On January 5, I was on holiday with my family in Reykjavik, Iceland. It has a population of 300,000 and is the northernmost capital city on the planet in a countryside that more resembles the moon than earth. Three days later, this 23-year-old found himself arriving on the London flight to Dum Dum airport to begin a journalism internship with The Telegraph in one of the hottest, most populated cities in the world. What an extreme change of environment! But then driving through Calcutta in the dead of night in winter is probably the gentlest introduction to the city imaginable.
First day, first show
My first proper day in Calcutta was incredible. I left my guest house clutching a rather old map of Calcutta in search of Victoria Memorial. After much loitering on street corners, I reached AJC Bose Road at which point a vast throng of people decked out in red carrying red flags ' some with tiger emblems ' surged past me.
It seemed that a band of communists was to be my tour guide to the heart of Calcutta. I followed the relentless stream of human traffic to see where on earth it was heading, and in the process I reached Victoria Memorial. There is no doubt that it is a very impressive piece of Victorian architecture ' but not nearly as gobsmacking as the sight of the largest political rally I have ever seen in my life. This was, of course, the enormous rally of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) on Sunday, January 8.
I walked through the crowds of people hearing odd words like 'comrade' punctuating a steady stream of Bengali. Although I could not understand any of the speeches or chants, the forceful tone of all the voices through the crackling public announcement systems was quite striking.
Political activism in Britain has become somewhat muted since the end of the Thatcher years. So to see such an enormous political display was a first, and truly exhilarating.
Action down under
Going to office on the first day, I took the Metro, which I must say is rather more reliable and efficient (albeit far smaller) than the London Underground. After going through the turnstiles I encountered something that I had never seen before ' the escalator as a wall and a bridge between two peoples.
An elderly woman in front of me ground to a halt when she saw the escalator, looked in dismay at her husband, then gingerly took a jump and landed on all fours on the escalator. Her husband was rather less successful in his attempt, and staggered like a giraffe that had stumbled on a marble contest before toppling backwards, creating a minor domino effect much to the anger or amusement of those commuters for whom escalators are part of the daily routine.
Clearly, old and new Calcutta meet each other feet first ' or head on ' on the Metro escalators.
Garden of Eden
All of my friends in England who enjoy cricket say without hesitation that there are three places that they must watch cricket before they die ' Lord's, the MCG, and of course Eden Gardens. Sensing that I was rather intent on going to one of the holy trinity of cricket grounds, my editor sent me with one of The Telegraph photographers to see Bengal play Baroda in a Ranji Trophy match.
Any maturity that I might have gained at secondary school and university was swiftly dispensed with as I returned to the state of a wide-eyed 10-year-old as I' as I, sat on the boundary of Eden Gardens!
Naturally, I spent the drinks breaks sending rather expensive text messages to friends in the UK along the lines of 'You won't believe this but'
The vast concrete expanses of Eden Gardens have a greater capacity than all of the Test-playing grounds in England put together. It is not necessarily beautiful as a stadium, but as with many things in Calcutta, it's the people that fill it that count, and in this case over 100,000!
Although the attendance was quite thin, because it was a weekday, and because Calcutta's favourite son Sourav Ganguly wasn't playing, the crowd was so much more vocal than a full house in England. Even dot balls became chest-beating dramas. The crowds in Calcutta are infinitely more passionate than in England, where until the recent Ashes series the popularity of the game was greatly diminished.
Food bond and burn
I have always been a fan of scruffy restaurants where you see people genuinely relax and be themselves. At home I eat mostly in downmarket Greasy Spoon restaurants, which cater perfectly for my Neanderthal palette. I take little pleasure from going to restaurants where the conversation is polite and the people are guarded.
In Calcutta, I have found my kennel, and it is called Olypub, on Park Street. It may not have silver service, and the lighting may make everybody look a shade jaundiced, but the food and drink is good and cheap, and the atmosphere truly lively.
I have wandered in there some nights on my own with a book, expecting a quick, quiet meal after work, and have ended up in a rather enlivened state, at a table full of engaging, friendly strangers. This open, friendly atmosphere is a characteristic of Calcutta that I have found to be unique for a city of its size, and perhaps the aspect that I have come to love the most.
Food in Calcutta I have generally found to be very tasty, with friends recommending some excellent local dishes, as well as some from further afield. I have always really liked Indian food in Britain, but most of it bears little relation to the genuine article. I had somewhat of a baptism of fire into the varied world of street cuisine, when a friend and colleague took me out to get a 'roll'. It was absolutely delicious, so delicious that I couldn't resist another. Unfortunately my stomach, which has seen a fairly strict regimen of rarefied western junk food for the past 20 years, could not cope and it became a veritable cauldron for the next few days.
No more macho street eating for the firangi, I fear!
Brush with stardom
As I wrote in Metro earlier in the week, my brush with the Bengali film industry at the shooting of the film Anuranon was certainly one of the most memorable experiences that I have had. In retrospect, it felt very strange, if not a bit embarrassing, talking to people such as Rajat Kapoor and Rahul Bose, not having the faintest clue who they were until I saw them later in their movies.
I saw Kapoor's new film Mixed Doubles last week, and as I watched him strut his stuff on the big screen at INOX (Forum), I thought: 'My god, I was sitting with you in a hotel room tackling a biryani last week!' Surreal stuff, indeed.
The lead actresses, Rituparna Sengupta and Raima Sen, were of course impossibly glamourous, and were so inundated with make-up assistants and god knows who else, that us extras did not get a chance to chat.
My rather lame cameo pretending to play the guitar in the bar scene along with a rag tag assortment of foreigners will be interesting to see in the final production ' if it survives the chopping table, that is!
'There's my new friend, who occasionally accosts me on the way to work. One can only describe him as a bit of a 'colourful character'. Resplendent in what can be termed as 'street couture', he has such a bizarre hairstyle that he resembles something akin to a Bengali version of Sonic the Hedgehog.
In my first few weeks here he singled me out for particular attention, chatting to me all the way to the Metro station, unfazed by my total lack of comprehension. At first it unnerved me. Now that I'm feeling more relaxed and at home, I've taken to conversing with him in gibberish English. Last week I sternly informed him that 'the goats on Mars are currently holding elections as to whether they prefer alphabet spaghetti, or Kellogg's corn flakes'. He listened sagely to my words of wisdom, enjoying the attention and responded by grinning and chatting more rubbish back to me.
Now, I feel somewhat disappointed if my curious friend isn't prowling around in the mornings.
Calcutta, I guess, has already worked its spell on me.