When the rest of India was agonizing over a horrendous incident of gang rape in the national capital there was I in another metro, cruising the streets at night, alone & unafraid. That is Calcutta. Sorry folks. I cannot call it Kolkata. It sticks in the throat as does Mumbai, Bengaluru & Chennai.
As always pictures speak louder than words. India is witnessing a minor economic miracle of sorts but West Bengal continues in deep slumber. It was pretty awful even during my last visit five years ago but the level of squalor & dilapidation is now completely overwhelming & is to be seen to be believed. It is as if the city were drugged into a stupor.
The much-hyped Millennium Park near Babu Ghat resembles a locality park in any other town. One can take a ferry to Howrah from here. The swank SBI building over looks hovels & slums. But Rabindra Sangeet is everywhere, in the most unlikely of places, as if it were the panacea to all the city’s ills. Seeing some happy frolicking street kids I took out the camera to capture the moment. After all where else in the world would one get to see such happy, care free children. Their parents the very dreg of society. “ Eh Didi,” said a voice from inside the flaps of a hole in the ground, “ photo nai lena…. No pictures… yes, not even of the children…. Only if you pay for their milk “
A poor old Anglo Indian lady sits crumpled & alone at the Park Street – Ghalib Road corner inviting stares from every passer by. Catching my eye she whispers ‘ can you help me cross the street, please’? Just like that. I try to help her get up ‘ I need some food’ she says. Next to us are Barista & Café Coffee Day outlets. ‘ What would you like to eat,’ I ask. ‘Some food.’ I leave her sitting in the corner & return with a chicken & cheese sandwich. And why not? What the hell! Then hand in hand Suzie & I cross the road together to go our own separate ways.
The Hotel Fairlawn on Sudder St is a delightful place as is its owner, 92-year-old Violet Smith, an Armenian who has lived all her life in this country. Her face is creased with smiles as she greets & waves goodbye to her many guests who are all welcomed with an old world warmth & cheer.
The Fairlawn is a 2 star property having just 18 rooms. The building is around 240 year old but has been with the family for about 80 years now. It gives the feel of a home away from home & home it is to the many who come again & again from all corners of the globe.
So, Calcutta is in a state of irreparable decay. Lenin’s’ own country, now governed by a mad woman, all squalid & run down. What could one hope for or expect?
There was an art exhibition happening at the Oxford bookshop followed by cakes & ale & a lot of the paintings depicted empowered women astride what looked like emaciated tigers. But what of it? This simply whittles the issue down.
Coming out for a whiff of fresh air there are long serpentine queues outside the Indian museum. Now in which other city in India could one see anything remotely like that?
And what is that in that corner, with so many curious hangers on?
That is a fellow peddling his ware – a collection of priceless old stamps. And coins. Calcutta surely has many firsts.