A sensorial journey in Kolkata, the City of Joy

I arrived in Kolkata – earlier known as Calcutta – from the Bengala Gulf by train, it was a 16 hour trip over the flagging Indian railways, deep into the upcoming rainy season’s heat. The town is West Bengala‘s capital and it is known in India as “the city of joy”, but I feared to be lost without a guide and knowing nobody, and that I might miss any kind of joy available.


I took an old cab and let him drive me to Chowringhee, the town’s pulsating heart, where the cheapest hotels and the “New Market” are to be found. I rented a room from an ever smiling little man. I was never really able to talk with him in a language we both would understand, but I found a large room with a huge (broken) window and the whole place looked as it barely survived a violent blaze. I loved it.


I soon understood that the quarter where I was living would also become my main restaurant: the food offered in the stands was delicious and I had a large choice, and as for my stomach it has never been picky: samosa, fried fish, rice and mutton, the all-present dosas, yummy marzipan sweets adorned with gold and silver powder… I also understood that to reach Kolkata’s very being, I had to loose myself in the huge street market covering the whole city centre. Every day I walked with only a vague idea of one or two places I wanted to see, just to pretend my rambling had some sense. Unfailingly, I could never find the way back home. I would then call a cab who would try to cheat me on the fare, I would yell for ten minutes and the driver would yell back in Bengali, and finally I would get back to my room, stupidly proud for having spared seven or eight cents.


Beyond Chowringhee there was Park Street, where all stylish bars and restaurants where located in a diligent double line. I was always able to enter in any of them – being my white skin the most elegant dress they expected from me – but it was like betraying a demanding lover. Kolkata, as capricious as it may be, never failed to wink at me longing for my attention, but always waited for my sacrifice before showing me its hidden treasures.


During three unbelievebly empty weeks I have been several times to the Victoria Memorial, a monumental complex surrounded by British style lawns and ponds. I did not really understand the idea of such a massive building consecrated to the ages of imperialism and colonialism, but it was the only known refuge from the crowd. I also paid a quick visit to the Indian Museum, probably because it was close to my hotel and it was raining, but I found it more useful as shelter than as museum – historic findings scattered everywhere without a recognisable order or hidden in moist and dark rooms.

More than anything else, Kolkata has been a sensorial journey among extremely savoury food, the clash of drums in Hindu temples, the captivating gaze of brothels’ dancers, the smell of pot – “Ganesh’s herb” – in the streets, the smell of rotting waste and the shouting of bypassers, very kind and helpful people, but dramatically committed that repeating the same sentence but louder would enable me to understand Bengali.

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