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.