Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Oh, Calcutta - Day 1!

I had heard a lot about this city. About how laidback it was. About, how it almost lived in another era, while the rest of the country raced ahead. About the famous sweets and the chaats that the city offered. And how fish is vegetarian in Calcutta!

Well, my recent trip to Calcutta, rounded off the only metropolitan city that I had not been to, in India. And it lived up to its reputation. Staying at Salt Lake City, going in the famous yellow taxis and the underground metro train and into the new and old city, was an experience in itself.

The city is very crowded though. But the difference between the rush in Calcutta and the rush I find in other Indian cities lies in the pressure that people place on themselves to have a life outside of office. People have time here, or, ensure that they create time for themselves and their loved ones. Of course, during winter the sun sets at 5 p.m., so that helps matters, as people get home really early. There did not seem to be a concept of long hours here and extensive high-pressure life. During the day, I found many people sitting along the maidan area and watching club cricket. This form and league of cricket is taken very seriously here, and many a punter is debated, discussed and disputed at these clubs. The grounds are massive too, much bigger than I am accustomed to seeing back home in Bangalore.

Perhaps the star attraction of the city is the Victoria Memorial (VM). A phenomenal architectural wonder that has a museum with flavours of sculpture, paintings, photographs, Indian freedom fighters, evolution of Calcutta. There is a tremendous amount of history in this building too - frames and sculptures of British rulers, kings, viceroys, etc don the ramparts of this museum at different spots. Some names I remember are Lord Curzon, Lord Dalhousie. The highlight of them all, is the fantastic sculpture of Queen Victoria - standing tall, with a bright smile and overlooking the entire museum, right from the centre of the main hall. Great sight. It almost made me wonder, how could such a good-looking woman, be part of such a brutal agenda to rule us for 180 years!

The VM is quite spectacular at dusk, and even better at night. It overlooks the horizon of downtown Calcutta in a manner of royalty, that I have possibly only seen in New Delhi at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Fantastic! And white marble, well-lit, in the evening, is a great sight!

Of course, my trip had its fair share of drama. I lost my cellphone! As I stood at the main gate of the VM and was busy clicking photographs, I guess my phone fell somewhere. Only after I got to the nearest railway station to get back to my guest house, did I realise that I had lost my 15 day old phone! So much for loving something so dearly in life - more often than not, it goes away from me. Sigh!

The drama didn't end with the lost phone. Given the recent coverage on the Bombay terror attacks, the last thing I ever wanted was my phone getting into the hands of some untoward elements in an alien city. So, I went up to the cops and reported the loss of my phone. They hardly spoke Hindi, and I didn't know a word of Bengali! It was quite amusing for me to speak Hindi slowly and try to get my point across to the cops. I have an observation about the cops, which I will write about later. Finally, I hopped onto the police van and went to the nearest police station and lodged an FIR, about the loss of my phone. It was such an old building, with even older furniture and files. No information technology in the Calcutta police forces, for sure!

In between all this, I must say that I had a good glimpse of modern Calcutta. I went around the maidan region, saw the famous Eden Gardens from the outside, the B.C.Roy Club House, and the Cricket Association of Bengal. Names that I had seen on television for years and which I had associated with the likes of Jagmohan Dalmiya and Saurav Ganguly. It was refreshing to see so many upcoming cricketers playing in the vicinity in the massive maidan region, trying to follow their heroes and make it to the top. I got the sincere feeling that this modern part of Calcutta strongly encouraged sports and had so many facilities for the club cricketers to display their wares, right outside the Eden Gardens. What was disappointing for me was the fact that I was not permitted into the Eden Gardens for the tourist visit. Of course, courtesy, the recent Bombay terror attacks. Anyway, just another one of those long-cherished things in my life, that didn't happen.

This part of Calcutta had corporate offices, five star hotels, small malls, restaurants, lounge bars, and a number of foreigners. My next stop was Park Street, which I felt was a striking replica of some of the main downtown areas in Bombay, like the Fort area. Old historical British buildings, head offices of famous companies, host of people running from pillar to post in the regular rush of their lives, roadside juice bars, famous landmarks such as St. Xaviers' College, Archbishop's Residence and so on. A mix of the old British life and the modern Calcutta, trying to put its best foot forward in a competitive world. I also felt that this was the only part of Calcutta that was possibly not affected so much by the crony socialism that the entire state of West Bengal is famous for. Maybe, I had the forward-looking eyes of the Indian youth, that this struck me. But, I am pretty sure that, this would be the observation that anyone makes about Park Street.

As I finally got back to Salt Lake City, trying to balance the rush on the metro and my need to be on time for a wedding reception at the Lake Club, I was greeted by the Calcutta traffic. Scores and scores of vehicles going from the expensive part of the city (Park Street & the like), to their respective homes. What was good about this traffic though was that it was free-flowing. The roads are quite wide in the main streets of Calcutta. Any average main road could accommodate 3-4 lanes at least.

On my return to the guest house, I quickly changed into my new red kurta and headed out to the Rowing Club, apparently, a famous landmark in the city. Took some time to get there, but, eventually did. Sprawling lake, and a fantastic setting to host a wedding reception. Thankfully, my friend had invited very few people, so it was not very crowded. I ended up being a topic of conversation, as nobody around had come in all the way from Bangalore! That made a few heads (read, Bengali girls!) bob towards me. I wasn't complaining, given that they were all looking so good! Enough number of them came over to me and mentioned that they were particularly appreciative of my trip all the way from Bangalore to Calcutta. I should thank my close friend for inviting me over, I guess!!:)

One thing I must say is that Bengalis are very proud people and their women take pains to look beautiful. The difference between the Calcutta version of beauty and the Delhi type of beauty is the natural flavour of these Bengalis. I never found even a single Bengali girl over-dressed, or smacked with a few litres of lipstick. They just seemed to be adept at carrying themselves very well, and their grace just added to the beauty. Maybe, just maybe, the fact that I found Bengali women more intellectual and possessing a good ability to carry on a conversation well, made them appeal to me a lot more!

Anyway, coming back to the reception, I made a couple of new friends there and we were talking about the recession and the politicians and the Bombay terror attacks. A couple of them were busy marketing the modernity of Calcutta in the form of a few interesting malls in the city, as a close competitor to Bangalore's growth story! Made for interesting conversation though.

I did not forget to have the famous rosagollas and sandesh sweets at the reception. Slurp! Simply terrific!

Move on to day 2 of my trip, in my next piece!

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