Click here for Part 1 of this post.
From the foothills of the Himalayas, we travelled almost 650 kms down to the capital of West Bengal, Kolkata. First, it was a six hour ride in a shared jeep from Darjeeling to Siliguri, from where we would take the night train to Kolkota - a journey which we would make seated on our backpacks on the floor of the train as our waitlisted tickets did not get confirmed. We walked into walls of humidity as soon as we stepped off the train at Howrah Junction, early in the morning, and the cool and crisp weather of the hills became a distant memory.*
Our hotel was a 20-minute drive from the station and as we drove towards it, I felt a sense of familiarity in the streets and buildings. Kolkata (previously Calcutta) reminded me much of Mumbai, the bustling, crowded, never-sleeping city in which my father was raised. Kolkata was once the capital of British-led territories of India and the mark of British Raj is most evident in the city’s architecture. The Hooghly River passes through the city, and it is a tributary river of the Holy Ganga. I was quick to notice that the colours of blue and white were prominent throughout the city; lamp posts, benches, railings, bridges and even government-owned buildings were painted in these colours. My mind immediately conjured up images of Mother Teresa, who worked with the destitute in the slums of Kolkata, and the trademark blue and white garments worn by her and the Sisters of Charity - the order which she founded. I later found out that the colour scheme of the city was a tribute to powerful woman in her own right - the current Chief Minister of the State of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee. Blue and white are the representative colours of The All India Trinamool Congress, the party which she formed in 1997 and which is the current party in power.
After a long, cold shower and an even longer nap, my partner and I set off late in the afternoon to explore the famous Kalighat Temple, dedicated to the wife of Lord Shiva. The road leading to the temple was crowded with vendors selling everything from hot samosas to mini temple idols. I was down with Gastro during the previous leg of the journey, and had been completely turned off from food. However the aromas from the street snacks, made their way into my nostrils and convinced my brain that food was now my friend. I surrendered mercifully to the hunger pangs and enjoyed a typical Bengali thali consisting of rice, spicy curry, fish fry, lots of different pickles and a traditional dessert to sweeten the mouth.
The peaceful botanical gardens, located along the Hooghly River.
The next few days were spent exploring all the corners of this beautiful city, which in all honesty, was a little hard to appreciate in 95% humidity. It was far more difficult to quench my thirst than it was to satiate my hunger, and we took lots of breaks under the shade of trees, in the cool of the open museum halls and by the gentle breeze of the Hooghly River, all the while accompanied by a cold drink or an ice cream, sometimes both. I learned that the climate was the primary reason behind shops closing for a couple of hours after lunch and why things took twice as much time as it should. Humidity slows down the body by constantly seeping it of all moisture and leaving one in a permanent haze of sleep. The climate, however, has not, does not, and will not ever prevent a Bengali (a person from West Bengal) from engaging with any stranger on topics like politics, international affairs, religion and the likes. Bengalis love to talk as much as they love to eat, and can spend the same amount of time arguing as they can sleeping. Whilst this may appear to be a sweeping generalisation, they are in fact marks that I have noticed in Bengali friends and colleagues of mine.
There was so much to explore in this pulsing city; a place that was known as one of the jewels in the British Crown, where the Indian Independence movement took flight; where poetry, art and literature flourished, where devastation struck in the form of famine and where Durga Puja is celebrated each year with unrivalled grandeur and festivities. This city is one of historical, cultural and spiritual significance in India, and has always been a step ahead of the rest when it comes to reform. I must admit that I left Kolkata feeling a little more intellectual than when I had arrived. I am not sure if this sensation was attributed to the browsing of multiple bookstores, the visiting of numerous monuments and museums or just soaking up the vibe of the people, but my mind was buzzing and my heart was happy to have been a part of what will one day be a fragment of Kolkata’s common history.
*Howrah Junction is India’s largest railway station. There are approximately 620 passenger trains which pass through the station daily.