My introduction to India began in Kolkata (also known as Calcutta). After weeks of researching, numerous warnings from friends and loved ones, and days of saying goodbye to Korea, Boyeon and I landed in the City of Joy.
And we began at once to feel the pulse of things, to enjoy the kindness of strangers, and to understand the wild, living, breathing thing that is Indian traffic.
On the plane, the man (probably in his thirties) sitting next to us was returning to Delhi from work in Bangkok (where we had a one-day layover). Noticing Boyeon and I cramming Hindi vocabulary via an app I’d downloaded, he gave us a brief lesson and helped us figure out our pronunciation. He then told us that we probably wouldn’t use it in Kolkata or South India, though, as most folks there use one of the over 1,600 languages spoken in India. Before we deplaned, he told us to call him if we needed anything and that he’d be happy to help if we ran into any trouble. This was the first of many kindnesses we would experience during our journey together.
On the ground, our taxi wove in, around, and through traffic like we were playing MarioKart. But there was some kind of magic to it. Sans GPS, the driver got directions from drivers and pedestrians along the way. And it was as if everyone knew the exact number of inches (well, centimeters, really) needed between the cars/motorbikes/autorickshaws/cycle rickshaws/cows/etc. and behaved accordingly.
What looked like madness I realized was highly controlled chaos. A postmodern symphony. The honks, the flashing of lights, an intricate language. I knew that Indian drivers were drivers I could trust.
The weekend we arrived, we found our way out and about, starting with a half-day city tour with Calcutta Walks, which I couldn’t recommend enough. Our guide Ritwick was amazing, knowledgeable, and friendly. Having made a lifelong career out of being a tour leader, he was also evidently the inspiration of the Bollywood film Praktan, which has a song that’s essentially a love song to Kolkata (check out music video to see how amazing the city is!). He went above and beyond to make us feel at home in his city. My favorite stops along the way were College Street (a street full of vendors selling second-hand books), the Indian Coffee House (an intellectual haven that felt like stepping back in time), and Kumartuli (an artist’s quarter where idols are made).
The latter, in particular, was incredible. Hundreds of artisans were creating statues/idols of the goddess Durga for the upcoming Durga Puja festival, a six-day event usually in early October. (Who or what is Durga, you ask? Well, you can read about her here.) There were streets upon streets of creators molding clay, painting, creating fine distinctions on the faces of gods and goddesses. And the most amazing thing is that they create these beautiful statues to use for the festival only to be pushed into the Hooghly/Ganges River afterward where they are washed away. (Should they remain, Ritwick explained, Hindu worshippers would have to continue to pay homage to them.)
For those who are less familiar with Hinduism, I should note that throughout the trip I was reminded by guides that while Hinduism has a pantheon of gods and goddesses, they are really simply manifestations or aspects of a single divine being or capital-G God. That Hindus believe in a higher being but that the gods and goddesses work as conduits for understanding, accessing, and/or communicating with God. Which is fascinating to me (and also made me think of the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity—the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as three aspects of one divine God and a concept perhaps equally paradoxical and baffling to theologians who study this monotheistic religion).
We also learned a lot about Kolkata as a center of Indian intellectualism and “firsts” (the first city in India to get a metro system, the first city in India to publish a newspaper, the first modern medical school in Asia, etc.), which I never knew. In the West, we get this Mother Theresa-fied image of the impoverished Kolkata, but while poverty is certainly present, the Kolkata I met was something different—lively, full of culture and history, and a center of art, revolution, and revolutionary thinking.
Speaking of Mother Theresa, we didn’t visit her home, but we did see a parade in honor of her sanctification. Based on certain articles I’ve read about her colonizing treatment of the people in her care, I honestly avoided going there. But it was interesting because more than once—both in and out of Kolkata—I heard Indian people speak highly of her and her work. But I’ve also read things that highly problematize it.
Though we didn’t go to Mother Theresa’s house, we did go to a multilingual Hindi/English church service (the way I think multicultural church should be done—and there were multiple other services in several languages on top of that!). The theology was maybe a little different from mine (it happens), but it was nice to be among a global, multilingual, multinational spiritual community of faith.
Otherwise, Boyeon and I got up the confidence to wander on our own. We drank heaps of tea (a phrase I picked up from my Australian counterparts during the tour I took during the latter part of my stay in India–and I’m never letting it go). Milky, sweet, with a kick of spice. We also managed to find (mostly milky and sweet) coffee, hang out in bookstores (as bookworms do), eat some delicious Bengali food, figure out the subway system, and check out the interesting (but largely closed) Indian Museum (the largest and oldest museum in India).
In the end, it was the perfect introduction to India—the kindness of strangers, the mountains of delicious food, and the depth and complexity of India’s history and culture(s).
When we got in our taxi to take us to the airport that would send us off to Bangalore/Bengaluru, we almost didn’t want to say goodbye. But I knew there was plenty more in store for us in the South…
- Getting Acquainted: Calcutta Walks provided us with a great lay of the land and a foundation to feel comfortable navigating the city on our own. Their tour leaders were excellent, and they offer a range of half-day and daylong tours (both walking and otherwise) that get you closer to the heart of the city, its history, and its culture. I couldn’t recommend them enough!
- Getting Around:
- The airport has a pre-paid taxi stand where you can pay for a fixed rate for a cab. Be careful just hailing a cab, especially if you’re a foreigner. Taxi drivers are liable to quote you/demand inflated prices.
- Believe it or not, in big cities in India, Uber is a great way to get around (if you have access to Wifi).
- Kolkata has a subway system! It might not be that extensive, but it’s easy to navigate, and the signs are printed in English and, I believe, Hindi and/or Bengali. Once you enter the subway station, you can buy small tokens (like plastic coins) that you the scan upon entry and deposit when you exit. Just tell the folks at the counter where you’re going (just the name of the station is okay), and try to have correct change. We rode probably 10 stops and only paid about 10 rupees each one way (about 20 cents).
- Eating and Drinking
- You can find a range of eateries and coffeeshops on Park Street and the surrounding areas. One of my favorites is Oxford, where you can get coffee/chai and a snack after buying or browsing the books at the bookstore below. I also really loved the Indian Coffee House mentioned above (off of College Street). Full of locals and intellectual energy. Our favorite place to grab a bite to eat (while drinking coffee) was Blue Sky Restaurant, which is a diner-type place with all kinds of food (we had Indian, of course) and seemed popular with both locals and the tourist crowd.