Kolkata, a tang of sweat and car fumes, as a prepaid taxi takes the roulette out of arriving in a new city at night. A late check-in inspires a flurry of activity at the Broadway Hotel. The place is ramshackle, yet stately with a clanking manual lift – lovingly maintained – and a ground-floor whiskey bar beneath low-hanging ceiling fans. The kitchen has long closed, so the genial night manager sends a boy to bring me something from the street. He returns with two delicious curries, rice and naan, and I’m guided to the best room in the hotel, or at least the one with the least awful traffic noise, which means the room is only moderately cacophonous.
A good night’s sleep is followed by fair coffee in the bar, and a browse of the Calcutta Telegraph. I have always been a fan of Indian print media. This is a country that takes ideas seriously, with a healthy (if raucous) newspaper culture. In January 2016, the lead story was the suicide of a PhD student at the University of Hyderabad named Rohith Vemula. His tragic death had sparked new debate about institutional discrimination against Dalits and the OBCs (Other Backward Classes) of which Vemula belonged. Meanwhile, the lives, loves, crimes and misdemeanors of Bollywood superstars still dominated column inches. Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan were in court for wearing shoes inside a temple filming Big Boss 9…
Far though I was from dosa heartland, these savoury treats have long been my favourite Indian addiction, so I track down a famous southern eatery. After two dosai and some idli, I amble down Ganesh Chandra Avenue towards B.B.D. Bagh (formerly Dalhousie Square), built around a British water tank and surrounded by a cluster of colonial edifices. Kolkata, like Hanoi and Havana, is a city that has elevated imperial decay into an art form.
After wandering the square, I head towards the pastel-walled Portuguese Cathedral of the Most Holy Rosary, and then to the Magen David Synagogue.
Here, thousands of Baghdadi Jews once worshipped, yet their numbers have diminished to some twenty faithful. The synagogue is now all but overwhelmed by a largely Muslim marketplace surrounding it. I am the only visitor, and an old man emerges from the marketplace with the key to show me around.
Today (January 23rd) marks the anniversary of the birth of independence figure Subhas Chandra Bose, a man who remains beloved across swathes of India, yet controversial for ties to Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Bose saw Hitler and Hirohito as bulwarks against the British Empire. A procession of thousands of supporters marched through the streets, grinding Kolkata to a halt. As I wait for the throng to pass, a Bengali Brahmin nears to chat, and I hear the first of many whispered anti-Muslim and anti-migrant (read Bangladeshi) speeches during my time in West Bengal. As elsewhere in the world, social and economic woes are blamed on minorities, migrants and mysterious outsiders. Undoubtedly, Kolkata has endured much, and absorbed millions of refugees from Bangladesh during that country’s war for independence from (West) Pakistan. Australia breaks its moral compass over several hundred…
With the parade dissolving, I make for the markets near Sudder St. The Grand Oberoi watches over its own with machine guns, and everyone else just scrapes along outside. Then I catch a rickshaw along Alimuddin Street, a road lined with Muslim butchers, to reach the famous Motherhouse, from where Mother Teresa conducted her work in life and long continues after death. The famous Missionaries of Charity still wear their trademarked three-striped white saris, and weave among the pilgrims – adoring or just curious – as I sit for a moment of prayer in Teresa’s tomb.
Returning to the city proper, I dive into my first street-food experience. For less than a dollar I inhale two spicy chicken rolls smothered in red spices, herbs, onion and mystery sauce. Judging by the crowd, I’m not the only one who thinks this perhaps the most delicious thing in all Kolkata.
Satisfied, I wander back to my hotel, past groaning trams and buses that shudder through thousands of commuters and several herds of goats. Exhausted from so much walking I opt for early bed, so of course the businessmen in the next room decide to have a dance party. I finally fall asleep, and hardly stir until the call to prayer next day.