People warned us about Kolkata. About how hard it was to see the suffering and poverty on the streets and down the alleys.
Maybe it’s because we are here in cooler winter, maybe because we are looking at it through the lens of it not being Delhi, but Kolkata charms us utterly, from the first home cooked breakfast on the rooftop of our guesthouse.
Kolkata is accepted to be the cultural capital of India, certainly by its inhabitants, who would also say that it is the intellectual centre too. Bourne out by the colossal India Museum taking up most of a city block and referred to as ‘Jaadughar: the House of Wonder’ by the visitors… the National library too is proudly showcased.
Quick potted history of the last few centuries:
Kolkata’s geographical position (a portal to the east and transportation hub back west overland) brought it to the attention of the English East India Company, who in 1690 set up shop and within a decade were pretty much running the place. English scribes were brought over to work, married the locals and created the Anglo-Indian community. By 1712 Fort William was built on the Hooghly River, the French rivals were firmly trounced and the EIC spent the next 200 years scooping up vast wealth in silks spices and opium, with Calcutta right at the centre.
The city underwent rapid industrial growth starting in the early 1850s, especially in the textile and jute industries; this encouraged British companies to massively invest in infrastructure projects, which included telegraph connections and Howrah railway station. The coalescence of British and Indian culture resulted in the emergence of a new babu class of urbane Indians, whose members were often bureaucrats, professionals, newspaper readers, and Anglophiles; they usually belonged to upper-caste Hindu communities.
Things went south pretty fast in the 20th century though, when in 1911 the Brits moved their base of operations west and Delhi was declared the new capital. Wars, famine, severe power shortages, strikes, violent Marxist–Maoist movements, thousands of desperate refugees and an outdated insufficient infrastructure all contributed to Kolkatas reputation as a hell-ish broken place, its nickname “City of Joy” used with deep irony. So much so that in 1985, the Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi dubbed Kolkata a “dying city”…
And yet here we are, at the very beginning of 2018, walking around the streets of a Kolkata that is alive and thriving. People are proud of their city. They look after it and it looks after them. They aren’t asking anything from anyone. And it minds it’s business. Yes, there are the tourist spots: St Paul’s Cathedral, the Victoria Monument, but it seems that these are things to be walked past by the locals as they go about their days, a little like the Londoners that blithely walk past Buckingham Palace… it’s there, we don’t much care… (I mean, not us, we are 100% tourists!!). Eden Garden cricket stadium, on the other hand… well that’s a different matter entirely.
We walk around, and I fall in love with the streets and the buildings, and I start taking pictures. It is why I got so interested in the history of this place. Built for a time when the city was something else, left to crumble, inhabited by whoever came along, made their own and patched up bit by bit, or ignored and left to die… they are symbols of a by-gone era, no apologies made, no bulldozing to make way for the future, this place accepts what happened to it but refuses to be defined by it. At least that’s my impression. So here are some snapshots of what inspired me…