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Kolkata was once Calcutta

INDIA | Monday, 25 May 2009 | Views [521]

Dear Readers,

we hope to get the writing portion of our blog up to date some day.  I think we will be back in the states for a month before we finally finish it.  Nevertheless, I beg you please keep reading as it gives us much pleasure to write and we feel a great sense of purpose in doing so.  Much like my school days, I give to you my Kolkata entry, albeit a bit late though none the worse for having been delayed.

Al and Andrew

Calcutta! The name strikes fear into the hearts and souls of decent western folk.  The name, Calcutta; it carries with it, nay, projects into the future before it, numerous prejudices.  It embarrassingly precedes itself.  Calcutta...

But, what of Kolkata, a teaming city of 20 million plus people, an old colonial capital, home of mother teresa, a relatively large christian population, and a more European city layout and liftstyle.  This place, where I was anticipating stark, stark poverty, palpable overcrowding, hellish circumstances, really, has been the most comfortable, navigable city thus far.  Entering Delhi, I expected something nicer and more 'city-like'.  entering calcutta, I expected the worst.  My subsequent dislike of the first and esteem of the latter might be explained by the contrast in expectations.  I grant that possibility, but evict it forecfully from likelihood so that it now dwells in the realm of rather unlikely.  Despite being a person of prejudices, expectations, disappointments and anticipation - things contributing to my like and dislike of these places - I can also be level-headed and fair, a person willing to be proven wrong and willing to change his mind to accept another reality, willing to ignore first-impression-prejudging-syndrome despite reveling in the disease on many occasions.  Therefore, I believe my like and dislike to be justly experienced, based on the 'facts on the ground' so to speak and not simply because of unmet/exceeded expectations.  In Summation, Delhi bites and Calcutta is great.

Delhi seems to me to be very much a driving (or some sort of mobile transport) city.  It is spread out and set back.  Because of this divisions of wealth and status are more obvious, to the point of taste, not just observation; and what an acrid taste it leaves.  In kolkata, you can walk.  There are almost always sidewalks and, when there are, other people often walk them.  Not only are there other people, but they are the type that which walk with, near, and in opposed directions to you on any crowded day in NYC; you feel amongst peers, amongst other people living urban lives, accustomed to and happy to be walking.  In Delhi, if you are walking, you are at the bottom or you are a peddler of sorts stalking tourist cash.  A walking city makes for a more democratic city. in addition, public transportation is well established, navigable and cheap.  The subways, if you happen to be going in either of the 2 directions, work great and are clean, friendly and safe.  I am a man who can appreciate a good subway, and I like Kolkata's.

Kolkata is a city  with multiple storied buildings, commercial and residential and friendly people.  In enough areas for it to become characteristic to some extent, the buildings are maintained.  There are easily entered store fronts just off the street, unlike Delhi.  People here have been very friendly as well, approaching us to speak, find out information, tell us their stories and to take photographs.  They are very intrigued, but much more polite.  Concerning intrigue and manners, despite our obvious rarity in their eyes, Kolkatans do not stare so brazenly as in other parts of the country.  Of course, some people are culprits, but often I find the staring to be quite minimal comparatively, unless I am simply coming to ignore it.  When I say minimal, however, it is entirely relative and at no point would even Kolkatan staring be considered normal by western standards.  I am certainly relieved to be dealing with less stares, particularly from men, stares that anywhere else I've been would be considered aggressive, interpreted as sinister or an upfront challenge.  Stares like these in NYC might elicit the response, "Eyy! What the fuck you lookin' at?" or "hey buddy, what's yo prblem?" or the more efficient, "you gotta problem?" add to that as thick of a ny accent as you feel comfortable with.  I would go to the extreme end of the spectrum to discover what voice comes to my mind.  But really, if people look at you this much, so unabashedly, you get pissed off.  It's an aggressive provocative thing to do with most members of the animal kingdom ( a bit of foreshadowing here, this later becomes a problem with the native monkies of Koh Phi Phi).  Returning to the niceties, we were welcomed to kolkata no fewer than 5 times our first day.  Mind you, when I recorded this note, I had half a day under my belt.  The Bengali hospitality has upstaged that of their western countrymen. But, do to the walking, heterogeneity of the people, there was much more occasion to meet nice folks in kolkata.  I'm sure there are plenty of english speaking, worldy people in Delhi - i happen to know at least one great one - but, who has the occasion to meet them, zipping around safe and cool behind internal-combustion-propelled heaps of glass and metal.

Kolkata seems to have 1 or both of 2 things: regular garbage collection and or a culture of non-littering.  The streets and walkways are much cleaner and in the busy parts of town than anywhere else I've been in India, even in the tourist/backpacker neighborhood where things are cheaper/dirtier/dingier/neglected.  It's hard for me to believe there are more people in this city.  There's even more well organized traffic obeying more laws of the road.  There's less honking as a result, it seems. 

As a tourist, there has been much less pressure on us to buy, do, go, give, take, trade, stay, sit, taste, show, accept, listen and otherwise dance.  The scheming exists in Kolkata, do not be fooled, but it is of the more manageable type.  At the train station, the trickery began immediately.  Cabbies, rickshaw drivers and kids, whose allegiances were indeterminable - nonetheless they went after us as if they had things to sell, perhaps working on commission, but I wouldn't be surprise if they didn't simply enjoy the sport of it - all went after us, promising this and that, cooing, enticing, and ultimately cursing when we pushed past them and joined the prepaid line with the locals.  But, all the harassment was mild compared to Varanassi and Delhi.  These guys just didnt have the same taste for trickery, for the hunt.  These guys had some sense of shame, however minor.  We paid 60 Rupees to get to Sudder St..  We were offered "great deals" and "cheapest price" the lowest being 100, the highest 500.  We met a few con artists on the streets, from one of which I purchased some silly souvenir booklet about places to eat and drink, but that was the extent of our troubles.

KOlkatans seemed to be interested in worldly news, tastes and trends.  They have their own strong culture, art, culinary, music, etc, but there was a cosmopolitan sense to the city that I didnt feel elsewhere, certainly not varanasi.  In microcosm, perhaps mentioning the many, many movie theatres, few prominent malls, well visited museums, bookstores, and parks supports my claim.

Perhaps the name change cured it of its nasty, gangrenous reputation.  Perhaps with the name change came a concerted effort to fight poverty or, at least, push it to the outskirts, away from the gazing worldly eye, just as Juliani had all of the homeless evicted from manhattan or otherwise fed to the sewer gators. Kolkata is a huge sprawling city, so we did not make it everywhere and ventured not to far from the beaten path.  I think, though, that things have changed enough so that, where it was once Calcutta, soon it will come be known as Kolkata.

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