The Kolkata kaleidoscope
Noise, passion, colour, human suffering: the West Bengal capital, where much of the Lion movie is set, is heartbreakingly beautiful, writes
The Oberoi Grand is Kolkata’s finest hotel, a colonial relic still pungent with memories of the pukka days of the British Empire, but when I step out the front door on to Chowringhee Rd I am set loose in a city in the vice of a hangover. It’s the day after Holi, the Festival of Colours, when the Indian subcontinent unleashes its delinquent instincts and smears coloured powder over everything and everyone. The city streets are splotched with pink, purple and yellow and quite a few of its citizens sport rose-coloured necks and lilac hair. Even dogs and cats are not immune and there are some psychedelic creatures wandering the streets.
We’re about to visit Kolkata, safely, from a seat in an airconditioned movie theatre. Currently screening in cinemas here, the Oscar-nominated Lion tells the true story of 5-year-old Saroo, an Indian boy who gets lost, ends up on a train and finds himself enduring the tough life of a street urchin in Kolkata. Finally, he is adopted by a couple in Tasmania. Years later, he decides to retrace his roots and find his biological family in the small village he left many years before, a needle-in-a-haystack story if ever there was.
Kolkata, as it often does, plays the role of a Dickensian hell in Lion ,a symbol for the depths of human misery. End up as a kid on the streets of Kolkata and lady luck has not just cut you loose, she has sold you to the devil. For filmmakers in search of a living nightmare – movie City of Joy, documentary In the Flesh – Kolkata supplies fangs and venom. For as long as anyone can remember, this has been the poster child for wretchedness.
On a superficial level, Kolkata delivers the goods. It’s spectacularly unkempt. The heart of the city is splendidly endowed with colonial buildings from when this was the capital of British India, many of them under assault from mother nature.
Black fungus furs the Doric columns of the old Silver Mint, ficus trees sprout from cracks and crevices in the buildings in BBD Bagh, once the centre of power for the British East India Company. Kolkata clings to things – battered, antiquated trams, broken, smoke-belching buses, black and yellow Ambassador taxis which have long disappeared from most of India’s cities. This is one of the last cities where you might ride in a rickshaw, pulled by a human scarecrow wearing rags. The city’s telegraph office was India’s last, closed in 2013. The final telegraph, sent to a recipient 15 kilometres away, took nine days to arrive. India’s first telegram was sent from the same office, when it was delivered to Diamond Harbour 40km away in two and a half hours. That was in 1850.
In my 20-minute stroll from the Oberoi Grand along Chowringhee Rd, I come across a skeleton of a man naked and swaying on his stick, a suspect being arrested by two brown-shirted police, a demonstration, various touts, beggars, lime juice squeezers, paan merchants and sleeve-tugging children who call the streets of Kolkata home and business. On my first visit decades earlier, I was propelled along this same street by a tsunami of rushing, shoving, panicked pedestrians, scattering before a locked and careering pair of amorous cattle.
Look beyond the grime and decay, rot and riot and you discover a fascinating, intoxicating and intensely human city.
Adda, for example, is a Kolkata specialty. It means noisy and passionate debate and it’s woven into the warp and weft of the city. Early in the morning I come down to the lobby of my hotel and a tremendous ruckus. Three men, raised voices, excitement, much consternation and it’s only 6.45am. Surely a fight is brewing, but after a minute it dawns on me that this is a normal friendly exchange of views in excitable Kolkata.
Adda is practised with enthusiasm at the College St Coffee House, a hangout for students from Presidency College across the road. It’s perennially packed, always noisy and I can smell discontent, literally. Next to my table, four young women smoke, in defiance of a sign on the table that says not to, each one smouldering rebellion, or perhaps that’s just adda. The surroundings streets are where the city’s students come for their books, lined with rickety stalls where sleepy men preside over tottering stacks of books on objective chemistry and advanced dynamics.
Kolkata is like that, a city of villages, each dedicated to a specific trade. There is a village or, at the very least, a street if you’re a Muslim man looking for a fancy kurta in which to get married, or a second-hand car part. It’s a street if you’re in the market for a new pair of specs, a lighting fixture or a half life-size Kali wearing a necklace of skulls and stepping on her consort Shiva, all made from clay. This is Kumortuli, the potters’ village, one of the most intriguing of all the city’s neighbourhoods. It stands on the banks of the Hooghly River which provides it with the clay used for the statues of gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon that are Kumortuli’s bread and butter. A rough armature is constructed from straw which is packed and bound together tightly, covered with grey clay, smoothed, dried and finally painted. Since the statues are cheap as chips and biodegradable, they’re a festival favourite, to be prettily decorated and hung with lights and flowers and
Beggars in the Chowringhee suburb of Kolkata.
Booksellers around College St.