrounding the whole edifice?
Neither the policemen nor the taxi drivers know where they are, and communication with each group is almost impossible. Street signs are rare, yet every taxi driver will tell you he knows exactly the location of your destination and regularly gets lost. Typical taxi adventure - destination the Marble Palace: the first taxi driver, not only chewed paan as he drove but also slowed down and talked on his cell phone to run up the meter while driving in the wrong direction. Eventually, when the car was at a stop light in the middle lane of a very busy main street, I simply left some money on the seat, got out and walked across lanes to the sidewalk. The second driver, who had the directions explicitly explained to him by two locals who spoke English and knew the area, and also set a rate of 50 rupees with the driver, passed the final turn to my destination. Then he stopped to ask directions from another man who fortunately (?) spoke English. Here he decided to raise the price to 100 rupees. After much conversation between themselves, the English speaking man ask my next destination and informed me that as a woman alone it was obvious that I would need this taxi driver’s services for the rest of the afternoon. At that, I got out of the taxi, handed the driver his 50 rupees and walked away leaving them both with shocked looks on their faces. Helpless female tourist I am not. Within ten minutes I found my destination was a left turn and a short walk of three blocks. I was there in a trice.
The communist party has been the elected government for thirty-seven years. I was told that prior to their coming to office, Kolkata was a financial powerhouse, while under communist leadership business and industry stagnated. In May of this year the communists were usurped and a socialist government was elected. From newspaper articles, I got the impression much of the city seems to have hopes for better times ahead. But isn’t this always the way with any new administration in any government.
I will return at least once more to see the few things I missed, the Kali Temple, the Harikrishna Center, the Botanical Gardens and the Park Street Cemetery. But as a regular stop, I think not.