After keeping my backpack in a cheap lodge, I decided to change course and went north. After a tea with biscuits (which are half salty, medium spicy, and combine beautifully with the sweetness of the tea), we got on a bus among the crowd, to the north. We stop at Bagbazar in Shyambazar.
We walked across an alley full of temples embedded in the basement of the buildings, the train tracks, and we reached the ferry dock. North Calcutta is fascinating. It is the old part of the city, and the original nucleus. It has the most beautiful buildings, and it is a convenient area for any housewife, since there are small shops and markets everywhere.
Although first we were following the main streets, and the avenues, at the first hint of traffic jam, we escaped to a goli, one of those streets that in northern Calcutta acquires its purest essence. The houses, so close together, have a colonial touch, and like all the city, they are in ruins. But they are so narrow that I cannot see the buildings well, because there is no place to have perspective on the details of the facades.
On the walls of houses, there are usually advertisements for films or posters with political slogans. In a very narrow goli, I found a house with temple in which outside there was a fresco of Vivekananda. There are the flowers on sale in the street near the temple.
A woman performed rituals and offerings with incense, sounding a huge seashell. The smell of the incense, the noise of the conch shell, and the sound of a bell that the devotees made sound to call the attention of the god to their prayers, filled the street.
Something that does not appear in the photos and that is impossible to explain is the aroma of the city. In the north there are plenty of street food stalls (ok, all over the city, but in the north, there are three times), with their delicious and unhealthy snacks. The smell of singara filled my lungs and attracted my stomach. Sometimes there was a smell of cooking with vinegar, or a pungent smell.
I do not know exactly, which made me feel as if I had bitten a chilli pepper. I walk down the street and discover the street food stalls. There is the phuchka, with its spicy water whose smell spreads. The stalls of sweet tropical fruits ooze their sugar to the heat that arouses them. The spicy cookies that despite being tucked in glass jars, soften in the sun. There are the sweets bathed in syrup of roses. You can taste everything just by breathing.
Leaving the goli, we got into a main street. Although it was afternoon, the traffic was still very congested. Between cars, taxis and buses, the roads were full of trucks carrying goods. But not everything is transported in trucks. They are also transported in bicycle-carts.
Soon we reach Kumartuli. It is a place that appears in the Kolkata travel guide as a picturesque and mysterious place that no tourist should stop visiting. Normally I do not trust the guides, and when they say that a particular place really cool, the reality is usually very different. Although it is also true that if there are many tourists who visit a place, guided by the same travel guide, the charm is transformed into a kind of fair or open-air museum.
But today by coincidence of life, I ended up in Kumartuli. The sculptors are busy making statues of the goddess Durga for the Durga puja that is about to arrive. And the experience has been different, not just hiding behind my camera, but entering the stores. Also, there were no tourists. Only when we left saw a group of four hippies who were flipping around the place.
As there was too much traffic, we decided to flee as soon as possible and ended up in other goli, here and there, and to our surprise, we reached the river. The ghats of northern Calcutta are very different from those of the south, of Princep Ghat or Babu Ghat. There are wooden benches of beige, black and gold, next to trash bins that mimic animals, like monkeys or dolphins with open mouths.
The vendors of tea shout chai chai. There is also stalls selling chop and muri near the docks of the ferries that lead to Howrah, or near the crematoria, or near the suburban train stations. There is hardly any light. People sit and chat noisily around the tea shops.
After all the hustle and bustle, I come up with the idea of going to Howrah, on the other side of the Ganges, by ferry. With the heat, the idea of approaching the water, sounded wonderful, although here there is no beach and if there was one, I would not bathe either.
After a while the boat came. We climbed, and we put ourselves in the prow, in front, where all the wind hit us in the face. It was wonderful to hear the ferry cutting the waves, the foam jumping, and the wind whistling in our ears. At the turn of the bend, the Howrah bridge appeared, dressed in yellow and violet lights, as if it were Christmas, Diwali, Kali Puja or Durga Puja.
We cross under the bridge and finally we dock. Only about 15 minutes of travel, but it was fantastic. To come back, we decided to do it walking on the bridge. But we did not count that at that time the flow of people going to the train station was so intense. It was another river, but of people. One cannot imagine the flood of people. It is as impossible to count as how many drops of water the Ganges has.
We wait for half an hour in the middle of the bridge, observing the two cities, enjoying the fluvial breeze. As we approached Mullickbazar, the flower market, it smelled like damp flowers. Today is the day of the Jamai Sasthi, when the married daughter comes to her native home with her husband. The mother-in-law cooks for the son-in-law the best delicacies that include seasonal fruits, fish, rice, curry, and sweets.
We turned around and left to get to the area where wholesalers sell to small distributors, which supply the entire city. We head to the Burrabazar market. Men wearing only lungi and a red cloth on the head that has multiple uses, unloaded the trucks. They pass the sacks of things to cars made with thin trunks of wood, which function like a seesaw.
Others carried their products in bicycle-carts. With a metal hook, the men hook the sacks and throw them as they can to the car. On the street, in addition to this movement of trucks, men and bags, there were merchants who were already auctioning their products. A curious thing about trucks is their decoration. All are painted.
Most have also painted information about their driver's license (Bengal, All India, Bengal and Bihar) and their phone number, in case anyone required their services. But they also carry slogans (Jai Mata Di, for example), and of course, some include images of the gods.
I have rented a cheap apartment in a popular neighborhood for a few days that gives a false but very pleasant feeling of permanence and belonging. At dawn the sky of Calcutta turns lilac, and the hymns of Mahishasura Mardini by Birendra Krishna Bhadra echoes through its streets as today is Mahalaya. I move by the pandals under construction as Durga Puja is nearing.
The streets of the capital of West Bengal are empty in the midst of the blue darkness of Park Circus. I look at them while I smoke a bidi, the cheap and aromatic Indian cigarette wrapped in a dry leaf with a bow. For the outsider, two sobriquets hang over Calcutta as the City of Joy and the second is the definition of Calcutta as the most European city in India. Neither of them seem right to me, and they are only half-truths. I'm not sure if that book has hurt our city's imaginary, but for years it has acted as a filter for those who wanted to travel here.
It's a shame for me, because Calcutta has a thousand faces, dozens of neighborhoods and millions of nuances. Without them, with only a partial vision of the city, we all lose. The second wisdom is that almost everyone says it is the most westernized city in India. So many travelers, in search of essence and exoticism choose to skip it, which is a mistake and an unfortunate loss. Probably whoever pronounces the city like that has not left its center.
It is true that Park Street and the tourist precinct of Sudder Street can give that impression. But it is enough to get lost elsewhere to realize on many occasions that Calcutta is India raised to the nth degree. I follow the metro network and moved to Chandni Chowk market.
Walking through randomly chosen neighborhoods I went near the babughat and all the streets that surround around the Hooghly River. The Bengalis performed a religious ritual on the waters of the Hooghly river to invoke the spirits of the ancestors.
I move across and see the train stations, or even the big and old buildings that are between Fairly Ghat and Chowringhee, do not deceive anyone. The subcontinent has bathed them, taken them and made them their own. So much so that a traveler not accustomed to a crazy and accelerated rhythm, will need to know where they are and find, certain oases of peace.
It also do not correspond to the preconceived idea of the city where you can rest the five senses before submerging again in the most absolute and crazy frenzy. Calcutta has something that overwhelms even the most experienced travelers. Calcutta is a wonderful tsunami because it manages to astonish even the fool who thinks that he saw everything and that something very special is needed to be amazed.
Calcutta has that something, capable of throwing you in a championship pulse. It is a megacity in no case homogeneous. Just cross a street and everything changes and the new neighborhood does not look anything like the previous one. Calcutta concentrates the most modern and oldest India. I move through giant trees with climbing vines shade corners of classic colonial buildings eaten by mold and the passage of monsoons.
An amalgam of them gives Calcutta the charm of the great but forgotten, the magnificence and the lordship of those cities that still maintains its cafes of the 50s as in the 50s, without having sought it on purpose but through the mere survival.
Chipped facades serve as a background to cycle rickshaw with upholstery. The urban squirrels are fed by the inhabitants that every day put in them some food for the lucky rodent. The streets are taken by squads of yellow taxis and crowded blue buses that shout their fate while continuing to blow their horn. Thousands of horn blow at the same time, while the pedestrians survive as they can to an even more ruthless driving than in the rest of the country.
It is possible to be shipwrecked in the most indescribable and variegated market of what the mind never dared to dream. Here a gigantic jam of hand-pulled rickshaws awaits while the ones behind me want to get ahead. The dangers come from any side, especially from the porters who want to overtake me and who shout for it. Some lambs are tied to the wooden leg of the table in which someone makes tea next to their sleeping partner.
It is when things lose their perspective, and there is no longer the before and the after, but the whole is mixed. I always want to return to Calcutta. I want the city to take me from the front and with my free hand I would slap me as only she would know how to do it. I think all travelers have some masochists. Nothing else. Another dream fulfilled. Another reality even better than a dream. Another place to return to, with the fear of not being so happy.
I go to the artists' neighborhood of Kumartuli where the artists work in small workshops and with all kinds of materials. At Mahalaya I observe the large Durga statues. On this day, sculptors draw the eyes on the figures, in an important ritual called Chokkhu Daan.
A maze of alleys teem with sculpture workshops. Dozens of families of craftsmen work tirelessly as they give life to thousands of statues of Durga, Lakshmi, Ganesh and Kartik as they receive more and more orders from other countries like England, Australia, Canada.
Walking around Calcutta, even getting around helped by the metro or the tram, requires good physical condition. Each day the traveler will end up exhausted, and it is not due only to the distances of this colossal city, but rather to its impetus.
The hustle added to the overpopulation and the tremendous sound of its streets make every day a marathon gymkhana difficult to imagine for all those who do not know it. The traveler will gasp, like a fish out of water, being almost necessary to take breaks and breaks so that body and spirit can digest such amount of stimuli.
Calcutta is a centrifuge. If I was carried away by my enthusiasm I would say that one of the places that impressed me most was BBD Bagh, the center of all this amalgam. It is a neighborhood without equal on the whole planet and one of the few remaining large colonial city centers in South Asia. It is unique in India because much of its peripheral environment remains intact. I pass through old buildings, exuberant markets, and business houses. It is one of those sites that makes the writer exaggerated and above leaves with the feeling of falling short.
What I want to make clear is that BBD Bagh is an absolutely spectacular district. Passing poetic licenses, I would know very badly to go to the other neighborhood without having seen this one. The Writers Building is still the seat of the government of Bengal and is battered and covered by police vans. I tried to enter but it was in vain. So I asked a policeman if I could take pictures of the building and he answered that only one.
As my stomach starts signalling I order tandoori roti and aloo dum in a dark and languid restaurant that remains the same as in the 50s. The contrast between Sunday and the rest of the days of the week in central neighborhoods like BBD Ghat is incredible. A neutron bomb effect that makes the air clearer and I can see better the Calcutta of a century ago by which it is noticeable that time passed. How to return to an abandoned and crystallized city in a single moment. All the character of British colonialism rejuvenated after a hundred monsoons. The elegant decadence of an old world.
The red sandstone buildings of the days of the British Raj look like old fossils but are still alive today. Of all the buildings, chance leads me to choose my favorite, the Chartered Bank Building, which fascinates me from the moment I see it. It is a building built in 1908. Today it is still open with some of its plants in operation although with an air of pure decline. Outside, the plants have taken root in the cracks of the upper floors. The interiors covered in dust can be seen through the cracked glass on the ground floor.
I pass by the doorman and climb the stairs until I meet some employees who tell me that I can visit wherever I want. They do not stop repeating the same word, the name of the most famous actor and presenter of India. At some point in the 1960s, the British firm hired a tall young man named Amitabh Bachchan to work at his NS Road office. No one knew then that he would become a superstar of Bollywood
So, with his name as a flag, I go through the different plants and I manage to strain in the offices of Bird and Co. They even show us the abandoned part of the building. Anachronistic offices, like a setting from the past, but with some quiet workers, make it easy to imagine how things would be fifty years ago.
I get tired of walking through the mullickbazar flower market, the market with the most visual impact in my life. I managed to survive the Lalbazar and the markets, where I never had so much risk of being run over in a pedestrian area by other people. Now I need to rest and in Calcutta does not exist too many oases of tranquility.
In BBD Bagh I find the Lal Dighi, a pond of emerald waters just opposite the Writers building, a place where I relax and unwind from total madness. Lal Dighi is a body of water in the middle of BBD Bagh, formerly known as Tank Square or Dalhousie Square. It was there before the British and before Calcutta itself. In medieval times the jungles surrounded it, right where it is now the busiest area of Calcutta.
At that time no one drank water from this tank, but sometimes released fishing lines in the afternoons or swimming competitions. Then it was cleaned and for a long time it was the main drinking water source of the city, at least for the foreign community. The water in the tank was protected for possible use in the event of a sudden fire somewhere. The natives were forbidden to go there.
I also want to throw the rod, but I want to fish something else. I also await the sunset, which in this corner of Calcutta is almost sweet and peaceful. I say almost because at the back the city keeps bellowing, in its fury of almost eternal beeps. I also say almost because in the light of that dying day, the brown eyes still look more beautiful in its whiteness, like a kashmiri princess. So I am looking for a bench in a park that is more or less hidden from prying eyes where we can seal our phlegmatic love. We are young Indians of uncontrollable impulse.
It was still raining, but since our arrival, the rain has stopped. Would the monsoon be lenient to us? Let's hope so, because the Navratri festivities begin tonight. This is the time of the Durga Pooja and not the monsoon. We were able to go to discover the preparations on a place of festivities. It has been more than a month since the craftsmen should have worked on the installation of the site, but heavy rains prevented them and everything is done in a hurry.
The red polystyrene pandal in which the goddess resides is almost ready. All that remains is the doors to be painted and set up, and the offerings are prepared in front of the altar. It would be an exaggeration to pretend that the activity is frenetic. I extinguish my ardor in a huge jug of beer, without success. Unique, beautiful, unusual, warm, fascinating, intriguing, scary, strange. Here are some examples of qualifiers that travelers use to describe Calcutta. It is impossible to put everyone in agreement so much the megalopolis of Bengal causes different emotions.