Wherever I went in Kolkata, they mistook me for a Bengali. In the bus, standing passengers asked me “Kothay jabe?” (Where will you go?) and I would answer “Esplanade” and they, knowing I wasn’t giving up my seat anytime soon, would go back to discussing politics or whatever else they were discussing with such fervour.
As I walked down Park Street, a passer-by asked me something and I shook my head to indicate that I had no idea what he was talking about. That I didn’t live here. That I was here on a three-day whirlwind tour of the British capital of India — a title Kolkata lost in 1911 to New Delhi, the city I consider home and where I have lived for much of my life.
In most respects, Kolkata is like any other Indian city. Glitzy malls, apartment blocks, offices and rush-hour traffic. A new metro under construction. And an old one that runs just fine. Yellow Ambassador taxis clash with blue buses. Kerbstones, signages and neon lights everywhere in blue-and-white, the colours of the ruling Trinamool Congress.
But hand-drawn rickshaws abound and heritage trams still run, sputtering to a stop when a car, cow or a pedestrian encroaches onto the tracks. I didn’t spot any of the road rage so common in Delhi. A scooterist banged into a car and the driver — a woman — stepped out to inspect the damage, made a few gestures and let loose a volley of what sounded to me like rosogulla missiles. The language sounded so sweet I couldn’t really make out if she was angry.
Like most tourists, I settled for the tried-and-tested, the best of what Kolkata had to offer, instead of seeking out “City of Joy” squalor. The not-to-be-missed list included the Victoria Memorial, Thakurbari (the ancestral home of Rabindranath Tagore where to my surprise the humble cabbage occupies pride of place in the garden), St. John’s Church, the Black Hole monument, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Prinsep Hall and Kolkata’s version of the Golden Gate bridge over the Hooghly river, the High Court, Park Street, College Street, Potter’s Lane, Big Ben, and the Dakshineshwar temple (where my belt buckle broke and I clutched my jeans for dear life).
And I ate. Chelo kebabs at Peter Cat, a sumptuous feast at Bhojohori Manna, mandatory desserts at Flurys (over-rated) and Nahoum’s, biryani from Aminia and Arsalan, the jalmuri at Hogg market, cold coffee at the Indian Coffee House, and the poochka (when we chanced upon a cart somewhere in the city).
It was in Kolkata that I broke open a door like a Bollywood hero (took six-seven tries though) when my friend got stuck in a bedroom after the door handle fell off. A day later, my friend rescued me from a lizard. So we are even.
My friend’s sister made jalmuri for me and I ate it by the handful until it was all gone. Asking for a third helping would have been rude. I passed the time playing countries-and-capitals with my friend’s teenage nephew, trying to trip him up with Tegucigalpa and Bamako, and discovered that he’s as good as I was in school. I need to brush up on Africa though and hope for a rematch.
As for Kolkata, I’ll be back. Probably the only thing I didn’t like about it was the 62-storey eyesore under construction on Chowringhee Road, a skyscraper climbing into the sky from the heart of the city. The times they are a-changin’.