Kolkata, for centuries the capital of British India and lumbered with the cruel ‘black hole’ tag, is one of our favourite Indian cities. Like others we really enjoyed – Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore – it has size, scale, history, chaos, and plenty to see and experience. But it also has that somewhat hard to define special quality; an energy, a vibe, which casts its unique spell and draws you into its web. And thus begins a love affair with Bengal state’s independently-spirited capital…
Kolkata was the final stop on our India odyssey this time around. Just like last time, when Mumbai was the end point, it is hard to maintain the go-go-go, as we call it, in those final days, when you know a lengthy chapter is coming to a close. Further, the dreaded lurgy I’d been battling on and off for weeks decided to make a valiant last stand.
The result, unfortunately, is that I spent the majority of our three days inside our hostel; hardly the best way to enjoy a huge city. So, this is more like a retrospective shout out to the glamorous old dame, because if there’s one thing I did get from my limited interaction this time around, it’s that she’s lost none of her allure.
Kolkata has an interesting history that, I think anyway, explains much about its contemporary setting. Before the Brits showed up, from 1690, Kalikata was a rural settlement amidst jungle and swamp. Aside from the hugely significant temple dedicated to the goddess Kali (still standing today), there was little else. The Empire did not sack and colonise an existing ancient city, but built its grand mini-London from the ground up.
Further along, in the late-19th century, a huge cultural renaissance took place among the emergent educated Bengali middle classes, and the desire for an independent India, free from the shackles of Empire, began to ferment.
This movement was galvanised by a British misstep in 1905, when they partitioned the state of Bengal in two. They were forced to backtrack six years later, but the damage was done, and the Brits moved the capital of colonial India to the ‘less troublesome’ New Delhi as a result.
Post-independence, Kolkata suffered immeasurably, as it was forced to absorb massive waves of Hindu refugees escaping East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Approximately four million arrived following partition in 1948, with the second wave arriving in the aftermath of the 1971 India-Pakistan war.
These influxes created the slums and massive outbreaks of disease and starvation, which created the enduring imagery that the city is still so closely associated with. Adding to the pain, the city’s port-led economy suffered with the loss of most of its hinterland falling behind the closed doors of East Pakistan.
This history has created a politically-active population. The city has certainly seen its share of civil unrest in the past fifty of so years, as its economy tried to adapt to these significant shifts and disruptions. From 1970 until 2011, state politics was dominated by leftist, mostly outwardly Marxist parties, and protests and civil movements were a fairly common feature during these turbulent years. In Kolkata, citizens having an active voice and using it loudly is part of its fabric.
So the upshot of Kolkata is that it is home to a politically-engaged, fiercely-independent, and socially-progressive citizenry (in relative terms), living in undoubtedly India’s most stunning colonial-era city. Like elsewhere, though, the winds of more recent development are also blowing through, creating a fascinating landscape-in-flux.
No other major city in India – aside from maybe Mumbai – provides such a delicious walking environment. There are the grand monuments and buildings, such as the Victoria Memorial, St. Paul’s cathedral and numerous other examples. But then there is also simply walking around areas like BBD Bagh, taking in the historical feast as you look upwards while navigating the chaos at street level, where hundreds of years of growth have crowded what we’re once no doubt spacious old boulevards. There are remnants of many old churches to be found here, illustrating the sheer variety of places from where traders came to ply their wares.
Add to this the frenetic markets in and around New Market, a veritable wonderland of bazaars, a wander around the old Chinatown (little of China remains, but it remains a fascinating area to explore), and the people-watching Mecca of the Maiden and riverfront parks alongside the iconic Howrah Bridge, and you can easily see days just melt away, and you still haven’t left the central city!
As well as its revolutionary heritage, Kolkata is highly regarded as a centre for arts and culture; its pedigree across multiple artforms is impressive. From literature, to music and dance, theatre and especially the Bengali School of Art that arose in the mid-19th century, the city is well known for its ‘furious creative energy’. We enjoyed visiting several institutions, like the Academy of Fine Arts, but there are a whole bunch around South City that will just have to wait for visit #3!
Kolkata’s creative energy extends into the cuisine, which is famous and distinctive in its own right: an emphasis on fish, mustard oil as a key frying medium, spicy dishes, and a love of sweets are key characteristics. Bengalis love to eat, and are famous for being particular and finicky about their food: certain foods for certain occasions, dishes served in particular orders, and so on.
Part of me loves this, the idea of creating elaborate rituals that draw focus to the process of eating. On the other hand, I’m just as easily drawn to a much more casual approach to food. Mood-dependant, I guess.
There are a number of dining institutions around the city that combine this love of eating with strong ties to a colonial past. Places like Peter Cat and Flury’s have been serving up their respective specialties for generations, and while I would most certainly be lying if I proclaimed them eating India highlights, they undoubtedly have a certain nostalgic place in people’s hearts, evidently for both locals and returning tourists, and are glimpses into rapidly receding eras.
On our first visit to Kolkata, we felt that residents, on the whole, gave an aura of being quite progressive by comparison to the rest of much more conservative India. It’s hard (even impossible) to quantify the truth of this, or not, but this observation was made primarily on the basis of two noticeable differences.
The first was the mere presence of women in everyday life, in far greater numbers than we’d seen elsewhere (up to that point). They were on the streets, taking lunch with their male colleagues, shopping, socialising, and were far more visually and vocally present than we were in general used to seeing (this was six years ago).
The second was more funny. All over India, walking through parks and temples complexes, we’d quite often spot young couples who, given the country’s social conservatism, were having to find secret and hidden corners to have private moments. It was like something out of an old Bollywood film, and it became something of a game to spot the deer-like glimpses.
Not so in Kolkata, where couples were cavorting much more openly, with no-one around seeming to be worried about the moral decline of the population. It wasn’t gross, but it was noticeable.
Other smaller observations added to this: young people dressed a little more daringly, wearing makeup and with hairstyles that again sometimes just seemed to be pushing the boundaries a little more. And lots of people smoking, including young women. A heinous habit for sure, but a behaviour that was again something quite noticeably different than other cities.
On this visit, our observations were supported by our roommate, a young Bangalorean on sabbatical. Getting ready to go out on the Saturday night, without prodding, he randomly commented that women in Kolkata are the most beautifully made up in India, but are hard to get close to; they aren’t easily impressed by the usual antics of men. Funnily enough, earlier that day I had been thinking to myself that you might say that women here are like the Romans of India, in how well dressed they often are.
It gives the impression that young women here are taught to be strong and independent, and to be proudly so; that the (still) usual notion of woman dowried to men, implying inferiority, is being rejected. And it leaves me to wonder if such a simple reason as gender politics helps to explain Kolkata’s unique culture?
India is a country where the role of women and gender-based violence (still) can leave you completely dumbfounded, aghast. You hear about things that seem completely unimaginable in a modern democracy.
Yet there are highly-educated pockets in many places across India.
So is it that Kolkata’s long history of valuing education, the arts, and political activism, and of doing so in a much more female-inclusive way, created a society that stands apart? Does the mere presence of women in public life create differences that ripples out into wider society and culture in profound and unimaginable ways? Should we be taking note?
In an era where this issue is ever increasingly being brought to the fore, and where it feels like democracies are so desperate for something new, something different than the bully boys who’ve been ruling the world since forever, it might just be enough to inspire hope. It may be a fool’s hope indeed, but I’d argue that all hope is a form of that, anyway.
I contemplated this as we caught our Uber to the overly-spacious, future-proofed airport.
Once out of that frenetic central concentration of energy, you hit the suburbs, where life is perhaps more mundane, a bit more conservative. However, racing through, along the elevated series of new flyovers, signs of that new change flooding into India are popping up all over.
Like nowhere else I’ve seen, India truly continues to live its past as it races at breakneck speed into its future. On the whole, the place has changed immeasurably in the six years between visits, and a lot of amazing progress has been made. Let’s hope it continues to manage the journey to come in a way that captures the best of where it’s come from, and for the benefit of all its many varied peoples.