In anticipation of my first visit to Kolkata (Calcutta) I was scanning internet for images of the city, but little could be found. As a matter of fact, Kolkata is a rare pin even on an experienced traveler’s map. But how did that happen?
A former capital of British India, a home to the India’s oldest operating port, the capital of West Bengal and an educational and cultural centre of East India. The third largest metropolitan area of India. A hometown to Nobel laureates Rabindranath Tagore and Amartya Sen and to numerous scholars. A city, where evenings are spent at poetry contests. The cradle of Indian revolutionary history of the 20th century. How can this place barely attract those who are on their way to more touristy places like Darjeeling, or who are en route to Thailand making use of cheap fares and trying to arrange their Indian visa renewals?
Famous yellow ambassador taxi of Kolkata
Busy central streets of Kolkata
Kolkata is a centre of colonial era history in India. A magnificent royal monument for Queen Victoria, the Indian Museum and remaining curvy colourful buildings with colonial architecture are still living reminders about ladies and gentlemen strolling on the pavements of the city in white suits. But behind the white lace umbrellas and artistic facades there are decades of cruel history and a struggle for life.
Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata
Signature buildings of Kolkata
The city had a difficult destiny. In 1943 West Bengal was hit by severe famine which took away millions of lives and affected millions of families, for decades to come. After the independence that followed 4 years later Kolkata went into a decades-long economic stagnation, which was worsened by a violent Maoist movement. With the Bangladesh border just 100 km away Kolkata also became a receiver of millions of refugees during the war in 1971, which put an even bigger strain on its infrastructure. Until 2011 Kolkata was under the communist rule that lasted for over 30 years.
The consequences of all the turmoil Kolkata had to go through are still to be felt and seen throughout the city, which is strongly associated with extreme poverty and declining infrastructure. But Kolkata is like a teenager with an abusive childhood, who is rough and can get the worst out of you, but still deserves to be treated with condescension and a few drops of compassion.
Dakshineswar Kali Temple in Kolkata
But leave politics aside. Any city is about people and their energy, and it is difficult to find a more vibrant place, bustling with life. Many travellers fall in love with Kolkata’s crazy charm.
Kolkata is one of the few remaining places with hand-pulled rickshaw
Subway in Kolkata (the first subway in India)
Food, and especially street food and Bengali sweets in Kolkata are a special treat which you will not get to try anywhere else in India, forget anywhere else in the world.
I’m a stranger to Kolkata today, a passing by observer, confused by other opinionated aliens and biased media. To see the story of this city told with love, and from a very different angle, with no place for politics, take a look at this 5 minutes film, it will not leave your heart indifferent.