I have arrived in the great city now known as Kolkata. There is a great energy here like no other place I’ve visited in India and so far it’s been a real highlight of the trip
The moment I arrived here in Howrah station I took an immediate like to the city. It’s a bustling place with a certain attitude, people here are in hurry, places to go and things to do. It made an especially welcome change from Bodhgaya which apart from the Mahabodhi temple wasn’t the most enjoyable place to spend time in. I could write pages about the atmosphere there but if you’ve ever seen Sam Peckinpahs film ‘Straw Dogs’ that should give you a fair idea of what the place and local people were like.
Before I write anymore I’ve got to mention that I’m experiencing real issue with the magic wi fi dongle I purchased in Lucknow and I’m currently writing this in a noisy restaurant surrounded by about 58 overexcited Spanish back packers so please excuse the spelling and gramatical errors that will no doubt follow.
First off Calcutta has a great look and feel, almost cinematic. The colonial buildings are in an elegant state of decay and the omnipresent yellow ambassador taxis give it an identity all of it’s own.
It’s also a very easy city to navigate thanks to the wide streets and pavements and the most welcome addition of street signs. In most places in India these are non existent and I often find myself resorting to navigating by the sun to try and work out just where the hell I’ve got myself to.
It’s quite a common sight to see buildings completely overgrown with roots and trees sprouting from the rooftops. This used to be a mint factory according to the guy standing guard in the courtyard. There is poverty here but not as much as I was expecting. I’m staying in Central Calcutta near the well known Sudder Street which has many hotels and hostels, there is a great atmosphere in the area and the central location is ideal.
One thing I’ve also noticed is that the people here are quite quick to say what’s on their mind, I’ve found it rare to see any kind of confrontation in India but so far here I’ve witnessed a sixty year old man go beserk and get ready for fisty cuffs after a guy didn’t give up his seat for him on the bus and also a kid get shouted at for taking too long at the cash point, it’s great – almost like being in Paris.
Another great thing for getting around the city is that there is no shortage of public transport. Aside from the yellow taxis who incidentally always try and give an overpriced upfront quote for the fare – it’s just a matter of barking at them to do it on the meter, always works – there is also the metro system, trams and buses. The buses are great, each one hand painted and decorated, just like the buses which used to run on the island of Malta, which I’ve been told by a native have now all disappeared and been replaced by a fleet of ex London bendy busses. I’ve never seen anyone get so worked up at mentioning the name ‘Arriva’ (the company that makes them), obviously a very sore point for the average Maltese inhabitant.
There is a lively flower market around and underneath the Howrah bridge which has been great to photograph. The afternoon sunlight (and heat) here is intense, luckily the shady spots underneath can provide some great lighting. I could have spent all day shooting there as I’d found a place where I was completely unnoticed but unfortunately I heard the dreaded ‘Hi man, what are you doing?’ (What does it look like?) and my cover was blown.
Shortly after this a gutter snipe with a scar on his face came up to me and slurred the words that ‘The police wanted to speak to me’ and that ‘I needed to go with him’, to which I thought: ‘no they don’t’ and ‘I don’t think so’. He started putting his filthy hands on me so I had to get a bit ‘SE1′ with him (the postcode of the rougher parts of South London where I lived during my rock and roll years). After that his mate pulled him away and they began squabbling and I went in the other direction, oh well, glad I got the shot at the top of the post.
Not far from the market North of the Howrah bridge it was coolie central with an endless flow of porters carrying and carting all manner of goods to be loaded onto lorries. Watching these guys was almost painful, real back breaking work in the afternoon heat. They didn’t mind me taking photographs at all and had a similar reaction to the rickshaw drivers in Allahabad, the equivalent of ‘Come take a picture of Dave, he’s mad he is’. I did have to be careful where I was treading and must have been told what I imagine to be ‘get out the way’ in Bengali at least a dozen times.
The streets in the area were also prone to what I can only think to call ‘coolie jams’ with gridlock ensuing as people tried to get goods from one place to another.
Also in this area you can find the potters who make the statues that are offered to the Ganges. I went past the work shops yesterday but most of them seemed to be closed, as did the rest of Calcutta but will head back there to try and get some pictures. I was glad to see yesterday that in the same area most of the coolies also seemed to have the day off, after watching them work they definitely deserved it.
Another great thing about Calcutta and definitely missed on the trip has been the nightlife. Outside of the major cities most places in India have shut by 9pm and everybody has gone off to bed. That’s not the case here though, bars, nightclubs and live music are all to be found.
Even a Thursday night jazz club – nice.