KOLKATA has had a bad press. Think of Kolkata – or Calcutta as most of us still know it – and you instantly see images of Mother Theresa, slum dwellers, squalor and beggars. In reality this is a fabulous city with some of the most glorious colonial buildings in Asia, smiling faces, superb cuisine, luxury hotels, vast green spaces and fun.
Kolkata is also more relaxed and less intimidating than the other big cities of India. It is also virtually tourist free. That is despite being the most fascinating for anyone interesting in British Imperial history and the development of modern India.
The city of Calcutta was the capital of India until December 1911 at the Delhi Durbar when George V and Queen Mary made the announcement that the administrative city was to be moved to make the vast Indian Empire easier to administer. It took a very long time for the city to get over the shock and some say it never has. But with that long British connection Kolkata boasts a fine set of 18th and 19th century mansions and gleaming white palatial official buildings, churches and even cemeteries. Life clearly did not grind to a halt in 1911 as the city also has a most incredible collection of art deco buildings although admittedly these are sadly crumbling away.
The centre of the old city and still the lungs of Kolkata is the vast open park, the Maidan, laid out on the edge of the Hooghly river, with its race course and polo grounds, the renowned Eden Gardens stadium plus goats and cows, kids playing cricket and gaudy horse drawn carriages. The Maidan is also home to the great Victoria Memorial building, a sort of British Raj Taj Mahal, although actually more like Belfast City Hall, all blindingly white marble domes. Its vast interior is home to a history of the city from the first traders to the independence movement in this city of intellectuals and artists. Young lovers canoodle in the grounds in what is still a very traditional society when it comes to that sort of thing.
Opposite, the first Anglican cathedral built in India, St Paul’s Cathedral has stunning Burne Jones windows is another gleaming white Indo-Gothic monument. A stroll away is St Andrew’s Kirk, built in 1918 and whose cemetery has the remains of more than 1,500 Scots. The monument erected to commemorate the Black Hole of Calcutta, by the way, has been moved to the grounds of St John’s Church.
Still surviving despite the corroding heat and monsoon rains are old cemeteries that tell of the hardships of the early settlers with tales of young girls sent out to find a husband amongst the ranks of clerks and soldiers only to die of tropical disease alongside the innumerable memorials to those lost at sea in the endless trading back to the motherland. A British graveyard in the sun but with some huge memorials, from pyramids to Greek temples, many now home to a family with beds and cooking pots.
But back to that bad press. This India so Kolkata has its startling contrast between rich and poor, ancient and modern. New purpose-built cities are springing up as centres of high tech industries while the city centre is home to almost a million refugees from nearby Bangladesh.
You can tell a poorer area by the activity on the pavement from people cooking their lunch on a charcoal stove next to a man repairing one of the ubiquitous yellow Ambassador taxi cabs with the engine dangling precarious over the diners whilst a herd of goats look on. These are some of the luckier ones. Some street dwellers spend their entire lives on the pavements with maybe a tarpaulin for shelter.
But this is also a joyful city. Happy little boys, barefoot in shorts and T-shirts trot past arms entwined walk the streets like the girls from Sex in the City, only to be shooed away if they try to enter an air-conditioned building. We know from Slumdog Millionaire not to give money to children anywhere in India but you can’t resist giving a bar of chocolate.
Our Archers Direct tour provided a most remarkable guide for Kolkata who not only poured forth a wealth of information, anecdotes and charm but also tailored his itinerary to meet our group’s interests while taking us to places we would simply have missed.
The Howrah Bridge is a landmark of the city, but the streets under its girders is host to a vibrant flower market in a maze of small shacks where jasmine buds and saffron marigolds are threaded into garlands and the best flowers are packed off to the big hotels to adorn your table at lunch.
On the bridge, a man is telling fortunes – a bird in a cage hops out and picks out a bit of paper with your fortune neatly typed out – a cryptic paragraph with a dire warning about some accident or misfortune. The fortune-teller is quick to sell you a lucky ring with your special stone designed to ward off that precise calamity.
On the riverbanks huge figures of gods and goddesses are moulded out of the sacred river mud. The rows of identical goddesses, full-bodied and grey, are left out to dry before they are painted and look like mannequins for an outsized clothes shop. They will be ceremoniously taken back into the river at the next religious festival for genuine recycling.
A trip to the famous Indian Museum reveals that the locals are particularly interested in Egyptology – though this may have something to do with the fact that the Egyptian room is the only room with air-conditioning and the temperature was well over 40 degrees. We suddenly also become mummified.
Sampling local transport is a part of any holiday. We took a local ferry up the river, more for a chance to enjoy the cool breeze on the water than because we wanted to go anywhere. The river, like the streets, is thriving with activity with people taking a ceremonial morning bath, kids splashing and everyone cooling off in the murky water.
Along the river, there are places for cremations sited so the ashes can be floated onto the next tide, a far cry from the old cemeteries of the Raj. We could not resist the battered old trams and having found a route that did not leave us stranded in a suburb with no hope of return and having rehearsed the death-defying leap required to board the not-quite stopping trams, only to be told off for attempting the feat by a charming and concerned old man, we found ourselves sitting is a quiet part of the carriage to rummage for the coins and negotiate buying the fare.
It took three stops to realise that the funny looks were because we were sat in the women-only section, with a group of sari-clad sisters before we scuttled back to the male seats. We were baffled why locals just say take a taxi whenever you ask directions until you discover taxis cost about 50p for a trip across the city in the ubiquitous yellow cabs complete with cheery driver and a wound-down window.
Along the main street, the wide pavement accommodates an endless row of make-shift shelters with a little cooker and a pinned-up menu selling plates of rice and curries, breads and wraps, fruit and thick sickly Cha served in clay cups that are discarded in their millions.
Washing up takes place in a bucket behind the stall amongst the busy traffic. It is really quite tempting to order a plate or two but instead we retreat to the luxurious Taj Bengal hotel, a truly welcome oasis of calm in the frantic city, with cooling dip in the pool watching birds swooping from trees to balcony gardens and charming waiters bringing a colder Tiger beer to bring the body temperature back down to merely boiling.
Rather than stall food and plated washed in buckets of water we were grateful to be able to sample truly outstanding Bengal cuisine in the Taj’s Indian restaurant complete with its Bengal frontier style decor, a cross between the Alamo and Carry on up the Khyber. The food was, of course, excellent.