By Alex Cochrane:
Kolkata has been called a city of furious energy, the city of joy, a dying city. It is teeming, intense, broken and modern, old British empire and a stronghold of Bengali pride and culture. It’s crumbling and developing, wealthy and poor. It’s digested a tragic history but has a unique soul where it’s almost obligatory to have chats, or ada, with random strangers in the streets.
Four am and I’m drifting through a north Kolkata neighbourhood. The streets are quiet, owned by scuttling rats and packs of dogs who strut and bark at my intrusion. It’s their time to own the streets. The night’s storms have slickened the streets and freshened the air.
Figures swathed in cloth sleep on the pavements, on rickety frames, under rickshaws, on mats, on ledges and on carts. Whole families curled up together under tarpaulin shelters, their washing strung out on nearby railings. The poverty is not as bad as it used to be, but it’s still a depressing sight.
The first tram of the day clanks and grinds its way through the still-dark streets. We sit in first class where instructions are written in English, for the old British colonialists. The streets are still silent but there are flashes of activity. The wholesale markets are up and running. We pass through one at the crossroads with huge mounds of coconuts; another has bundles of sugar cane ready for distribution to the juice crushers. At another crossroads, groups of men stand around, sipping on early morning chai. These are the mechanics waiting for work.
Now the day is getting started - fires are being coaxed into life, figures are stirring, families are washing by the gushing street standpipes. Lights are lit on chai stalls cubby holes, pavement stalls. Power is hijacked from spaghetti junctions of illegal hook-ups. The first of the porters are pulling carts with huge piles of cooking pots. The crows hop about, looking for food and material to build their nests.
Soon it will rev up to full throttle, to the full cacophony of noise and traffic. Soon, along Rabindra Sarani or Chowringee Road, the pavements will be choked with so much trading you’ll be forced to walk on the road. The streets will smell of ghee, spices, urine, overripe fruit, smoke, pollution and incense from the Hindu street shrines. The beggars will rattle their tins and the rickshaw wallahs will ring their bells to attract business.
Since I was last in India, I had forgotten how busy its streets could be. The streets come at you from all angles - broken pavements to trip you, traffic to dodge and open drains to avoid. The traffic is ferocious and fluid, furiously flowing round the ambling street sweepers with their carts of rubbish. The traffic snarls, beeps and roars at itself. Hawkers sleep, hawkers hustle, hawkers hawk. Conductors shout their destinations from ramshackle colourful buses that bolt off with sudden manic energy. Kids play cricket on a bit of wasteland amongst the tramlines.
Is this chaos intoxicating or overwhelming? In his book, The Epic City, Kushanava Choudhury, explores his ambivalent relationship with Kolkata. “Calcutta”, he writes, “is an impossible place”. When he was a boy he dropped a water bottle into an open drain and watched sink into the dark sludge with a great sense of loss. “Any of us, any time, could fall into the black river that bubbled below the sidewalks of our city and be sucked into oblivion.” This city built on a swamp that compels him to return home from New Jersey to the astonishment of his family.
We walk to the flower market in the shadow of the Hooghly Bridge. Great mounds of flowers are gently emptied out of large sacks. The sparrows descend on the flowers in search of insects. The market is a muddy warren divided into sections for marigolds, roses, leaf. The mobile flower sellers wander off with lines of orange and yellow flowers hanging down from around their neck. They put their hands on their heads to avoid crushing their delicate wares.
Pushing through the marketplace, we emerge onto the ghats where locals are bathing and washing. A man sluices out a row of pools for the birds to drink from. By the river, a priest is blessing a man. They are crouching down with incense and flowers at their feet. A group of men with shaved heads watch and wait nearby. An air of sadness hangs round for them for this is a ritual of grief for those who have a lost a parent.
We catch a ferry. I’m astonished when I see a man latch onto to the tyre on the side of the ferry, surfing with the wash. No-one bats an eyelid. This is why I love India. As the ferry nears the jetty, the man hauls himself onto the ferry and dives into the river, swimming to a jetty with moored fishing boats.
From the ferry, we walk to Kumartuli, the neighbourhood where gods and demons emerge out of clay and mud. It’s a warren of workshops, where statues are lined-up in all the different stages of creation - from crude straw and mud forms to colourful, painted gods waiting for transportation. We stop off to feast on delicious Bengali sweets and pastries.
Back around Park Street, men listlessly sit about or sleep under carts, sit at doorways to dark interiors, waiting for the intense heat of the afternoon to pass. Business has slackened a little but the pavement still offers every service you could need. Have a crumpled shirt? The iron wallah will sort with an old heavy iron heated up by a charcoal burner. Men stand ready with the tools of their trade at their feet - extracting wax from your ears, repairing your mobile, cutting your hair, polishing your shoes.
The evening sun floods the rooftops with a golden red glow as it quickly sinks away. Kites soar around the buildings, scouting for prey. Lizards scamper amongst the flower pots. Then in the last flush of daylight, it begins, the first murmur, then a growing sacred chorus rising and drifting across the city. It’s the call to prayer, the mosques summoning the faithful. As the call tails off, the sun sinks behind the horizon on this city of endless contradiction and its ceaseless human parade.
Alex Cochrane is based in Glasgow and blogs about exploration, travel, history, historical erotica and other curiosities on his website. You can also follow Alex on Twitter at @alexdcochrane. You can also see more images from his Kolkata walk here.