Travel Diaries- Kolkata
Ever since I had watched ‘Stories by Rabindranath Tagore’ in Netflix directed by Anurag Basu, I was fascinated. It was so beautifully narrated and picturesque, shown on screen in an amber tone depicting times bygone.
Something about the quaint streets,the renowned literature, the portrayal of strong confident woman and their iconic red bindis, hand-driven carts and the food perhaps.
It didn’t help when you had several Bengali friends around you bragging about the roshgullas(rasgulla), the Howrah bridge(often pronounced Howdah) and the metro. So when came an opportunity to visit Kolkata for a Bengali wedding, I jumped at it.
On June 18th, I flew from Kochi to the Netaji Subash Chandra Bose International airport, Kolkata. The first thing that hits you once you move outside of the centralized air conditioned airport, is the humidity. Suddenly everything feels sweaty and sticky and makes you crave for yet another shower all the time. It had just rained and the air was thick.
Right outside the airport you would see the iconic yellow Ambassador cabs just like the black ones in Mumbai. I was told that it was expensive and hence took Ola to take us to our destination, Salkia, in the Howdah District .
Of course, I tasted the famous roshgullas on the very day that I arrived. I have had them previously also, courtesy of my friends, but even then, you are not prepared for the deliciousness that erupts from the sugary juices that flows out of it. The trick is to slightly heat it up and gobble it in one single go for the best experience.
Even the gulab jamuns tasted different than usual and yummy. Bengali sweets is indeed in a different league altogether!
I might have had around 7–8 roshgullas each time during breakfast and dinner- all the days I was there.
On the first day, after the pre-wedding rituals we left to explore the city.
We were walking through narrow mazes of streets with houses sharing walls both sides. You would see cows and stray dogs roaming around, pretty much a common sight in every other state. I could hear people switching between speaking Bengali and Hindi and sometimes mixing both.
We took a toto which is a battery powered rickshaw quite common in the area. It looks like a small buggy you see in malls and golf courts. Around 6 people can adjust and travel for short commutes without depending on cabs or autos and is cheaper than both.
Another popular even shorter commute option was the pulled rickshaw where you actually have a person pulling a two-wheeler cart. The men who pulled them usually looked extremely tired and weak (though it isn’t ) that I didn’t have the heart to even try.
It was extremely hot and sunny and we walked around wearing shawls and carrying several bottles of water.
I had my first ever experience with the underground metro with the coin-based system. There is no wastage of paper here which is a good thing. Go green!
Once you pay for the tickets, you get these coins which would allow you to travel no further than your designated destination. If at all you try, the gates won’t open there and you will have to come back to the original destination to get out of the metro station.
We decided to visit the college street about which I had heard so much ravings about. It is known to be one of India’s largest book market sprawling across several streets. It has several institutions surrounding it and the location couldn’t have been more ideal.
You could see medical, engineering and school textbooks sitting adjacent to Tagore, Doyle, George R.R. Martin and Sidney Sheldon to name a few. I recall seeing R.D Sharma,R.S Aggarwal and a few other organic chemistry and entrance examination reference books which was quite popular back in school which did not bring back any good nostalgic memories though. The prices were reasonable and most of them were originals too.
You could get the classics at a range of fifty to a couple of hundred bucks. The only reason why I left the place empty handed was because of the 15Kg domestic airlines baggage limit.
Nearby the college street is the Bankim Chetterjee Street famous for the Paramount Sherbats and Syrups, since 1918.
Apparently this was the place where the revolutionaries during the freedom struggle used to meet such as Subhash Chandra Bose, Prafulla Chandra Ray etc. We tried several flavors included the bestseller Cocoa malai and it felt good to have the refreshing drinks in the scorching heat.
For lunch, we went to one of the eateries along the famous Park Street which I must say is a paradise for food lovers. You would find all the good pubs and restaurants having barbecues, Italian, authentic Bengali cuisine, Japanese and what not here. We ended up at Peter Cat which is quite famous for its Chelo Kebabs and thankfully did not have to wait for long to get a table.
By the time we had explored enough of Park Street, it was quite late and we missed going to the remaining places on our list. So we booked the cab to take us back to Salkia. On the way we saw the Eden Gardens(the oldest cricket stadium of India), several other beautiful iconic buildings and then the majestic Howrah bridge, one of the longest cantilever bridges of the world. With its towering grey steel structure beneath the equally grey and dark clouds gave it a very sinister and powerful look. Hundreds of vehicles were moving across this bridge and it was very crowded during those peak hours.
On day two, we visited the iconic Victoria’s Memorial. I have always had an affinity towards beautiful pieces of architecture and this was hence an absolute treat for me. As you walk around the garden and towards the entrance of this monument, you are left in awe at its beauty.
It was a Friday and despite being a working day, it was crowded with hundreds of tourists including foreigners. Most of the rooms inside are locked away and you are only allowed to climb to the first floor and then visit the museums within.
The museums did have stories to tell about how Bengal transformed and reached to where it is now after all the reforms and struggles from the invaders.
The area surrounding the memorial had beautiful gardens and small ponds where you could sit and relax. There were children playing with their parents carefully watching them, cosy couples under umbrellas and dogs chasing each other and the birds.
We walked from the memorial to the famous Birla Planetarium nearby. We were told that this is something which shouldn’t be missed from the itinerary. We were short on time and the only show that we could get into was in the language — Guess what? Bengali!
Imagine listening to the supernova and all the cosmic wonders in a language that you have no clue. All I could pick up was a few words in English and then coupling with what appeared to be a similar word in Hindi,put two and two together to try and make sense of it. At least it was air conditioned and had cosy recliners. I almost dozed off from exhaustion.
We could not go to the St.Paul’s cathedral located nearby because it was closed by the time the show got over.
From there we decided to go to the New Town Eco Park, which is a large urban park surrounding a lake. It was almost dark when we reached and this part was quite far from the city.
None of us wanted to walk all the way around the park and hence we took tandem bicycles which can be ridden by two people. We were told that there were the seven wonders replica situated inside the park and that it was once again, a must visit.
Now, this park was huge with several entrances spread over acres of land. There were buggies and trams which took people around lanes with street lights. We had 30 minutes of time on the bike and we ended up pedaling fast, asking people directions and trying to read maps in the dark. Someway or the other, we ended up going in circles along the same places and did not manage to see even a single wonder. We were exhausted and gave up after our time was up. We convinced ourselves that it was a scam to get people to borrow bikes and left the place.
We did see them though. The wonders. When we passed by one of its numerous gates at the end, from inside the auto while going back home and we were not glad that we missed it.
We also visited the Belur Math, the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission set on the banks of the Hooghly, one evening. The atmosphere inside the temple was serene, simple and sacred with devotees meditating inside peacefully.
The monument was mesmerizing in the evening. People were sitting by the lakeside taking photographs and talking. There was the cool breeze which was a welcome respite from the otherwise hot weather daylong.
The trip was worthwhile despite the short duration. I did get to witness an authentic Bengali wedding with all their unique customs and savour the fish delicacies Bengal is quite famous for. I also got to visit most of the prominent places despite the rains, the heat and the tensed political conditions that existed then.
It is indeed a City of Joy and I could definitely go back once again for the happiness from the rasgullas.