Sunday, September 09, 2007

Oh Calcutta!

(Image courtesy:

To borrow a cliché – cities are like people – each one with a distinct character, a different personality and of course, a very individual first impression they leave on the observer.

I recently visited Calcutta for the first time. I was armed with all sorts of prejudices – traffic jams, power cuts, militant left, pollution and poverty. It was a very short business visit of only a couple of days, with a very tight itinerary. Delhi and Mumbai were my only other metro benchmarks. Not all the right qualifications, but perfect for a snap-shot first impression.

Now, talking about first impressions, I am sure Delhi would seem like a brash young woman (okay, a man, maybe), with a very in–your–face attitude to the first–time visitor. Mumbai would be like probably a snooty glam-girl.

In comparison, Calcutta seems like a wizened old lady, who has “been there and done that”.

The majesty of downtown Calcutta is best epitomized by the huge, stately buildings with big pillars, high ceilings and wide staircases, typical relics of the Raj. Even though these buildings now house government organizations of the most run–of–the–mill–type, and private companies of different market standings, the suggestion of the administrative and financial power their occupants might have once wielded over this country still exudes therefrom.

In contrast, I passed by various seemingly derelict old houses – moss–ridden, with blackened walls and crumbling facades, which, I thought, were abandoned, till I saw families inhabit them. They might not be representative of the city, and I might be romanticizing a bit, but the contrast is too glaring to miss. I wish I would see more of the residential quarters of the city, those fabled “paras”, when I am here the next time.

With a long experience of the Delhi rush-hour traffic, the much maligned traffic volume does not surprise me. It is the fine art of jay–walking, however, which I find absolutely fantastic.

An astonishingly large number of people in crowded bazaars, lanes and main roads walk like apparitions – running, hopping, skipping, dodging and stretching – past all the traffic, including the bloated–frog–like yellow taxis, the ramshackle local buses and yes, the trams – those run-down carriages seemingly stuck in a time–warp.

Due to the nature of my trip, I was not able to interact with the real people and enjoy the authentic Bengal cuisine. I would be able to make up for this the next time I am here. Which would be sooner rather than later, I am sure.

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