Impressions of Calcutta

Travel Tales, Windows into Culture — By on June 4, 2011 at 2:25 pm


Calcutta traffic

Traffic jam in Calcutta.

“You’ll love India.”

“You’ll hate it.”

“India is only for advanced travelers.”

“India is a breeze – it’s not as bad as people make it out to be.”

We’d heard it all. And, what’s more, it’s all true. India is every good thing that you’ve ever heard, and it’s every bad thing that you’ve ever heard. The country is a mind-altering drug that will challenge the perceptions of anyone who thinks they understand life on this planet.

Our Indian explorations began in Calcutta. This was partly because I had a friend, Kate, who was based there as an expatriate. The chance to stay with an old friend was too good to pass up as we eased our way into India.

During our first few days in the city we visited the usual local sights, from the Victoria Memorial to the Pareshnath Jain Temple. But we soon learned that Calcutta wasn’t about tourist attractions. It was about impressions. Almost everywhere we went in the city, the images kept slapping us in the face, yanking us from one extreme to the other.

First, and most obviously, the poverty is inescapable because it is so visible. As we traveled through the city, it was impossible not to notice the throngs of impoverished residents who slept on sidewalks. The people who bathed on street corners with a bucket of water and soap. The dilapidated, barely standing shacks that passed as homes. The men who urinated in plain sight against walls or in gutters. Or the heaps of rotting garbage on the side of the roads, some of it being eaten by dogs and birds.

But then, in the midst of this destitution, we walked into a sparkling, contemporary shopping mall that made us recalibrate our image of the city. Inside, fashionably dressed Indians shopped at Benetton and Levis, snacked on ice cream from Baskin Robbins (“100% vegetarian ice cream”) and enjoyed Bollywood and Hollywood movies in a brand new theater.

The second notable impression of Calcutta was the sense that it existed in a perpetual state of movement, noise and confusion. Nowhere was this more evident than in the city’s bewildering array of traffic patterns, where cars, trucks, buses and rickshaws moved about in a state of barely controlled pandemonium. There were no traffic lanes, every vehicle relentlessly strove to nose ahead of every other vehicle, and cars drove within inches of each other and squeezed into miraculously narrow spaces. I can’t count the times I braced myself for the crunch of crashing metal, only to open my eyes and discover that no collision had occurred.

But again, just when we thought the city was in complete bedlam, we’d see two women parading serenely down the sidewalk in stunning maroon and gold saris. Or a group of schoolchildren giggling contentedly on their way home from school. Or, most unexpectedly, a man sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk, silently lost in his thoughts and enigmatically pounding away on a manual typewriter. An unusual sight perhaps, but he was at peace amidst the commotion.

Finally, visitors to Calcutta must deal with the clamor of the streets. The sidewalks are a place of business for people who spend their days concocting novel ways to extract rupees from passersby. We were continually approached by locals asking for a tip or a payment. Some wanted to be paid for leading us on an unsolicited tour, or for providing directions, or even for taking our picture. I couldn’t blame them, really, since there simply isn’t enough work for the immense population and this is one way to make a living or supplement a meager income.

Nonetheless, it does take some getting used to, at least for a Westerner who is accustomed to having a zone of privacy on the street. At one market we went to, a young man offered to lead us to shops and carry around our purchases in a basket. A nice offer, maybe, but we politely declined his assistance. So he followed us anyway. For 40 minutes he walked alongside us and talked nonstop, telling us about products that were available in the various stores. We tried everything to deter him. We courteously told him that we were only looking and not buying, we sternly told him to get lost, and we even succeeded once in ditching him in a crowd, only to have him pop back in front of us like a jack-in-the-box two minutes later.

When he saw us departing, finally, he said: “Maybe tomorrow I help you.”

And yet, just when we began thinking that perhaps everyone in Calcutta made a living by wringing tips from visitors, we’d walk into an internet café overflowing with young Indians doing schoolwork. Or see well-dressed businessmen talking shop in a café. Or find dozens of locals browsing in a bookstore.

It was all part of the Indian paradox. Every impression had two sides. There was uplifting spirituality and abject poverty, technological know-how and confounding disorder, vivid beauty and dreadful filth, and all of it was blended together in a staggering mass of humanity. Ultimately it was this – the paradox of Calcutta, and of India – that made the strongest impression on us.


Photo credit: Biswarup Ganguly via Wikimedia Commons.

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