Christmas lights on Park Street. (Pradip Sanyal)
I’ve wanted to see Calcutta for years. My fiance used to live and work here and we made a snap decision in October, when the English weather was being particularly unforgiving, to pack up and get out. Calcutta sun here we come.
“You’d love it,” he’d tell me, “the people are wonderful, so kind, they love cricket more than I do. The architecture is amazing and,” he grinned saving the best for the last, “you can eat fish curry all day long if you want.” I needed no more convincing.
I’m no stranger to Calcuttan names; Eden Gardens, Mocambo, Kewpie’s, these are well worn, normally accompanied by a wistful sigh and either a check of cricinfo or a flip through our local Indian takeaway menu. To see them, to visit, well, I simply couldn’t wait. Now I’d get it, I’d understand the wistful looks.
Friends were hugely envious. “I’m not even packing a jumper!” I boasted, our families sent us a shopping list and off we went.
Landing in Calcutta’s coldest December for a decade, I was immediately struck by everyone wrapped in vibrant colours. Colour lay everywhere, on the painted buses and trucks, saris and salwar kameezes, the jewellery and the food. I was in love.
Decorations for Christmas at Fairlawn Hotel. (Georgia Gillies)
Sudder Street was a cacophony of noise and action. “Merry Christmas!” shouted a child as the lovely smell of dal floated in from somewhere and a chai pot was smashed near my feet. We just dumped the bags and set out to explore!
I was soon proudly fluent in the taxi horn, the little nuances that tell the difference between “I’m here” and “Move!” If you were to take pictures of me completely randomly throughout my time in Calcutta, my face would read one of two main expressions: utter delight and sheer terror.
Over dinner at Mocambo we made plans, nothing could be missed, nothing unseen. It was decided that we’d walk everywhere as best we could, getting the Metro when our feet grew weary and we wouldn’t rest until we’d eaten enough to belong in the hold of the plane and not the cabin.
What a week this has been. We kept our promises for the most part: the city was marched through on a stomach full of biryani, chana masala and kali dal, and has become a blur of culture and history. Places spill into each other; BBD Bag becomes Chandni Chowk becomes Esplanade becomes Park Street becomes Maidan, and if you walk long enough, as we most definitely did, becomes Kalighat. Mosques rub shoulders with churches, the Park Street cemetery is a little secret tucked away, as is the Marble Palace, sharing a city with the imposing splendour of the Victoria Memorial.
I fell in love with the street names, Shakespeare Sarani, Ho Chi Minh Sarani, Madge Lane, all full of new things to be discovered.
“I have the constitution of an ox,” I declared as I headed towards the nearest street food stand on our first day. “No you don’t,” came the reply, “eating cheese that’s a day past its sale-by date, does not constitute an ox.” I was firmly denied a hot kati roll that day, but have not been disappointed since.
I wasn’t going to eat the same food twice I told myself, I’d be mad to. Unless its Anand’s, where I could eat breakfast, lunch and dinner and not feel the slightest twinge of guilt or gluttony.
Other marvellous moments included being wished more Merry Christmases on one stretch of road than I could reply to, the fantastic Fairlawn Hotel, which is a museum of curios, a visit to the Kalighat temple, trying to pull apart a prawn that was the size of my hand, drinking chai on the street, and trying to negotiate New Market (unsuccessfully, I took a wrong turn and ended up in the midst of the butchery aisle).
On the penultimate day, attending the vigil for the Delhi rape victim at Birla Planetarium, I was heartened to see so many men in attendance; saying prayers, holding banners stating that this tragedy didn’t belong only to women, but to them too. It was a humbling experience to be a part of, and I felt honoured to light a candle in front of the statue of Indira Gandhi — with “empowerment for women” emblazoned on it.
I was also heartened to see that the tragic story was being covered in the media by women. They presented the news, interviewed and spoke out against the tragedy. Women’s voices were prominent and loud, their anger reflected that not only of their gender but of their country.
In contrast, The Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 is criticised for having a predominantly male voice, with only one woman hosting it just twice a week. It had recently come under fire for using these same men to discuss women’s issues such as breast cancer and fertility.
I was worried when I came to Calcutta that I would only see things through my fiance’s eyes, that I would only see the Calcutta that he knew. I wanted to discover the city for myself and not be told what to expect or like.
I needn’t have worried. If anything, he has seen things through mine: “Why are you taking a photo of that?” They are a motley collection, I have to say, of finished plates, headstones, monuments, street signs, rickshaws, trucks, taxis, dogs, this list goes on. They are everything that has made my trip special, things I’d never seen before or things I’d only heard about. I knew I would love Calcutta and now I know why. Because it’s impossible not to.
I do wish I’d brought a jumper though.