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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.

We visit a chinese meeting house, with a temple upstairs. Here is the reading room with todays paper.

Is is wonderful to see that nothing is wasted. Everything is recycled. This grass is used as packing for steel goods.

A man sweeps his corridor, almost an act of contemplation on a quiet morning before others awake.

India invented window displays.

This men don't seem to care that they are living in a building marked "MAY COLLAPSE AT ANY TIME" and wave to us as we take their photo.

Late in the day, we visit the artisans part of town. These people, mostly self-employed, make goddesses for festivals, a business which keeps them busy all through the year. The statues are all recyclable, meant to dissolve in water - straw, clay, water-based paints. The coming festival is for Saraswati, the goddess of art and learning. The understructure is made of wood and straw tied with string. This is covered with rough clay mixed with rice husks. Then the final layers are added, and painted. Manjeeb observes that there are no size zeros in goddesses in India. They are all voluptuous, with large round bosoms and bellies.

The wonderful Post Office, on the site of the original Fort William, site of the Black Hole of Calcutta, so named because 123 British prisoners were suffocated to death overnight when shut together in a small room.

In thi painting of the Last Supper, the German artist Johann Zoffany painted Jesus and his disciples with the faces of local men. The local police commissioner at the time was shown as Judas. When the painting was revealed, the police commissioner slashed the canvas with his sword, and the mark remains today.

The building below celebrates the life of a British woman who was married 6 times, outlived all her husbands, and died at 87 in her beloved Calcutta. What a woman.

Cricket is played everywhere, on the streets, in parks. You have to be careful to duck even when walking along the main street of Kolkata on a Sunday.

The Queen Victoria building commemorates the monarch, and took much of the Indian taxpayers funds to build, celebrating a queen half way across the world.

Dusk on the River Ganges. The clay for the goddesses is carried by boat from upstream.

In 1985, Dominique Lapierre in a novel of the same name, called Kolkata 'The City of Joy'.

Contemporary journalist Vir Sanghvi has said, "Calcutta is not for everyone. You want your city clean and green, stick to Delhi. You want your city rich and impersonal, go to Bombay. You want them hi-tech and full of draught beer, Bangalore's your place. But if you want a city with soul, come to Calcutta."

I have loved this first day in Kolkata. It's been full of joy, with faces like the one above. Hope you've enjoyed it too.

Apologies for all the links you had to yesterday's post! No idea why. Until tomorrow!


shelley dark, writer 

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