“If you’re talking about a great place to live, I’d say Kolkata. It’s got everything: great restaurants, historic buildings, the Maidan, an excellent transport service and friendly people.”
Jamie loved the city immediately, but I took a little longer to succumb to its charms. Now I look back at our trip and wish we could have stayed longer. Perhaps we’ll go back.
On our final night we went to Kewpies for dinner. Tucked away down a narrow lane off busy Elgin Road, it is the kind of place you have to know about to find. Thanks to Lonely Planet and other assorted sources — and the fact that it was within striking distance of our hotel — we decided to give it a try. To be honest we tried another restaurant over the road called Oh! Calcutta first. But after being ushered to our very posh table in a super slick dining room, and perusing the designed-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life menu we made a dash for freedom. I’m sure the place serves splendid food, but the restaurant could have been anywhere (anywhere expensive), and the super efficient A/C had sucked out all its atmosphere.
Kewpies couldn’t have been more different. They’ve knocked a couple of ancient buildings together with interconnecting doors, to form a warren of dining areas. An odd assortment of Victorian and Indian furniture clutters up the place. It has charm and originality in spades. The menu was simple, just a list of set meals ranging from a basic thali and rice to a full-on banquet. Jamie wanted the banquet, but we settled for one of the cheaper options.
On our last day, before heading for the overnight train to Darjeeling, we had plenty of time to mop up a few more ‘sights’. So we headed south, making use of Kolkata’s fantastic metro. The main reason for its fabulousness is that it is the cleanest thing we have found in India: not a plastic bottle, sweet wrapper or sticky patch of gob in sight. It doesn’t smell of pee and the trains are bright, airy and they run on time. Hallelujah! The metro’s single line runs from north to south (or south to north depending on your perspective), so you only need to make sure you’re going the right way (and if not, you just jump off and cross to the other side of the platform at the next stop).
The only downside is the way people push you out the way to get on and off. It is the norm in India to stand so close to the person in front of you that you touch them with every bit of your body. This innocent frottaging happens in queues for tickets, queues in shops, queues for the lift (getting in and out), queues in the airport, queues for taxis, queues for the ferry… you get my drift. I must add that I use the term ‘queue’ loosely.
It’s easy to get irritated by this behaviour if you come from the UK, and even after nearly two years of living here Jamie and I have to remind ourselves that it is just a cultural thing. Our two metre diameter personal space requirement just doesn’t cut the mustard in this country of a billion people. My advice is to jump into the human stew and just bump along with everyone else.
We arrived in Kalighat with a specific purpose: to find the Shanagar Burning Ghat. The smoke rising from an area close to the river gave the game away, so we walked through wide tree-lined roads populated by birds following the wisps. When we reached the river people were a little quieter than usual, but as it is the place where Kolkata’s Hindus come to cremate their dead, it was not surprising. We wandered towards the ghat, waiting to be asked to leave, but as with pretty much everywhere in India we were encouraged to look around.
Close to the ghats we saw enormous shrines and monuments to the dead. It was a peaceful area, and we saw no evidence of the “putrid Tolisnala Stream” described in our guide book.
For the rest of the morning we walked northwards along the Kalighat Road, resisting a persistent local man who urged us to go into the Kali Temple. (In the covered market round this most holy of temples we could see the usual tat for sale, and as we weren’t in the mood for being treated like tourists we quickly departed). Before moving on, we walked round Mother Therese’s home for the dying. It looked in need of repair, with much of the outside covered in black mould or crumbling away. But we saw people busily coming and going and decided to assume that good works were still going on inside.
Kalighat Road is wide and lined with stalls selling all sorts of household and general goods. The stall holders were polite and generally quiet, but were happy to talk if we struck up a conversation. Kalighat is not a tourist area and is a great place to stroll around without being harangued by touts.
We enjoyed spending our last few hours simply taking in daily life in south Kolkata, before heading back to the city centre on the glorious metro.
Jamie’s complete set of Kolkata images may be viewed in this slide show, below. You can go full-screen by clicking the button on the bottom-right.