This and the next blog post, should come bearing the disclaimer that the cities described were experienced at break-neck speed, and hence the activities that took place were carefully selected, keeping in mind the short time-scale we had.
After our less than successful brush with Delhi, we were more than happy to use Kolkata as a stopping point on the journey down South, and nothing more. We tentatively chose accommodation and activities an easy walking distance apart, with minimal room for the varied problems that India continually throws at you.
Upon alighting the train, the clean and modern station, filled with crowds of people bearing a harassed look of purpose (a staple expression for most Londoners) told us Kolkata was not of the same ilk as Delhi. Instead of dismembered people groaning and selling fruit on the dusty roadsides, we were met by seas of yellow cabs, and a clearly sign-posted pre-paid taxi booth, that gave us a very reasonable price to our hotel, and in a very efficient manner.
However, we underestimated how popular Kolkata would be and found nearly every hotel fully booked. Eventually we managed to nab the last room in a place in the slightly grittier part of town; which we were essentially shoved into before the last couple had even moved out.
Still gripped with our fear of Indian cities, we cautiously ventured the idea that we might try to use the metro to get the university district, that was supposedly filled with some of the most interesting book shops in the world. With expectations low, we could hardly believe our eyes as we headed underground in a blue-tiled tunnel, clean enough to put London to shame. The friendly ticket man chuckled at our looks of glee as we found out the journey would cost only 5p. An easy, air-conditioned ride later, we were accompanied to College Street by a young female medical student with perfect English and ambitions to practice in America.
In the next stages, Sam and I went into pleasure over-drive. After slipping down a side street, we were met with rows upon rows (upon rows) of book stalls, so over-loaded they spilled out onto pavements. Astrophysics text books stacked unevenly between aged leather-bound classics and Hindi comic books, spread over 5,000 stalls that lined every street for a square kilometre. I hardly doubt that if you looked hard enough, you could find any title ever written, in any language you desired – but you would never have time to even scratch the surface here, and the mystery of what titles could lay hidden, entices you into hours of searching.
And you may wonder how these many neighbour stalls could ever make any money; but that was before Sam and I showed up to plunder their dusty crates of hidden gems. This went on for most of the day with repetition of, “this is the last stall,” “this is the last book” – but at every turn a different shop, with a different character, would invite us in. Prices would be lowered until the only thing that could make us refuse, were the protestations of our weary backs, that would have to bear the consequences of this indulgent shopping spree.
And if you think that was indulgent, we filled in the hours until sunset people-watching in the institution that is the Indian Coffee House; a venture run by a series of worker cooperative societies. The place manages to distill great tasting coffee, that even westerners can appreciate, whilst still keeping the taste and surrounds typically Indian and unique. There are many branches across India, but this one was set in a huge high-ceilinged canteen, with white-washed walls, red tiled floors and a dark wooden balcony over-looking the vast complex of tables and chairs. It is famed for being a meeting place for the intelligentsia of the city, and so we enjoyed imagining we were over-hearing the discussions of great scholars, and feeling as though we were at the epicentre of academia in Kolkata. We were waited on by white-turbaned waiters; who could sense when you were in need of a refill or a snack, but despite this excellent service, an unexplained 50 rupees could still find it’s way onto your bill – it is India after all. The whole experience was ideal: 15p for a (small) cup of delicious coffee, without the guilt that comes with indulging in something a bit too western or touristy.
And you may gasp: what about sunset over the beautiful Victoria memorial or the old time markets where you can experience the colossal gap between the rich and poor… We just didn’t have time and couldn’t bear to miss the opportunity to experience a side of Indian culture that we had not yet to seen.
And so, another trip to Kolkata is definitely in order!