An entirely different feel from metropolitan Delhi, Kolkata is a city of great character and decrepit, jungly beauty. Buildings are streaked black and brown from the heavy, annual monsoon. Trees, vines, and other greenery grow on, in, and out of crowded buildings. They emerge from the brickwork as a reminder of the power of nature. It is as though Kolkata was abandoned, taken back by nature, and then re-inhabited.
Re-inhabited beyond maximum capacity, that is. People are literally everywhere, padding along crumbling sidewalks, crouching in makeshift shelters, weaving through traffic, attending to the hundreds of sellers’ booths, and simply standing around chewing paan. The streets are lined with food vendors under colourful umbrellas, frying up jalebis, those bright orange, sweet squiggles; stirring temptingly delicious-smelling vats of yellow dhal to pour on rice; and waiting in front of pyramids of limes to squeeze a glass full for a thirsty customer. In front of every high end shop there are tables piled high with second-hand clothes for those who want to boast a purchase from the famous Park Street, but without such a high cost.
Roadways are jammed with yellow and black Ambassador taxis. Unlike Delhi, the Kolkata streets are occupied by very few personal vehicles; Kolkata is a poorer city.
And the people look beautiful. Women look perfect and traditional, wearing colourful, sparkly saris – even as they work – and men wear dhotis, a gingham cloth wrapped around the waist. Apart from the very poor, everyone over 25 sports a rice belly of some capacity, showing wealth and health, and smiles are abundant.
Bengalis are as friendly as they are beautiful. When we visited a sweet shop, the owner taught us the names of the sweets in Bengali. When we bought chai on the street, the chai wallah had me sit beside him on his little, wooden bench as I drank it and watched him make a fresh batch. When we passed the man who sold us paan the day before, he gave us a big head waggle to greet and acknowledge us. (Paan wallah.)
The climate feels truly tropical. The temperature is nearly 30C during these December days and the air is thick with humidity, leaving you sticky only minutes after you bathe.
We stayed three nights at the Fairlawn Hotel, a gorgeous, 300 year old mansion, built during Kolkata’s early colonial history. It is decorated with plants, flowers, and hanging vines. Even the furniture and walls are painted green to give the effect of a lush oasis in the urban jungle. The walls are covered floor to ceiling with bric-a-brac, including framed pictures of British royalty, representing nearly the entire lifespan of the 93 year old, British owner. India, in her words, allows her to “live like a queen!” Every morning, waiters in uniform serve a full English breakfast.
Our first day in the city was full. We walked miles to see Victoria Memorial, a white-washed, monumental structure that is richly decorated with sculptures and paintings. It truly looks like it belongs in England.(Front view.)
Our evening fit a very odd definition of a night on the town: big beers in our hotel’s garden lounge followed by rabies booster shots.(Dirt ‘Melia and her arch enemy chose to sit with us rather than anyone else in the crowded lounge. Dirt ‘Melia especially liked my stinky sandals and kept coming back for more.)
The next day, both suffering colds and backaches, we decided that we were just too tired for tourism.We spent most of our remaining time relaxing and recovering from our orphanage experience. I read a good chunk of City of Joy, a story of a struggling rickshaw puller, a “human horse”, in the 1980s. How saddening it was to read because, until arriving in Kolkata, I thought these instruments of abuse had been outlawed. But they haven’t.
When we weren’t sipping tea in the lounge or watching Downton Abbey, we were at one of the two restaurants we ate at daily: Fresh & Juicy and Blue Sky Cafe. We frequently filled ourselves with various vegetable curries, some sweet, some spicy, some creamy, some loaded with beans, some loaded with peas, and some even topped with sweetened, dried fruit. All completely delectable, we sopped them up with soft, aromatic, baked naan. We enjoyed their fabulous beverages as well, particularly the foam-topped, freshly squeezed orange juice that was the perfect balance of sweet and tart, and the fresh papaya-banana lassis (Indian yogurt smoothies) that were filled with seeds and sugar crystals you could crunch. The latter cost a mere dollar (63p).
We stayed our last day at the Baptist Mission Society guesthouse, which was fantastically clean and cheap, and was a three-minutes walk from Mother House, where Mother Teresa used to live, work, and now rests.
Mother House is a happy place; sisters in the famous white and blue saris laugh with each other as they go about their business and guests come to be inspired by Mother Teresa’s great example. Her grave was beautiful, decorated with marigold petals that spelled ‘All For Jesus’, and a little museum displayed her personal items, such as her Bible and her worn out, leather sandals. The museum’s walls were covered in brilliant quotes that show her exemplary love – a love that reflects Jesus’ own. A consistent theme she discussed throughout her life was that there are two types of poverty: one involving the lack of money and the presence of sickness, and another involving the lack of love and acceptance. As hope is just as important as health, Mother Teresa was concerned with both.
Thankful for our few days of rest, we said ‘dekha hobe!’ (see you later!) to Kolkata and made for the airport. It was time to leave the plains of India for the hills of its Northeast.