Since many years I wanted to visit the city of joy. Being in India ever and ever again, I somehow always missed out on the City of Joy. So finally having a few days to myself in Thailand, I decided to just give it a try and hop over to Calcutta, or Kolkata, as they like to call it now. It just takes two hours to fly from Bangkok to the capital city of West Bengal and since you arrive in the middle of the night and no one else does, I was out and in my car in 15 minutes, having only hand luggage to carry. I had ordered a car from the Oberoi Grand in advance since I hate to hassle about Taxis and fares in India. And was surprised already how different of what I had in mind this city really was. No one sleeping on the sidewalks, clean houses and decent streets, was this the city of joy I had come to see?
Well, the Grand, not being so Grand anymore, is very conveniently located in the middle of colonial Calcutta. Anything I wanted to do, I could do by walking, which is what I prefer if I want to get to know a city. So after a not to good night’s sleep and a very noisy breakfast I headed off to see Victoria’s greatest monument worldwide. Which proofed not an easy task as on this day the whole city was in uproar because the Prime Minister of India was supposed to open the India Museum which had its 200ds birthday on this particular day unfortunately. Streets hwre completely empty, Police was everywhere and as I could cross the street just in front of the Oberoi, I was made lots of detours by non English speaking policeman and security staff. Walking in between lots of Cricketers and bystanders I finally saw the grand Cupola crowning the famous monument, found it open, if I paid ten times as much as an Indian had to (if we would do this in Germany we would still be called NazisJ), and I entered the premises full of silly flowers and flowerbeds, so un-Indian as far as it can get. Whilst Indian visitors want to have a look inside, I was happy just saying hello to the old queen, which always reminds me of my cousin so much ( 150 by 150 by 150 being the measures of both those adorable women), the statue was casted once and for all in the same manner for all the British Empire, so once you have seen her, you don’t have to bother again. But Edward came as a surprise, high on horse with the inscription Emperor of India, well, the poor bloke had to wait long enough for that honor. Lord Curzon also still haunts the promises, In guess without him the Taj Mahal would have fallen into crumbles sooner or later.
So much for the British, huge trees and some nasty Indian magpies, off to more of Kolkata. Saint Paul forbade me to take pictures so I just left this ancient building on my way and went to the backstreets, very soon realizing, that all Indian cities go through the same wonderful reorganization and beautification which somehow never leads to any result. All of the streets are ripped open in the same time, loose cables hanging over the dusty tree branches, roots dangling in the air, people climbing over the rubble and dust without any complaints, I guess they are so used to it. Modern malls and old colonial villas line the streets, at the end of my walk I bowed to a strange and not very convincing statue or bust of famous Mother Theresa, the only famous Albanian of modern times next to Enver Hoxha. I have reached Park Street, a wonderful thoroughfare of ancient domed buildings and charming atmosphere, here Calcutta of the old shows all its grandeur. Between McDonalds and Le bon Pain are bookshops, little boutiques and restaurants and you can somehow not believe that just again five walking minutes from here you are entangled in streets looking like mediaeval Lahore. Bearded Muslims pul the only man drawn Rickshaws left in this world, slightly veiled women balance their belongings on their knees, trying not to fall out when the vehicle stops at the next encounter with some yellow wild taxi.
Kids playing on the roads, performing some kind of private circus acts, women sorting out laundry, all and every balcony, pole and electricity rod is full of laundry left to dry or whatever. A strange gate, showing seven bowler headed figures of Charlie Chaplin are also drawn into the laundry game, bags hanging from their ears and shoulders. But the very best is the hotels, which show up everywhere and look like some bad leftovers of a kind of gold rush period in the wildest of Alaska. The Mayfair, the Royal, somehow you really don’t want to know how their rooms look like. The dancing lady in front of the Hotel Raunak performs every day of my stay, to nobodies attention. I guess, people who come to buy and bargain at the nearby Sir Stewart Hogg Market stay in these fine establishments and keep them alive. Alive the market is, but today is Sunday so the main action goes on in the surrounding lanes. Packed with people, clothes, juice shops and small eateries they are a sight in itself, just five minutes behind the Oberoi which is obviously not what it was when Edward bore the crown.
I continued walking and behind the market streets became calmer. Strange and not known to me where the baths in the middle of streets, men performing all kind of bathing rites and washing duties to themselves, their rickshaws and clothes. Imagine, this is the only way to keep clean, do the daily routine you are used to. No covered bathroom, no privacy, no nothing, Just a loincloth and hopefully a good sense of humor. And the ability to overlook life’s difficulties day after day. Why did I have the feeling, that the Prime Minister of India did not pass these roads in the morning?
The rumbling old wooden streetcar or tram would be the treasure of any traffic museum in the world, here it is a living memorial of time gone by. Lovely, old and still going strong. Matching the beautiful facades of the old houses, never whitewashed, never repaired, stoically beating the daily challenges of not collapsing. Wonderful details, great impressions, the India I have learned so much. Somehow it all reminds me of Cairo. I feel at home, thinking of how it would be to have a flat in one of these crumbling wonderful old buildings. With bathroom, please, even if you have to wait for hours for the water to come.
When I return to the Oberoi and its surroundings the poles and fences are gone, so are the politicians. Traffic is back to normal and I need a rest. Kolkata is tiring and it is creeping under your skin. Like all the great cities. Mumbai, Delhi, Cairo. Like real cities, like those, we don’t have in the west…
Day two was different. As I had discovered last night, the colonial parts of the city, those around the old water tank, are fully intact, great old formal buildings all around, domed post offices and ministries, the seat of Government, they where all to the other side of Victoria’s useless helmet. So is Saint Johns, the oldest Cathedral and Church of Calcutta. Some few monuments of the past dot her Garden, so does an English couple, visiting. The streets, all closed in with blue and white iron fences of great beauty lead to the Hooghly river, one of the arms of the Ganges, which leaves India through the great Sundabarns Delta. Great iron bridges give way to the other bank, the murky water holds old rusty ferry boats and along its banks are some gardens, where I have to pay five rupees to get into. The walk does not last long, the garden is all fences up on its other side so a walk over the train tracks is a must and following further old houses I by instinct cross a road and find myself in the intended goal of the day, the most spectacular sight of good old Calcutta.
Under or near the great Hooghly bridge is the famous flower market of the city, where hundreds of people sell thousands of colorful garlands which will find their way from here to the hundreds of shrines and altars of this great city. A small bridge over those tracks carries the masses to the real market, by no means this bridge would have survived anywhere else but in India or may be Egypt. Being on top of it allows you to see the action going on below, no other foreigner by near or far, it has the feeling of the great Kumbh Mela I had visited in February of this same year. No pushes, no screams, all kind of civilized movements of hundreds of people, day by day they come and buy, sell, live along the tracks, work here or bathe at the nearby Ghats or riverbanks. An underground passage gives way to a small temple, garland covered goddesses smile at the visitors, without these Gods there would not be a flower market of this size in Kolkata.
I love cemeteries. So when I read about the South Park Street cemetery I knew I had to visit. It is easy to find, just follow Park Street past the Mother Theresa statue for another mile, then you will see grey domes and spires under palm trees and behind a grey wall. The entrance is still impressive, a small replica of the gate to La Recoleta in Buenos Aires somehow. It indeed has the same outlet, square ground with four main axes dividing it into four smaller squares. And those squares are magical fairy dancing grounds and hideouts for the loving youth of Calcutta. Sneaking behind the tombs and temple like structures you are always unwillingly bumping into giggling girls or couples, some holding hands, some pretend to discuss British grave art. The guardian also has his good time, chasing the lovebirds and telling them not to sit on the graves but to use the benches provided. Giggling again occurs, whilst they are slowly trying to escape the shadow of that spinster guardian. What a romantic place for first time hugs and feelings.
The dead would have been annoyed, I guess, being the victims of Georgian Etiquette, but now what remains is only names, dust and shadows on the crumbling walls of towers, pyramids and Dracula style coffins. Bush is everywhere, so are the nasty crows, who give the hole place a feel of English countryside on a wintery day. There calls are everywhere, but your delousing departs as soon as the Muezzin of the green mosque visible over the cemetery walls calls for prayer. Imagine, the cemetery of people who never wanted to come here in the first place, who died here involved deeply in their duties to their beloved homeland, not wanted by none and finally left to rest in the shadow of a mosque. I envy the Indians for never having ever giving way to hate after the British left. They maintain this little oasis of Colonialism as if they had the British invited to rule India. Imazing…
So what was left for me to do in Kolkata. Temples? No, I know the old and beautiful temples of India one by one, so why bother with modern and mostly kitschy outcomes of modernist architects who will never reach their ancestors skills. And do I really want to see goats slaughtered all for the Goddess Kali? No. But my reason to wanting to see Calcutta a long time ago was the famous Indian Museum. So when or rather after I booked my ticket and I found out, that the museum was closed, I was quite disappointed. Luckily and without my doing Thai had changed the flights and I had to push my stay one day forward which now proofed to be more than good luck. Since Manmohan Singh had reopened the Museum I only had to wait until Tuesday to visit this holy place of Indians archeological treasures. Tuesday it was and since the museum is only about five minutes walking from the Hotel, I was there in n o time. That is, I was at the end of a very long line of people, all beautifully dressed up today (it was the day of the Goddess Saraswathi, so all young people dress up very nice and traditionally) and ready also, to revisit their museum. I was rather stunned to see this long queue but it proofed that it did not take long to get inside the building. Here, like everywhere in India I had to face the same ridiculous pricing policy and paid my 150 rupees to get inside. (Indians pay 10 Rupees). And there I was, stunned from the beginning.
Half of the building was absolutely not finished and the outside also looked like a reason to close it for restoration but well, this is India. If the time had come to reopen it, it had come and nothing could have been done about it (at least not without causing a scandal). But some things had improved, so had the famous Bharhut Gallery. The Bharhut Stupa is one of the three great ancient Stupas of India, from the times when nobody would dare to show a face of the Enlightened and Buddha was never shown in person. The surprise comes with the Iranian influence, like Mesopotamian standard bearers, winged creatures, Persian faces of the guardians. Sad that for the Indian visitors the place was only background for the pictures they took from themselves on their mobile phones, hundreds where in the museum today, all happy on their own behalf. I stumbled over great Buddhist art from the Gandhara era and marveled over the wonderful statues of the Buddha and of Bodhisattvas of the Mathura school. Did I discover a tooth being pulled out by an elephant? An atlas shaped in the form of a Greek God? This collection is a revelation and for me it stopped here, since I was not interested in the dusty old mummy of whale bones in the upper floors, I had seen what I came to see and it made me extremely happy.
Calcutta, the city of joy was not, how I had imagined it. It was much better, much cleaner, much more civilized then the books or films tell you. And even if I would still not recommend to start with Calcutta, if you don’t know India at all, I would highly suggest you visit it when India is no threat to you anymore. It is a wonderful city, and these days the Grand Great Eastern Hotel opens its doors to visitors again, so finally there is a choice, and this choice is yours to make…