Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) is one of the biggest cities in India, overcrowded and blighted by poverty. There are people living and sleeping on a great many of its streets, and there are squatters camps and slums literally made out of garbage in its poorer quarters. A high percentage of its grander buildings are crumbling relics of the British era, left unmaintained to the point that they look like they may collapse at any time.
It’s also one of the best places we’ve visited in India so far.
We absolutely love Kolkata! The place is dirt cheap, with some of the best and least expensive food we’ve had. Despite being a huge city, it’s amazingly friendly and easy to get around. Walking down random streets was one of our favorite things to do, and we really never felt the least bit nervous for our safety (but if you go there don’t be an idiot, it’s still a big city with the associated issues and I did see a couple people shooting up). The whole place is filled with moldering colonial buildings- even the relatively ritzy Park Street had its share of decrepit hulks- that provide an unusual but surprisingly nice ambiance of very faded grandeur.
It’s kind of hard to describe what makes Kolkata such a cool place; as our guidebook says, it’s a city that you feel more than anything. For me it is a combination of a lot of little things, from the yellow Ambassador cabs that are everywhere and are actually affordable (there are few auto rickshaws here), to the noticeably friendly nature of so many of the locals. Food also always has a big impact on how much we like a place, and Calcutta fares well. My favorites were the delicious fried “rolls” (sort of like a better version of a taco bell chalupa if you’re familiar with that specimen) filled with wonderful meats and veggies that you can buy all over town. Denae liked the fruit vendors that roam everywhere, and in fact we tried a bunch of different street food that was all far better than average.
I mentioned Park Street earlier; it’s sort of the nexus of fine dining and clubs and such for the city. We only went to one fancy restaurant, the apparently famous Peter Cat, and ordered a couple of their signature kebabs, cocktails and a beer- all fantastic- and were out of there for about $15 usd. We also went to a place called Flurys, which is a really cool art deco style bakery/cafe, where we’d sit and drink good but waayyy overpriced coffee looking out at the city from the huge windows. It felt like we were in a fancy place at some big city back in the states, and then a beggar would come tap on the window trying to get a few rupees from the rich folks inside. You’ll never forget you’re in India for long.
Kolkata was the headquarters of British India for a couple of centuries, and not far down Park Street from Flurys is the cemetery where a lot of the more important Brits-in-residence from that era are buried. The cemetery is filled with massive old gravestones and mausoleums, many with interesting inscriptions about the lives people lived here hundreds of years ago. It is an interesting and pretty, if vaguely spooky, place to wander around. Denae almost stepped on a huge snake that was sunning itself on a path here!
Another day we stopped by the Mother House, the resting place of Mother Teresa. Well, we tried to anyway, as when we showed up there were tons of cops and media people milling around, and the whole area was roped off and off limits. It turned out that the retired and apparently revered footballer (that’s soccer to you Americans) Maradona was in town and wanted to pay his respects to the Mother. We later read in the papers that Maradona caused a bit of a riot at the local stadium that was packed full of fans who came just to see him come out and wave and kick a ball around. Anyway the fans got overexcited and started throwing stuff, and Maradona walked out, leaving a lot of pissed off people in the stands. Personally I’d never heard of the guy before. The following day we returned to the Mother House, and this time we were able to go inside. Fittingly, it was a very simple place that displayed a few mementos from her life of helping the destitute. Mother Teresa’s tomb lies in the center of one of the larger rooms, and it too is a simple affair. It was an interesting and somewhat moving experience to be there next to the remains of such a well known and saintly figure.
Another big attraction in Kolkata is the Victoria Memorial, a grand monument to the former British queen and
“empress of India”. As you might expect with a building built by and dedicated to the colonial rulers, it’s not a universally loved structure, but when we went there were plenty of Indian tourists there gawking along with the westerners. The place is an amazing building and is surrounded by large and well-kept (by Indian standards) gardens that we enjoyed walking around. Inside there is also an interesting museum showcasing much of Kolkata’s history. The best part though was the large scale diorama showcasing a scene from an average Kolkata street a century or so ago… it looked exactly like it does now! Laborers wearing dhotis and head wraps, old looking buildings, it could have been a scene from 2009 in many parts of Kolkata, or many other places in the country. India has a tendency to feel like a time warp like that every now and then.
Anyway I haven’t described Kolkata’s allure very well, so you’ll just have to trust us that it was a really cool place. We were there for about five days and easily could have stayed longer (and I’d love to go back there someday), but we were itching to see southern India so we grabbed a seat on a nice 38 hour train down south.