Last weekend, we were in Kolkata, pigging out after the IIM C recruitment trip. Bengali food was on the menu and so was visiting a couple of key attractions in Kolkata. With Varun in tow we didn’t want to do too much and generally take it easy.
First up was Victoria Memorial. An elegant white marble structure which was created as a tribute to Queen Victoria houses artifacts from British rule era. Paintings, rare books, arms and ammunitions, sculptures, letters etc. I loved that the monument is not too big that it takes hours to browse through it all. It is surrounded by acres and acres of lawns, blooming gardens and ponds. Its adds to the tranquility of the place.
The school kids and blooming flowers added life to this still monument. But this is not what I had imagined Kolkata to be. Everyone had warned me that Kolkata is dirty, polluted. Howrah station and its narrow by lanes, cows on street and lyrical Bengali on the streets. I didn’t experience any of that. So, we decided to brave a taxi ride across the Hoogly river to Howrah.
Outside the Victoria memorial we hailed a cab and the driver sped across open green maidans over to the new bridge or the Vidyasagar setu. Once across in Howrah we had a shock. The lanes along the river bank are narrow and crowded with people, animals , automobiles and hand pulled rickshaws jostling for space. At one point, the taxi driver drove over an open stretch of garbage overflowing on to the streets. It seemed we were driving though a block of garbage!
The stench of garbage, sweat, trains and vegetables intermingled in the early afternoon heat. A few stray cows grazing on that garbage and left over vegetable remains added to the chaos on the bridge. This is the first experience for folks who take the train in to Kolkata. Sad. I know.
It took us forever to get to the other side.
Once on the other side of the bridge, we were greeted with yet another quintessential Kolkata sights – a rally. A political rally to oust the current government or some such thing. Having just visited the Victoria Memorial’s collection of oil paintings of freedom fighters and their letters, I pondered if the rallies in early half of the last century were just like the one we saw. Colorful flags, sonorous chants, pedestrian demands of freedom and independence from the British rule. These were the very streets that witnessed the movement then and is seeing it once again.
Once back on the saner, cleaner side of Hoogly river, we headed back up to the hotel for a nap. Varun was drowsy and we didn’t want to keep him up unnecessarily.
After a long nap, we mainly went to New market famous for leather bags and clothes though we focused on street food. And later to Park street for some more good eats.
The following morning, we went to see the Princep Ghat which offers views of both the bridges over the Hoogly river. The taxi drivers in Kolkata, unlike their Mumbai brethren, don’t know the directions to local tourists destinations. Some say no and don’t take your fare, others nod and drop you to a different place,. It happened to us a couple of times. We were dropped 3- 4 blocks away from where we wanted to go and then had to walk down to our destination. with Varun and his diaper bag in tow.
The cab driver dropped us at Babu ghat where families were bathing in the river, priests were offering prayers and generally had a religious air around it. I couldn’t imagine dipping my toes in the brown muddy waters of Hoogly but life continued as normal on its bank. A barber shaving, kids jumping with glee, women folk changing out of wet sari’s while covering their modesty, men lathering the soap rather vigorously. Varun was thrilled to climb down the stairs and wanted to get in the water. We somehow managed to hold him.
We took another cab to Princep ghat – which is next to Princep station. Clean and maintained, it offers a calm and quiet place to stroll along the banks of Hoogly river. Overlooking the Vidysagar bridge ( new bridge), it offers chat vendors, benches, restrooms and even boat rides on the river. We didn’t see folks praying and priests preying on them here.
We hung out, had some jhaal muri and let Varun run around. Soon, it was time for us to head back. Pickup sweets at KC Das and then feats on the scrumptious Bengali thali at Aheli.
We didn’t get to visit some of the temples Kolkata is famous for – Kali temple and Dakshineshwar temple. Hopefully next time, we can stay longer in this laid back city. Till then we need to find someone to bring us some Sondesh!