Kolkata – West Bengal – “The city that time forgot, or the city that forgot time?”

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March 9th 2013
Published: March 9th 2013
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So it’s off on the travelling trail again after our 3 weeks (what seems like a holiday period) with Satish & his family. He even refused to take any contribution from us for the Ajanta & Ellora trip – just as well we had made some contribution to the petrol and food. He says it was a gift from Kaka – anyway to both of them and his family a heartfelt thanks for a fun experience.

We say goodbye to Satish at Pune station …. The train leaves 5 mins late for our 33 hour journey (aboard the Azad-Hind Express). Anupam doesn’t quite make it to see us off as he is stuck in Lectures at Uni so how Satish got home we are not sure as he was hoping for a lift on Anupam’s bike. Our guess was that he decided to walk the 10Km home – which proved the case when we spoke to him later.

The journey is pretty uneventful, the landscape much like anywhere else in north India. We seem to travel for hours in Maharashtra, then into Madhya Pradesh and into West Bengal. It does, however, give us a chance to catch up with “Life of Pi”, planning our trips to Japan & the Philippines, the blog (as we are way behind) and pig out on junk food we have stored up on for the train journey. The big challenge will be getting up at 3.30am, just before we get to Howrah station (journey’s end).

One thing we have to mention is the quality of service and cleanliness of the Central Indian Railways division. In all our travels by railway in India so far we have never come across the cleanliness of the toilets and the compartment and attention to customer service as in this trip. Cleaners came on at least at 4 stations along the way, cleared the bins, cleaned the toilets, the curtains were freshened and the compartment swept and swabbed – great work Central Railways and take a bow!

We arrive at 4.30am at Howrah station which is huge with 23 platforms. After queuing for a prepaid taxi ride (the only transport in town at this hour) in their special yellow Ambassador cabs, we set off for the hotel Esplanade Chambers at Chandni Chowk Road. (Cost Rs 90). The cabbie is not quite sure where this is (which is a feature of cabbies in Kolkata – no one seems to know the city streets well, they all ask for directions. One wonders how they became cabbies in the first place! They are also a law unto themselves - even the locals dislike them, surly and miserable most of the time and will rip you off at the drop of a hat). Anyhow, M’s Hindi and various stops to ask the early morning risers get us there where we wake the night porter and are shown our room which is clean and neat on the 3rd floor.

Howrah is beginning to bustle at 5am with teams of workers transporting goods across the Hooghly over the bridge – many carrying things on their heads. First impressions by M of Howrah Bridge as we cross it, is that it looks a lot smaller than he recalls it (when last seen at age 7). The Hotel area is shut with many people sleeping rough on the pavements – it seems like a way of life for them. We discover later that these are not beggars, more likely itinerant workers who sleep rough rather than spend the little they earn on a bed in a dingy hotel. This is a way of life they have “chosen” given the limited options available.

We take a short kip and are awoken by the staff making sure we don’t miss breakfast – great service. We decide to go walkabout to find the information office in BBD Bagh (was once Dalhousie Square – many roads in Kolkata have been renamed but we find that many locals still use the original Raj period names). The pavements are generally packed with food stalls and plenty of folk eating there. Some are more like mini restaurants with seating areas etc. And most of the food looks fab – daal, chapatis, chaat, rice – all the usual stuff plus a few stall just doing trays of fresh fruit, which we go for. Served with Masala sprinkled on top it’s not bad.

Also along the road side are plenty of water pipes constantly pouring out clean(ish) water. As well as being places for the food stalls to wash dishes, they are also places where many local folks (especially men) go for a wash/shower and to do their laundry.

We have a skype with Louise to catch up with news back home. She’s looking really well. And the news is good.

As time is getting on and we haven’t oriented sufficiently, we take a cab to “The Mothers House” – the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Theresa’s order) where we are to find out more about opportunities to volunteer. At the house is the tomb of Mother Theresa within a side room. The tomb is very large simple and peaceful, with a large beautiful rosary on it and some flowers. There are a few devotes kneeling and praying at the side of it. There are details of her life history around the room which makes interesting reading.

The presentation is in a room which suffers so much traffic noise you can’t hear yourself think let alone hear people speaking. The session is attended by at least 20 people – they get well supported by volunteers – all foreigners. We find that, unfortunately, they don’t need any volunteers at the project we had hoped to be involved with, so we decide to go away and think about it. What is evident is that the range of services provided by the sisters is enormous and even more surprising is their global operation ranging from the Middle East, to Africa to Europe and they even have projects in the UK!!

We have a bottle shop right next door to where we are staying so after enjoying a couple of (almost) cold Kingfishers, we head to Sabirs, a local Muslim restaurant near us. The area looks pretty run down at night and they certainly don’t get many foreigners there – and certainly not women! The service is crap and the biryani isn’t that brilliant so we put it down to experience and hit the sack. Next night we try Gypsy restaurant, which is right beneath us, and really only considered as it’s nearby and we’re too lazy to go further afield. Joy of joys! The kebabs are awesome and the curries great too – the prices even better - Rs 80 or 90 gets you a great curry, biryani or mixed Chowmein - portions are big as well, however, in keeping with the prevailing customer service tradition in Kolkata or so it seems, the waiters are all (bar one) surly, humourless, gormless & rude who insist on telling you what you want rather than waiting for you to decide what you would like to order!

Another good find nearby is the Broadway Hotel. We notice it has a large bar which is often busy (mainly with men). However we decide to go there for a cold one on Sunday when the beer shop shuts (as does half of Kolkata; even the Metro only opens at 2-00pm! Wow what a city & this is 2013). Fortunately they allow C in (the only woman in that day. On other occasions we notice a few more - mainly foreigners and on the last night a local woman – boy has she started a trend?). It’s a real throwback place. Simple tables, mirrored walls, a bit like a working man’s club in the 70’s. The menu has some good sounding fish dishes and as we see quite a few local folk eating there we try them out. Great food and good service too (at least from the guy serving us) and very reasonable prices. There seems to be a loyal following of regulars here mostly drinking Kingfisher Strong or whiskey and water by the glass full.

The next few days are spent leisurely exploring different sections of Kolkata (as we have 9 days here) and taking hundreds of pictures! We try out the metro service which is limited in terms of coverage but makes getting around the main sites easier, and doesn’t come with the crush and shoving of Delhi’s metro. The city also has a tram service – and it doesn’t look like the trams have been repaired or repainted for at least 40 years. Some are total rust buckets. But they add something to the photo’s, and it’s a pleasant and fun way to see other parts of the city. They also have hundreds of buses - large blue ones and smaller red ones that scurry around with ticket collectors shouting out the destination and people literally jumping on while they are on the move. Some of buses are quite new but many look like they have been rescued from the Bus graveyard somewhere in the city. Most of the time they are full to the rafters so we don’t give them a try.

So here are the highlights:

• Park street: A sort of Oxford street of Kolkata - where you can get awesome Hot Kathi Rolls (better than Nizam’s in Delhi), fancy cakes at Flury’s (which we do on Valentine’s Day) and a Jet airways office which handles our home flight alteration for just an admin fee.

• BBD Bagh – Dalhousie square – a small lake (called the Red Lake for some reason) palm fringed surrounded by a number of notable government buildings; The Writers building – now the local govt admin office, St Andrew’s church (straight out of Regent street in London to look at from the outside), the huge General Post office building, and some awaiting demolition (as is much of Kolkata). It’s also a busy commercial district during the working week and somewhat abandoned on the weekend.

• The Maidan (which means the playground). It houses the Eden Park cricket ground, which is India’s biggest Test venue. It plays host to Political rallies and is home to many sport clubs – a throwback to the Raj with cricket clubs galore. It stretches over a vast area and is home to many other attractions in different sections of the ground – see later.

• New Market and Hogg Street markets: This is near Esplanade Metro station: It has loads of street stalls, food places and a market selling anything you can think of including cuddly toys (being made in the street) for Valentine’s Day! The crowds are heaving most days except Sunday when it, like the rest of Kolkata, seems to shut down for the day. Its buildings are a throwback to the Raj.

• Sudder Street (next to New Market): a less impressive version of Khao Sarn Road (Thailand’s backpacker street) of Kolkata – with lots of tourist joints and hippies. There are a host of department stores and eating joints selling Kolkatas favourite street food – mainly India Biryanis, Chinese, Momos and various Indian snacks. It sort of merges with New market & Hogg street market. You see a lot more foreigners here – the rich ones stay at the Oberoi Grand nearby – see later.
• MG Road and the Howrah Bridge: There are small fruit stalls all along MG Road and very decrepit buildings. It reminds us of Old Delhi near Chandni Chowk. The bridge is packed with traffic even on a Sunday evening though not lit up unlike the new bridge built further down the river which looks like the bridge across the Bristol Channel on the way to Wales. It’s pretty picturesque and an icon of the city.

• Mullik Ghat Flower Market: just alongside the Howrah Bridge is a great, chaotic place to visit and take pictures. Most of the flowers are garlands for temple decorations but it’s a riot of colour stretched along the narrowest of passageways and over a footbridge over the old train line. Folk carry huge loads of flowers on their heads or hundreds of garlands around their shoulders; you do move!! In fact we’ve noticed that much the most common form of goods carrying “vehicle” is the human; either by bike rickshaw, hand cart or rickshaw or just a load on the head. Wherever you go, you see these folks transporting huge and heavy loads, weaving in and out of the traffic. The flower market naturally goes into the Ghat area where there are a host of devotes either praying in the local temples or having a dip in the Hooghly river. Meanwhile life goes on across the way at Howrah Station as it stands majestically across the way as ferries come and go with commuters. The Howrah bridge on the right is busy with traffic and what looks like a million people crossing all the time. The view of the bridge from here is pretty special.

• Kalighat: Is near one of the Metro stops and as we are in the area and everyone directs us to it as we are foreigners – they just assume we have come to visit it - we decide to give it a go. The Kali temple is an interesting structure with a colourful dome. It is within a walled area which is “policed” by the priests and Temple elders. Its shoes off and NO PHOTOS! The faithful come here in their throngs, spend a few minutes in the main hall with the Kali statue get a blessing and either go off happy or if in need of some favours go around to the small block next door where a holy many will take your money, bless a goat with it, say a few prayers and then take the goat to the inner sanctum – which one can see openly – and another holy man (a higher priest we assume) goes through a prayer ritual while the goat is blessed and stretched by 2 priests holding its legs (bleating for its life) over a section where the offering to the goddess Kali is about to be made. Then the high priest raises the axe and – off comes his head! Henry the Eighth would have been proud of the precision of it all. We learn that all the meat is cooked and served to local poor folk every day. The Temple is in a maze of alleyways and we are soon “picked up” by a helpful local who gives us a guided tour – in exchange for a donation to feed the poor and a tip for him! We then continue to where we actually came for – a local Bengali eatery which is small but quite famous with locals and cheap. See below.

• Gariahat Road area: quite a wealthy area apparently though not sure we can tell by the look of the place. Once we have weaved our way through a million colourful saree shops/stalls – all selling Banarsi silk sarees, we eventually come to the place we are looking for - The Bhojohari Manna restaurant for traditional Bengali food – fish, tiger prawns (size of ½ a lobster), potato and papaya curry, banana flower pod curry (yummy) and very sweet deserts; Misti Doi (yogurt & jaggery) a Kolkata speciality apart from fish dishes, Kathi rolls and Biryani we are told. Its great food and really inexpensive.
• Elgin Rd: We make the trip here specifically to try out Kewpies authentic Bengali food which is served in a room in the owner’s (chef’s) home; a bit up market but awesome food. We go for a mixed thali between us with an extra rice (Rs 775 so not cheap but quality great and quantity enough for lunch) with prawns, mutton and steamed fish curries, aubergine, veg curry, daal, poori’s and desert. So good we decide to book for Valentine’s Day, when again we have a great meal – two different thali’s this time and with different fish dishes all recommended by the owner. The place mats have cartoons of the owner and presumably family members – we can see the likenesses in some of those there.

• South of The Maidan: is St Pauls Cathedral which looks like a provincial church in England - painted white. It’s filled with tombs and memorials to Brits who lost their lives fighting in the various Raj era wars in India. Then on to Victoria Memorial – a cross between the real St Pauls and the White House! We didn’t go in as it’s getting late and the guide description isn’t inspiring for the Rs 500 we must pay so we settle instead to just pay Rs 4 to go into the gardens and walk around the place. The building is in white marble and quite impressive. The gardens aren’t too bad and are filled with young Indian couples courting and a few school kids on outings.

• Old China town: we spend an afternoon exploring what is now Old China Town (there is a new one a few Kms away with not much but Chinese eateries to see and talk about). It is a really interesting area and reminds one of what Calcutta would have looked like in years gone by. There isn’t a big Chinese community here anymore but in this area you can see the remnants in old shops, Chinese inscriptions on the walls, and temples and churches such as the Nam Soon church which is beautiful inside and an oasis of calm and tended by a 76 year old Darjeeling woman. Just outside it is a small industry where goat hair is sorted for stuffing chair cushions. It’s now a very run down area - many of the homes are still like hovels and in one area local folk seem to have “reclaimed” a garbage tip for shelters. It’s bleak and fascinating at the same time and is part of an area that is quite commercial.

• Oberoi Grand (used to be The Grand in the good old days): As Valentine’s Day is also John’s birthday, we have a skype with them, and Romi reminds M that the Grand hotel is where his mum used to go for dances when she lived here as a young army nurse. Obviously The Ministry of Sound of her day!! We decide to go be nosy and pay the place a visit. We apply the usual principle as with other fancy places in India – act like you own the place and as a foreigner, no matter how shabbily dressed, they will let you in with a smile and a big Namaste!! The Hotel is pretty nice and expensive with a lovely pool and garden area, but not as grand as The Imperial in Delhi or other Oberoi establishments we have seen. However, one can imagine the past as the rooms are beautiful and the flooring marble.

M hasn’t been to K since he was a child (first here when he was a 1 year old & later when 7) and still has some family here he hasn’t met before, so we head off to meet them – Cherryl (his cousin), Don her husband (a History and English teacher & now avid Cosmologist) and their daughter in law, Beth just turned 24 the day before we met. Sadly their son, Dean, a very talented comic artist died suddenly 15 months ago aged 29 while in Bangalore after 2 days high fever. We have a lovely few hours at their home over lunch sharing news of family and life in general.

Don supervises us on our return journey and we discover the secret of the Rickshaws in K and how they work; essentially they are shared cabs that ply certain routes for about R’s 7 per trip. You add the sections together to get to your destination (it takes us 2 rides to the Metro and a quarter of the cost of a cab).

Whilst travelling there we saw an area that reminded us of Thailand or various fishing villages in SE Asia. Around a small lake (full of water lilies) were lots of small shacks/houses built on bamboo stilts and with entrance ladders onto the lake. Presumably the homes of fishermen. Unfortunately we couldn’t stop for photo’s; it would have been a great place to explore.

We notice Holy statues are being erected in many places and see trucks and rickshaws carrying groups of folk, all dressed up, together with their statues heading across town. We are told this for Saraswati Puja this weekend, and the statues will be thrown into the Hooghly River – though we didn’t get to see it. Some folk dislike the idea as it pollutes the Hooghly River even more.

One enterprising Saddhu has a great idea for earning a living. He piles two deformed cows – all decorated and painted, into the back of a colourful cart (playing some holy music on loud speakers) and drives around town stopping periodically for the faithful to come make their offerings. Cash only – no credit cards or Amex accepted. A Mobile temple!!

We also notice that Friday afternoon see’s locals dressing up to go out for a stroll and to eat. The women wear very elaborate and beautiful silk Banarsi saris and the men wear more traditional long Kurtas and pyjamas or jeans and it looks great.

From the beginning we have noticed quite a heavy Police presence in K – in particular traffic cops who we often see fining people, although we do feel that folk (generally!) obey the traffic light system, and there is little evidence of people driving on the wrong side of the road. Most surprising of all is that there are no cows on the roads (or anywhere else for that matter) and the biggest menace seems to be the buses that veer all over the place in search of a fare or the slightest gap.

The weather tends to be hot and muggy in the mornings then gets overcast and cooler in the afternoons – pleasantly so. But on our final day it rains – a lot! So instead of our planned excursion to New Market we have a lazy day, catching up with this blog, lunch at Gypsy and finally dinner at Broadway before catching the cab to Shalimar train station(which is drab and basic) - across the new bridge this time - for the overnight train to Bhubaneswar leaving at 10.45pm.

We get back to Kolkata from Koraput via Bhubaneswar 5 days later and go back to the Esplanade Chambers for 2 nights before our flight to The Andamans which we are looking forward to. The pleasant surprise of the evening is that the Howrah Bridge is all lit up and looks pretty spectacular. Dinner is at Sabir’s as Gypsy has turned off the Tandoor (bummer). However, we are surprised again - the kebabs at Sabirs are awesome.

But first we have a last day in Kolkata and decide to do some needy shopping near New Market and have some chow at Brothers Café – the in place in the area. The food was really cheap (Mutton & Prawn fried rice + Chicken Momos) and very tasty – we’d recommend travellers to go there – it’s bustling with locals.

The day is hot and we go for a trip on the Ferry (Rs 5 each way per person) across the Hooghly with sunset views of the Howrah Bridge unfortunately not fully lit tonight but the ride is fun in an old rust bucket. We explore Howrah Station and head back for dinner - a mix of take outs from Sabirs and Gypsy.

After saying thanks and goodbye to Aftab, the manager, and all the team at Esplanade Chambers (they’ve been really good and we thoroughly recommend it as a place to stay – central, clean and cheap) we get a cab to the airport. The drive takes us through some areas we hadn’t explored – and wished we had! A lively street market is in full swing with lots of chickens and fish being dispatched to order and then “trimmed” using a curved blade fixed into a block of wood. It looks lethal and effective. M can remember a similar market from his childhood when he would go with his mother.

As we head away from the old city for our 20km journey, we travel through areas with high rise buildings and malls all around – very soulless and a million miles away from the faded splendour and decrepitude of Kolkata that we’d really quite liked – it gets to you.

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