A day behind the scenes in Kolkata

Kolkata, India. Yes. we have arrived at the place where it all began, now the principal commercial, cultural, and educational center of East India, considered to be the cultural capital of India, and nicknamed the “City of Joy.”

In the late 17th century, the three villages that predated Calcutta, as it was called until recently, were ruled by the Nawab of Bengal, who has the dubious distinction of having granted the East India Company a trading license in 1690. In 1793 the Company was strong enough to abolish local rule, and take control of the region. Under the company rule, and later under the British Raj, Calcutta served as the capital of British-held territories in India until 1911, when its perceived geographical disadvantages, combined with growing nationalism in Bengal, led to a shift of the capital to New Delhi.

So it has a long history of engagement with the British, and a long history of political activism. It has a different feel than other large cities we have visited in India – perhaps it has a more complicated past, which certainly shows up on its streets and in its architecture.

I was not in good walking condition today, so Don was out and about trying to navigate this new metropolis.

Here is his report:

This was a day for chores, made all the more complicated by a city that seems to run on a different set of rules than any other city we have visited in India. To begin with, Kolkata seems to actually have rules. This fact hit me in the face this morning when I left the hotel and expected to find an army of tuk-tuk drivers willing to take me anywhere, to find whatever I needed and wait for me to gather whatever I needed before racing me on to my next destination. Well, there were no tuk-tuks. In fact the city has a rule that no tuk-tuks are allowed in this part of the city.

I had my list of destinations — post office, clothing store, pharmacy, candy shop, etc. — and no one there to take me around for pennies. The hotel graciously offered to let me have the use of their uniformed driver and air-conditioned sedan to drive me around. But I am used to that rough-and-tumble tuk-tuk ride with a driver who knows where everything is — at the cheapest prices.

So, I started walking toward a specific destination and hoped that I would bump into other places on the way. Then, I noticed some other differences from all the other Indian cities we’ve been to:  no cows, dogs, or goats roaming around; there were actual traffic lights and pedestrian crosswalks that most people seemed to honor; very few motorbikes; less honking; real, seemingly regulated yellow cabs that seemed to respect meters; lots of shops and street vendors, but very little aggressive touting. Not to say that the scene is quiet by any means. Every inch of the sidewalks is filled with one type of street vendor or another.

I knew that my path was taking me by the most luxurious hotel in Kolkata — the Oberoi Grand. However, as I got closer to what I thought was the hotel’s location all I saw was an unbroken line of street vendors all bunched together under a covered block-long colonnade. It turns out that this colonnade marked the outer boundary of the Oberoi Grand with only a rather small entrance — a heavily guarded small doorway — into the luxury of the hotel. I was told later that the hotel has no rooms above the colonnade Interestingly, the hotel we are in, the LaLit Great Eastern, a recently renovated example of another grand hotel, has not renovated its facade and a colonnade similar to the one surrounding the Oberoi. If this hotel restored that colonnade, would it invite an expanded group of street vendors looking to co-opt the hotel’s prestige? Probably. The current entrance to this hotel is on a side street, facing a decrepit once-spectacular building from the British era.

In fact, we are staying in the middle of what was the center of British control of Kolkata, then Calcutta. Many old mansions and government buildings, including the post office, remain in varying stages of dereliction. There is a rickety tram that rumbles slowly around the area, now almost devoid of passengers but at one time probably served as the main transportation system for this British hub. The avenues are broad and there are large parks around the whole area.

I found most of what I was looking for.  A pharmacy — or chemist, as they are referred to here in the British lexicon — the post office and the clothing store. I needed to replace pants that were ruined by the laundry at the last hotel. That laundry mishap caused mortification among the staff at the hotel. The manager came to room with a timid and terrified laundry man slouched behind him to apologize for the damage caused and presented us with a boxed gift of tie, scarf and enameled cuff links as well as a credit on the entire laundry bill. (We felt sorry for the laundry guy. He trembled with remorse. We hope he didn’t lose his job.)

These were pants that I had to buy after losing a size after the Ayurvedic rejuvenation week. I’ve been able to keep at that size and had the confidence to throw away my old “fat” pants. With the ruined pair, that left me with one pair of pants.

Since we bought the new pants at a branch of the British chain Pepe Jeans in Goa, I knew exactly what I wanted and found a Pepe Jeans outlet here in Kolkata. I bought three pair this time, for a little bit of a back-up. The pants here cost $30 a pair. I doubt very much that they are that price in London or New York. We’ll check it out when we get to London.

We hope to get to explore more of Kolkata over the next several days. But Jo has suffered a knee issue that is taking us tomorrow to see a specialist recommended by her orthopedic doctor in New York. (Yes, on a Saturday.) We’re hoping that the doctor can find some procedure to allow us to continue on our travels with a minimum of pain. But I think there’s a new knee replacement operation in Jo’s near future.

Well, at least we know the drill on that process.

2 thoughts on “A day behind the scenes in Kolkata

  1. Sorry to hear Jo is in pain. Hopefully it is manageable till you return to your own doctor. I love Bengalis for their food, culture, misic, arts and literature. After all Rabindranath Tagore, the most revered poet/write/philosopher of India and a novel laureate came from Calcutta who is also responsible for writing and composing the national anthem. It has been ages since I was there.Hope you will get to try some really good Bengali foods.

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