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  • Shelley Dark

4. Kolkata wakes

Our day begins early, to be ready in the foyer at 6.15am. John finds our guide waiting there, nodding when asked if he is Manjeet. He reminds John that the appointed time was actually 6am. We rush our coffee and join the group although I had been under the impression that ours was an exclusive. But that is of no consequence. It was only as we are leaving the hotel that we discover we are actually about to depart for Bhutan and this is indeed NOT our guide. Much hilarity between us and the Americans involved. They invite us to join them. Laughing we demur and return to our coffee. Manjeet comes at 6.15am and all is well.

This is the pool area of the Oberoi Grand where we are staying. The service is impeccable.

Kolkata is everything you imagine an Indian city to be. And more. The capital of West Bengal, once the finest British Empire city in the world.

It was founded by the British East India Company in its search for bases to acquire trade, spices and colonial power. Originally a small village, they relocated it to its present position on the right bank of the Hooghly River, also called the Ganges, although it is actually a distributary. Indians lovingly give the credit for the creation of Calcutta to one man, Job Charnock, who arrived in 1690.

We saw a city gradually waking up on a Sunday morning. People living in harmony, shopping at the local market, cooking on the street together for a Sunday morning breakfast, playing cards and ludo, chatting and laughing with their friends. We are conscious that in walking the street, we are actually in the living room of these people. People washing in the street, cleaning their teeth with neem sticks, unfazed by strangers with cameras.

Woks over gas everywhere, cooking delicious pooris, an unleavened dough which puffs up into a bread when it hits the hot oil. Huge saucepans of delicious smelling curries, dumplings steaming in layered pots. Men grinding herbs for curries. Our guide Manjeet is obviously known and respected as there is banter as we walk along. You can see his kindness in his face. Although young, he has just recovered from heart surgery and we are his first customers back at work.

This young man earns his living by ironing clothes, and was up early cleaning his irons to a gleaming shine by rubbing them in ash.

Our walk took us to parts of what the British called Black Calcutta. Indian, Indo-European, Muslim, Chinese, Buddhist and Jewish, parts where Indian men live who have come to the city by themselves to make good with the intention of bringing their families here. Men who live in single rooms by themselves or together, without plumbing or cooking facilities. They wash in pay-for-use bathrooms, and eat on the street. They laughingly invite us to join them under the bucket of water.

It is hardly chilly, but when you sleep rough, it's nice to have a communcal fire to warm yourself with your mates.

The cane juice which we would so love to try, woud be poison to us.

An innovative marketing idea. Fresh goats milk delivered straight to your door. The goats march along, familiar with their route. Their udders are covered with fabric bags to keep them clean. The herder home delivers, milking the goats for you before your eyes.

A goatskin water container being filled in the street. Water from the Ganges is allowed to run freely. Filtered drinking water is only available from certain taps at certain times, and people line up with their containers.

Catpivating colour is everywhere, and the city begins to wake. The markets open for business.

This man delivers coal.

He seems to have such a calming inner peace. He laughed out loud when a nearby rickshaw operator waved my camera away. He called out encouragement, and the rickshaw operator obliged by posing.

This woman and child were selling vegetables together.