The Kolkata kalei­do­scope

Noise, pas­sion, colour, hu­man suf­fer­ing: the West Ben­gal cap­i­tal, where much of the Lion movie is set, is heart­break­ingly beau­ti­ful, writes

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

Michael Ge­bicki.

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.

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