Kolkata Day One

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.

Con­tin­ue to Kolkata, Day Two