The Kolkata Experience


I was in Kolkata last week just for 2.5 days.

A city of some 18M (some folks say that the population of Kolkata is over 20M, putting it just next to Mexico City) people, Kolkata had been in the forefront of British India for a long time. It has what I call “cultured” people, who are still steeped in a colonial mindset. The funny thing though is that Kolkata has been a Communist bastion for over 4 decades, till Mamata Banerjee (the current Chief Minister of the West Bengal State, of which Kolkata is the State Capital) came along and usurped the Communist Party from their long-held power and sway over the Bengalis (as the people of West Bengal are called).

So, here you have a gargantuan city of enormous proportions (it is actually a twin city, with the Howrah Bridge connecting Kolkata to Howrah, its twin city), which has the distinction of hosting Mother Theresa till she died. It has many accolades from the past, not the least being the Capital of British India which was later taken over by Delhi.

The Bengalis are a passionate people with rather strong opinions on everything which matters. They are what I call as “the intelligentsia” of modern India. They are also the source of some of the most talented actors and actresses of Bollywood. And, who can forget Shri Rabindranath Tagore, who was the first Nobel Laureate of India, and who hails from West Bengal ? And so on and so forth………

Surprisingly, the part of Kolkata that I visited (Southern Avenue adjoining the lake), Tollygunge Road, and areas around these locations were not crowded. The traffic was light for the size of Kolkata and when I checked with one of my hosts, he happened to remark that there are no big crowds due to lack of industrial activity. Which may be true, given that the Communists were always against the industrialization of the State, and drove away Capitalists who wanted to invest in the State, leveraging the strong intellectual capital of the Bengalis. But that was not to be, and today West Bengal is one of the least industrialized states of India. This led to Bengalis migrating en masse to other progressive states of India and overseas, and you see them almost everywhere you go.

Still, Kolkata has its charm, and I loved the New Alipore area which I visited to meet up with some old relatives. A rather charming area, with neat roads and large apartments which was strange amidst the chaos in the rest of the city. I also bought some sweets in a famous old sweet shop in that area – Bengalis are very famous for their sweet tooth. Fantastic sweets which you cannot get elsewhere in India are available from the 100 year old Kolkata brands of sweet shops – I bought from one such brand – Balaram Mullick Radharaman Mullick. Excellent choice, but there are several other brands equally famous.

The strangest part of Kolkata was the Airport. It is a gleaming new international airport. But, there was not much activity in the international side on a late evening/ night time, unlike Chennai or Mumbai or Delhi wherein there are always thousands of passengers and a long list of flights right through the night. When I arrived at 9 PM at the Kolkata International Airport, I could count only 5 or 6 flights, and there were few passengers at the airport. In fact, everything was a breeze – check-in at the Silk Air counter, immigration clearance, security check-up, etc., were surprisingly fast. Of course, this shows the influence of the Communist ideology on the residents of West Bengal and also the lack of tourists.

I took a drive along Howrah Bridge during a rainy day, and it was fabulous. The Victoria Memorial visit was great, with its beautifully maintained gardens and statues, but also reminding one of the British dominance in the 18th and 19th centuries over India. I have always detested their acquisition of India and their politicking with the Kings and Princes of India on a divide-and-rule philosophy. They did leave some good things behind in India when they left in 1947, but overall I think that India would have been better off in a faster manner had it not been for the Briitsh rule. That topic is for another blog post, I guess.

In any case, there are a number of places to be seen in Kolkata (ensure you have a good English-speaking driver), and do not miss these places. And, the traffic is not worse than other metro (large) cities of India.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

9th July 2016

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